Porto is Portugal’s second largest city, and the Ribeira district is a world heritage zone of winding streets and churches that maintain the old-world feeling you expect from such a historic city. With two days to spend away from Vigo city (Spain), to visit Porto it was a perfect getaway plan, not to mention that we drooped right in the middle of Sao Poao Festival.
So, in the morning we went to Vigo’s train station and we took the train to Portugal. In about two hours we were in Porto in the famous train station, Sao Bento. It is not a typical train station. Its massive walls are decorated with approximately 20,000 azulejo tiles, depicting the history of Portugal. I loved how a space so beautiful was used for something as commune as a train station.
Sao Joao Festival
We visited Porto in a day of celebration, it was Sao Joao (Saint John) which is the most important night of the year in Porto, so our experience in Porto might be slightly different then an usual city break. First of all let me tell you a little something about this festival because we found ourselves right in the middle of it. Porto’s Fiesta de Sao Joao is one of the Europe’s liveliest street festival, yet it is relatively unknown outside the country. Even though Sao Joao is not the official Patron of Porto, the locals throw the biggest party you can imagine. During this festival in Porto, you’ll engage in some local traditions that might seem a bit weird.
Preparations for this party begin several days before. Each of Porto’s neighborhoods is decorated with colorful displays, competing against each other to win the prize that is awarded for the best decorated street.
Eating Sardine is a must
Our first contact with Porto was made in grilled sardine flavor. The entire city had this flavor, which was normal, because all the locals were preparing barbeque sardines, right in the streets. According to the historians, the typical food of Sao Joao festival in Porto used to be roasted lamb with potatoes, bread and hot coffee. Why now sardines? Probably just because Porto has a very strong fishing tradition…so, for sardines to become a great success and the festival main dish, was not that difficult.
First thing that we did was to wonder around the famous Miragaia and Ribeira neighborhoods, the right places to be. People will set up their little charcoal grills outside their homes and grill up sardines. As such, you can expect to find barbecues being set up in every corner of town. It’s not Sao Joao if you’re not eating grilled sardines for dinner. The smell of grilling peppers and sardines waft through the warm June air.
However, from the afternoon onwards, the streets are filled with people, dancing to live music, eating freshly grilled sardines and meat treats from the barbecue and sipping ice cool bottles of local beer, wine and delicious port wine of course. It’s an absolutely colorful and crazy night from which we have no appropriate photographic records.
After dinner come the plastic hammers.
So later on inadequately armed with a half-eaten sardine, we found ourselves confronted by an army of hammer-wielding locals. At this point, it is essential to take with you a plastic hammer (if you forgot to buy one no worries, there is always someone selling them on the streets!). It seems that one of the traditions of Sao Joao festival in Porto is to lightly hit the head of everyone you meet on the street with a plastic hammer. It was very funny, for the first two- three hours ,to walk around and find yourself in the middle of the craziness, but after a while it became tiring.
Everywhere in the old center from Douro valley to the dense amalgam of tired houses and churches was impressive scenery. The crowd flows into the labyrinth of narrow streets tumbling downhill from Sao Bento train station to the river front.
The midnight fireworks
Not surprisingly, the fireworks at D. Luís bridge is the high point of the night of Sao Joao festival in Porto. The banks of the Douro river get filled with thousands of people who watch a beautiful symphony shaped in the air. We waited these fireworks for about one hour. It was not quite midnight.
After midnight, the Sao Joao party goes on into the night, ending watching the sunrise at the beach.
All this festival was a huge surprise and delight for us. We had a blast. So be sure you don’t miss the Sao Joao festival from 23-24 June in Porto.