- Wednesday 24 February 2010
My senses can barely keep up. The narrow streets of Porto, tumbling down to the riverside Ribeira district, are a teeming rush of whooping, laughing, singing humanity – and there’s little I can do but go with the flow. Overhead, the stars are hidden by the smoky pall of a thousand streetside sardine grills, punctuated by the glimmer of home-made paper lantern balloons drifting over the city. And that heady, seductive smell of barbecuing fish never leaves your nostrils.
And then there are the hammers – plastic toy hammers which emit a satisfying ‘bip’ every time they make contact with a passing head. Everyone, it seems, has parted with a euro or two in exchange for a garish mass-produced mallet and, after displaying some very English reticence, I shrug and do the same.
The Portuguese have a saying: ‘Coimbra studies, Braga prays, Lisbon shows off – and Porto works,’ but whoever coined that phrase clearly never visited this city on the night of 23 June. While the good folk of Porto may be diligent and sensible for 364 days of the year, after dark on 23 June they all go ever-so-slightly crackers.
This is the Festa de São João – the Festival of St John the Baptist – but you’d be forgiven for missing the religious significance amid the Super Bock beer stands, open-air concerts, dodgem cars and those ubiquitous squeaky hammers.
In fact, like so many religious festivals, the origins of Porto’s pre-eminent feast day are a historical kaleidoscope of Christian and Pagan influences: 24 June is, as any decent theologian will tell you, St John’s birth date, but the feast is as much about celebrating the summer solstice as anything else.
Traditionally, celebrants would (and some still do) arm themselves with large wild leeks or small pots of basil, wafting these under the nostrils of passers-by in an effort, some say, to ward off evil spirits – another Pagan connection.
It has even been suggested that those squeaky hammers represent some kind of phallic symbol linked to fertility; disappointingly, the rather more prosaic truth is that they were the brainwave of a 1970s’ toy manufacturer. It’s every bit as surreal and bizarre as it sounds – and it’s also the most enormous fun.
I’d defy anyone to wander through those clamorous, thronging streets without a smile on their face, but one word of warning – don’t try going back to your hotel too early. I returned to mine at about 2am, to be told by a festive, hammer-wielding desk clerk to get back out there and enjoy myself until dawn like everyone else.
Let there be light
The high point of the evening comes when the Douro is lit up at midnight by a dramatic firework display, during which the landmark, coathanger-shaped Dom Luís I bridge appears to drip fire into the waters below. Then, for those with stamina (and, unlike me, without a train to catch at silly o’clock the next day), the thing to do is to party your way westwards, downstream along the banks of the Douro for a mile or so until it meets the Atlantic at Foz.
Then collapse on the beach at Praia dos Ingleses and wait for the sun to come up over the ocean – until you remember that you’re facing the wrong way and dawn’s happening behind you.
If your legs, liver and/or energy levels aren’t up to that, don’t worry – there are plenty of less-exhausting attractions throughout the evening – and indeed through the month of June. These include open-air concerts, amusements, car rallies, processions and cascata competitions – a contest for shop-window displays involving representations of São João and other saints in a variety of imaginative scenes.
It seems that every spare open space is commandeered at this time to house fairground rides, live music stages, market stalls and stands selling everything from dodgy pizza to delicious freshly cooked fish. My advice on planning your perfect São João? Don’t. For one night only, just allow yourself to be swept up in the anarchic spirit of it all. You may not have a clue what’s happening, but who cares?
Hard as it may be to believe, the next day (or sometimes the following weekend if the Vinexpo wine fair in Bordeaux clashes) everyone is back down at the Ribeira to watch the barco rabelo race – the annual regatta of historic Port barges from Foz upstream to the Dom Luís bridge. From my very limited experience (helping to crew the Croft barco to mid-table respectability in the 2009 race), this is a race more picturesque than dramatic, much of it spent waiting in vain for a breeze and trying to avoid crashing into your rivals (the steering’s a bit primitive).
The jubilant, slightly feverish air of all of this festivity is not quite what you’d expect if you’ve just read the headlines about sensible, straight-faced Porto – but then the city itself also rewards digging a little deeper below the surface.
There’s a metro, tram service, buses and umpteen taxis, but if you’re up to it, the best way to explore the city centre is on foot. Then, in an area designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1996, you’ll discover hidden gems like art-nouveau masterpiece the Lello & Irmao bookshop, where the sweeping curves of the central staircase compete for attention with the eclectic selection of English-language books (where else would you find An Encyclopedia of Knives cheek-by-jowl with A Guide to Identifying Aquarium Fish?).
If you’re feeling a little guilty about neglecting the religious side of things during São João, the potential for penance is all around you. There’s the Sé, or cathedral, with its vertiginous terrace overlooking the Douro and Gaia; São Francisco’s dour Gothic exterior hides an interior of baroque bling, with the highlight of the jaw-dropping giltwork its fabulously OTT Tree of Jesse; and the twin churches of Carmo and Carmelitas, touchingly separated by what is reputedly Portugal’s narrowest house (about a metre wide), built to prevent hanky-panky between the monks and nuns, apparently.
Even the sombre surroundings of the Palácio da Bolsa – Porto’s serious-looking stock exchange – hide within its hushed cloisters a visitor centre run by ViniPortugal, which offers a useful refresher on the country’s winemaking regions, as well as a tasting room and shop run by the Douro and Porto Wine Institute (IVDP). And you can pick up a good-value set lunch in the grand surroundings of the Palácio’s own winerestaurant, O Comercial.
But if you’re keen to delve more deeply into the great fortified wine to which Porto gave its name, then cross the Dom Luís bridge and head to Gaia, where an estimated half-a-million people a year visit the famous Port lodges, many of which are open for tours and tastings.
There’s a Port connection, too, to probably my favourite landmark back on the Porto side of the river. The Estação de São Bento – São Bento station – is a refreshingly unsanitised terminus with a vast entrance hall resplendent with some 20,000 azulejos (the oh-so-Portuguese decorative blue-and-white tiles).
It’s also the starting point for the next stage in my journey following the Festa de São João: the train to Régua and the Douro Valley, still (in my opinion) the most beautiful wine region on Earth. But first, there’s time for a decent doze following last night’s festivities while the train chugs through Porto’s unlovely suburbs. Wake me up when the Sandeman Don comes into view…