The Festival of Saint John is celebrated throughout Portugal in the last week of June. Every town, city and village will celebrate this feast day but Porto is the city that really knows how to put on a show. Porto explodes into a riot of drunken revelry which is sometimes anarchic and a mixture of religious and pagan rituals which are often very entertaining, amusing and lots of fun. Remember, it is the summer solstice, also.
The streets of Porto on this day and night are very decorative with grandiose altars, colourful stalls and stages for live entertainment. The party actually begins on the day of the 23rd, St John's Eve, with a model making competition between the districts of Porto. The models are in religious forms. People exchange basil plants or scented herbs that represent a holy meaning. This giving of gifts is meant to bring health and luck in love and business.
Then comes the all night party when the entire town seem to be out in the streets, singing and dancing, drinking bucketfuls of Vinho Verde, eating caldo verde soup, sardines, roast cabrito (kid), lamb and aromatic potatoes. Visitors are welcome to join in the local street parties.
Portuguese love fireworks and really don't have to have an excuse to have a party but on this evening the best places to view the extraordinary displays are on the Ribeira or on the beach at Foz do Douro. Here you will be amazed to see youths praying all night .
The most bizarre aspect of the celebrations is people hitting each over the head with hammers; the inflatible and squeaky sort. Originally leeks were the weapon chosen to carry out this task. On a couple of visits I have seen leeks being used usually in the early hours of the morning when the antics become very silly.
Small paper hot-air balloons are released into the sky which is a ritual usually carried out by sun worshippers and the young Portuguese leap over bonfires. An odd number of jumps, but at least three, are meant to deviate and protect against any misfortune in the coming year. Really, I think it is more for fun and not always taken seriously.
On Saint John's Day itself, people sleep off their excesses, religious and devout go to church and in the afternoon there is the spectacular annual race of the ancient Barcos Rabelos (famous boats with tails that carry port up the Douro) on the river to look forward to.
If you want to visit Porto at this time then please do - but don't come to this fantastic and colourful city expecting it to be peaceful on Saint John's Day. Be prepared for excitement, frivolity and lots of madness.