porto city

The Spirit of Porto’s São João

Portugal’s unofficial capital in the North, affectionately known as Invicta, hosts an annual all-nighter on June 23rd that brings people together from around the city, the country, and the world. It’s been held since as far back as the 14th century.

Porto’s Festa de São João celebrates the city’s patron saint, St. John the Baptist; Midsummer; and the city itself. It’s joyful, it’s loud, it’s silly, and it’s fabulous. This year, I went to Porto for the São João Party and not only did I have a great night out, but it taught me something important.

First, let me set the scene for you.

In proper Portuguese fashion, city residents drag their chairs out to the street, set up their tables, light their barbecues, and turn up their music systems to prepare for their night-long street party. This is a family event: everyone from toddlers to great-grandparents is out in the streets.

The smell of roasting sardines and the sound of laughter fill the air. Visitors amble down narrow streets passing through the locals’ setups, stopping for a Super Bock beer and a dance under multi-coloured bunting and string lights that criss-cross overhead and down the street. 

The atmosphere is warm. It’s a combination effect from the yellow-orange glow of the hanging bulbs; the warmth of the Summer night and the sardine-infused smoke; but most importantly, the warmth of the people. They are happy, generous, and wide open.

What really separates São João from other street parties is the soft plastic hammers everyone carries to playfully knock passers-by on the head. The night is filled with hammer squeaks as they gently impact people’s heads. This is where you catch a glimpse of the historical roots of the São João celebration.

The tradition of hitting each other on the head with the plastic hammers has its roots in the early pagan courtship tradition of hitting people on the head with garlic flowers. In fact, plenty of people still choose garlic flowers over plastic hammers to carry out this tradition. I received a good few knocks on the head with garlic flowers.

This tradition has people divided. Some love it, some dislike it. I’ve never experienced anything like it before, so I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. At the beginning of the night, I was reticent about hitting strangers on the head with my oversized plastic hammer. But after a few knocks to my own head and a couple of locals explaining ‘that’s what the hammer’s for’ as they went by, I loosened up.

I began knocking passers-by on the head too. Those that weren’t expecting the knock suddenly burst out laughing. Frowns gave way to smiles. Everyone loosens up with a knock to the head with a plastic hammer from a stranger. It’s fun. It’s playful. You can’t overthink it, you’ve just got to get involved.

This is the gift of Porto’s São João and its Portuguese hosts. They ask you to be joyful, easy-going, and not take yourself too seriously, and they lead by example. At its heart, São João is a celebration of community that sparks joy and makes strangers into friends, if only for a night. It’s about people and connection, and it’s such good fun. 

As the night progresses, most make their way down to Ribeira where the city meets the Douro river. It’s a breath-taking part of Porto with views over the river, across to Vila Nova de Gaia and the Port wine cellars, and of the iconic Dom Luís I Bridge. Sky lanterns are released and drift up into the night.

At midnight, the Ribeira is the stage for the night’s spectacular fireworks show. It gets very crowded, people are packed like sardines in anticipation. There is a pause in the noise and joviality as everyone looks skyward to enjoy the spectacle.

And once the fireworks are done, the party continues. Some, mostly tourists, stay around the Ribeira. Others head back up the narrow streets to join locals in more intimate and, dare I say, more authentic street parties.

People sing and dance, they eat and drink, and they knock people on the head with plastic hammers. Porto’s São João is what you make of it, but to me, it served as an important reminder to live with a bit more joy, playfulness, humility, and comradery.

The world needs more of the São João spirit.

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