Porto's São João

Fireworks
Photo:  Município do PortoCC BY-NC-SA - Some Rights Reserved

​The São João festivities in Porto already stand as a landmark for life in the city and are experienced by more and more tourists and visitors each year, taking part in the initiatives occurring all over the city. Throughout the month of June Porto offers a varied programme of São João celebrations. The highlight of the festivities is the Night of São João, from the 23 to the 24 June, when the city gets dressed up and the streets are filled with colour and scents, joy and high spirits.

The Itinerary of the Sacred and the Secular illuminates the tradition, retelling the story of this great feast, and the São João Programme, carefully prepared and revamped each year, embraces all those activities that make June such a special month.

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In the Churches and Chapels, and particularly at this time, visitors can tour the altars dedicated to the saint and admire the artistic representations conjured up by renowned national and international artists.

In the streets, the ‘cascatas’ (cascades), unique in Portugal, call the attention of passers-by to a tradition that involves the representation, in miniature, of scenes from around the city and customs from times gone by. They include houses, paths traced out in sand and moss, clay figurines, painted in lively colours, of people going about their daily business, working at their professions, many of which have now disappeared, and animals that, these days, are rarely seen inside the city. The most famous of these is the cascata das Fontaínhas.

The festival programme has space for competitive activities too, such as the now traditional regatta of ‘rabelo’ (port wine) boats which runs over a 1.5 km course from Foz do Douro to the Luís I Bridge. There are also activities along the riverside and more competition in the form of the São João race and the contests for best cascata, shop window, ‘rusga’ (parade) and popular poetry celebrating São João.

The night of the 23 June is the most jubilant of the year. Crowds of people come out onto the streets to celebrate this patron saint of amours. In the ‘Baixa’ area the streets ring out with the cries of the sellers of the traditional basil plants, carnations, lemon verbena, “leeks” and the modern hammers (*) that are used to dole out friendly whacks on the head to passers-by and which spread like wildfire throughout the city from early on in the day, acting as harbingers of the fun that is coming later on. The São João bonfires are set alight in the streets, by groups of neighbours and friends who prove their bravery by jumping right over the top of them. At midnight on the 23 June, there are fireworks, or São João’s fire, on the river. The banks of the Douro fill up with thousands of spectators who have come to watch the biggest show of the year, bursting with light, colour and emotion. The traditional São João balloons, made out of paper and brightly coloured, are carefully launched into the sky, providing an unparalleled spectacle of hundreds of ascending points of light.

On the Feast night or on the day of São João, people eat ‘caldo verde’ soup with cornbread, mutton, lamb or grilled sardines, pepper salad and, for dessert, egg and milk custard or São João cake, deservedly washed down by a delicious Port Wine.

The night of São João comes to a close at Foz do Douro, with people rowing out towards the sea until the dawn breaks.

Published 08-09-2013
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