Porto’s party spirit and proud culinary traditions come to life during its midsummer festival. Amelia Duggan reports on the city’s biggest bash
I’m leaning against the sun-warmed balustrade of Porto’s mighty Sé cathedral, looking down over a jumble of terracotta roofs to the Douro river. The sun seems reluctant to set: maybe it knows it’s going to miss out on all the fun. Tonight is the Festa de Sao Joao, a wild, night-long midsummer celebration of love, music and food.
Wending my way through the charismatic alleyways of the UNESCO-protected Old Town, I discover a city transformed. Streets and squares that had been sleepy a few hours ago are now entertaining crowds with drummers, makeshift bars and barbeques. Bunting is strung between Juliet balconies, and the smells are incredible: smoke, billowing from grills stoked by the summer breeze threads its tendrils through the crowd; rich, salty, fire-cooked fish can be tasted in the air; and there’s the heady sweetness of spilled port wine. I buy a grilled sardine served on a hunk of bread for a few euros, along with a cup of Portuguese vinho verde wine, settle back against a wall of Porto’s ubiquitous, hand-painted azulejo tiles, and dig in.
But having a mouthful of fish doesn’t excuse you from the party. While eating, I receive my first thwack on the head. It was only a matter of time: everyone from children to grandmothers are wielding squeaky plastic hammers — martelos — although I can see some purists in the throng brandishing traditional floppy garlic stems. One of the festival’s centuries-old traditions is to bash whoever you fancy on the head, although these days it’s less about courtship and more about platonic, squeal-inducing fun. I decide to buy a hammer and quickly get into the spirit of hitting passing strangers.
We’re all milling towards the waterfront now, spilling down spectacular medieval lanes that finally open out onto the Cais da Ribeira promenade. Here, framed by austerely grand townhouses, dense crowds dance to pop hits (Portugal’s 2017 Eurovision winner is periodically played by the DJ, to everyone’s delight).
Midnight strikes, and like a spell broken, all the street lights are extinguished — including the lamps lighting the monumental Ponte de Dom Luis I bridge. We wait in darkness. Minutes pass. There’s a restless buzz from the crowd. But then, suddenly, a mighty bang from above: fireworks hurl glitter into the inky sky.
Port to port
Having woken up feeling deceptively spritely, I’ve climbed the 225-step, spiral staircase of the 76m-high Torre dos Clérigos. From up in the eaves of the crooked 18th-century bell tower, the city unfolds in every direction. I see pretty steeples, domes and roof combs. Vintage trams chugging through the streets. People crossing plazas to attend morning church. The hills surrounding the city. The glittering Douro. It’s all, once again, serene and my now burgeoning hangover feels like the only proof the festival wasn’t just a dream.
Using my map, I look east to the Bolhao neighbourhood. I think I can spot the wrought-iron Mercado, known as Porto’s larder, where yesterday morning I’d joined brisk locals bartering for smoked meats, cheese and bacalhau (salted cod). Nearby, I suspect, chic clientele — fresh off the boutique-lined boulevard of Santa Catarina — will be tucking into francesinha sandwiches (a local speciality featuring cured ham, steak and cheese) on the terrace of the art nouveau cafe, Majestic. All this, in the shadow of the show stopping, azulejo-clad twin towers of Santo Ildefonso church.
Circling the torre, I look south towards the river and the historic Ribeira neighbourhood. I spot the lavish, neoclassical Palacio da Bolsa (the former stock exchange). It stands adjacent to São Francisco church — its interior is famously gaudy, dripping with gold brought back from Brazil when the Portuguese empire was at its zenith — built atop a network of catacombs.
I head across the river to the Vila Nova de Gaia district, where grand port lodges line the riverbank, their doorways flanked by guides offering tours of barrel-lined cellars, tastings and dinners on rooftop terraces. Some of these lodges date back to the 17th-century, when British merchants transformed wine into the post-dinner tipple of choice by adding a dash of brandy.
The rickety lodge of Noval has caught my eye, its raven motif cutting a foreboding silhouette against the afternoon sky, but I don’t make it through the door. There’s a commotion by the river. Crowds are gathering at the grassy bank. There’s cheering. Standing on a bench I can see sails: a dozen big, old-fashioned canopy sails in a multitude of colours propelling long wooden boats along the river. It’s a race to the bridge, and from the passionate cheering of the crowd I suspect at least a few people have money riding on the outcome. I’ll later find out this is the Regata de Barcos Rabelos, where each port house captains an old barrel transporter and races for glory. But for now, once more, I’m caught up in the locals’ enthusiasm. “Five euros on the yellow sail!”