Making my way over the swaying bridge in the early hours of the morning, trying to find my way back to the hotel, I honestly thought my hosts Sandeman were going back to the UK minus a journalist.
Before you think I’d overdone it on the ol’ port (how dare you!), it’s worth explaining that the huge double-deck Luís bridge in question was struggling to cope with the momentous crowds that had gathered for Porto’s São João festival, where I’d spent the last few hours being hit over the head with a hammer. Ok, that needs some explaining too.
Let’s rewind. Sandeman, the multi-award-winning port house dating back to 1790 had taken me to Porto to shed a light on all the wine has to offer – and there was no better weekend to do so, than during São João festival – more of which later.
You’ll probably recognise their iconic branding featuring a caped man named Don dressed in a Portuguese student’s cape and a wide Spanish hat, placed at a jaunty angle against a yellow background. But for many millennials port is still mostly associated with dessert pairings, a super sweet digestif, preferably enjoyed at Christmas. However, there’s SO much more to discover. Firstly, how about a white port and tonic? Super refreshing and perfect for the summer months (trust me, it powered us through Porto), it’s as easy to make as a G&T. For something a little more experimental, but equally refreshing try the Sandeman Fizz recipe below.
1 scoop of lemon Carte D’or ice cream
Sandeman Porto Fine White
Add the ice cream to the cocktail glass and top with Sandeman Porto Fine White
Garnish with lemon twist.
After a day at HQ, looking out onto the beautiful Douro valley below, tasting our way through classic young rubies, through to special reserves, we headed back into the city to experience the São João festival first hand.
São João Festival
First things first, don’t forget your plastic squeaky hammer. Absolutely everyone, young and old will be wielding one and you won’t be able to take a single step without being bonked on the head. Extra points if you manage to hit a policeman (I tried it and didn’t get arrested, so go ahead) or other ‘important’ people. Personally, I took great delight in hitting the teeniest kids because at 5ft 4in I couldn’t reach much else. I’d liken it to whack-a-mole. Some people also carry around wild leek and garlic to ‘ward of evil spirits’ so don’t worry if you get smacked in the face with them. They’re actually doing you a favour.
Celebrated on June 23rd, the festivities begin with a feast, as all good festivities should. Sandeman laid on a huge barbecue with all the dishes traditionally served – grilled sardines, grilled peppers, fresh salads and pork sandwiches dipped into a rich gravy. We had the dream location, on the Sandeman terrace which had been draped in colourful bunting, whilst throngs of people passed by and the sun burst into pink in front of us. At midnight the city put on one of the best (loudest!!) firework displays I’ve ever witnessed. Cue *oooos & ahhhhs*
However, we quickly learnt that the party – which takes place on both sides of the river – was far from over. It goes on through the night with thousands turning up and the streets become completely unpassable at times.
We’d recommend staying at the Hotel Eurostars Porto Douro which is a short walk to the main drag but just far enough out of the action that you won’t be kept awake all night.
The following day is a national holiday and is when the Regatta of São João Festival takes place.
Using the beautiful old Rabelo sailing boats, used to transport port in ancient times, all the big port houses take to the high seas in an attempt to take home the coveted trophy. Each boat is loaded up with the essentials, a huge picnic and enough port to sink a ship, or nearly.
Although technically ‘just a bit of fun’, traditions are strictly adhered too. Each boat was required to have their own real-life ‘Don’ complete with cape and hat as a little mascot – you’d be excluded if they weren’t dressed appropriately. With both sides of the Douro lined with spectators cheering us on, we set out to win the race. But things weren’t looking good, our position at the back of the pack looked less than favourable and no one in the history of the race had ever won two years in a row (Sandeman were the 2018 champions). Not letting that dampen our spirits, we set off, full steam ahead.
Against the odds, we left victorious, going home with a shiny medal and a little sunburn. Obviously we celebrated well into the early hours of the night as only ridiculous Brits would do, knowing they have a horrendously early flight to catch the next morning.
Big thanks to Sandeman for taking us to the street festival to end all festivals and for chasing the wind whilst we were busy scoffing canapes and re-filling our port glasses.