As luck would have it I booked my trip to Porto the weekend of the biggest party of the year - the night before the Feast of Saint John (or São João in Portuguese). Beginning the evening of June 23, it's an all-night celebration with food, drink and some other (stranger) traditions that continues until the morning of the 24th. I've seen some fairly raucous celebrations in other places - the 4th of July at home, New Year's Eve pretty much anywhere, and Bastille Day in Paris - but never have I seen an entire community come together the way the residents of Porto do for St. John.
I awoke Sunday morning to find the city transformed; or rather in the process of transformation. The cafes neighboring my hostel had exploded out onto the plaza with dozens more tables and chairs than normal. Kegs were being rolled out and speakers set up. Later, as the afternoon wore on, the air became thick with the smell of charcoal as people prepared to start grilling the traditional sardines and green peppers right there on the sidewalks. I even saw a few pigs roasting on spits. Restaurants put out signs advertising special tapas menus.
With nothing planned for the day I joined a walking tour and the guide, a local, took us around the central part of old town, explaining in equal measure the history of the city and the preparations for the party that we were witnessing. As he took us through narrow alleys I saw that, just like outside my hostel, families had set out tables, chairs and grills outside their apartment buildings. Men sat back and sipped beers while women started to set the tables. It was like a giant, city-wide block party. Or tailgate, depending on how you look at it. And on every street corner was a vendor selling plastic hammers that emitted a loud squeak (like a dog's chew toy) upon contact. As per tradition these are to hit other people on the head.
After the tour I returned to the hostel for a shower and a nap, and when I reemerged at 9 the party was in full swing. I looked out from the balcony and the plaza below was full of people eating, drinking and dancing. Meeting up with a girl I had met on the walking tour that afternoon, we made our way toward the waterfront to see the midnight fireworks. Everywhere there was a dull buzz of squeaking as people brandished their hammers. I, growing tired of getting attacked, bought one so I could deliver some retribution.
Now that the sky had darkened people had taken to lighting paper lanterns - the kind that are propelled upward by the flame and eventually become bright yellow specks in the night. Securing a spot near the water around 11, we watched as the crowd around us became rowdier and denser. They bopped newcomers on the head who tried to push their way forward for a better view, and cheered for those attempting to light lanterns, egging on the fragile paper things on their quest towards the sky. Then, finally, the street lamps went out and with a flash and a bang the firework display began.
Making our way back downtown after the music and light show was less fun. While I was ready to climb into bed and call it a night, for everyone else the party was just starting. The drunks were getting drunker and sloppier, the music blared louder than ever before from speakers erected seemingly on every street corner, and hits from errant hammers rained down more frequently.
My tour guide from the wine excursion said that, according to tradition, people are supposed to follow the river to the ocean and take a dip in the water. But as I lay in bed, lulled by the music and laughter drifting in through my fourth floor window, I wondered how many people had made it out to sea. Perhaps, like me, they simply gave up, laid down in the sand and closed their eyes.