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How Ellie and Adrian got hammered and nearly left under a cloud…
June 23rd is St João’s eve – the evening of the feast day of St John the Baptist. Big business around these parts. We’d had the first inklings in Barcelos, but arriving in Braga (the religious capital of Portugal) saw a whole new take on it. As we drove in, we found that the major avenues through the town were hung with Xmas-style decorations only with sunflowers, and with stalls lining the pavements. From the van, we could only see the tarpaulin’d backs – then as we crossed the bridge, we saw the entrance to the park, lined with more stalls.
The first section of the campsite was rammed solid, but we picked one of the pitches dropping down the hill towards the back of the football stadium then over the river and on to town which were free. So off into town we wandered.
Our afternoon meander was most pleasant – every time a drum band became a bit too visceral, we could dip down half-deserted back streets, and find a local folk group in traditional costumes dancing outside a church. Beer stands everywhere, amongst the countless tat-merchants, and precisely one small loo wagon to be found – and only then after asking a policeman. But no queue … very surprisingly.
After a quick re-group back at the site, and as the bands started to tune-up on stage at the stadium, and the fairground along the river came to life, causing us to figure out why half the site was empty, we headed back in for the evening… If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The park featured several huge colourful tent-restaurants, with sardines, whole chickens, and large chunks of goat kid barbecuing smokily outside; inside lined with long communal tables and benches – seating capacity of each well into the hundreds – and overflowing. So we joined the queue at one. No idea how it was going to work – there was a menu whiteboard propped up, but even if we’d known what the menu items were, the handwriting was illegible. Sardines then. If we can ever attract a waiter’s attention… We did. Except she wasn’t “our” waiter, and quickly got dragged away by a senior chaos-wrangler whilst the right one was dragged in and given a rollicking.
Sardines, please. How many? Umm, for two? Yes, yes – but how many? Umm…? We agreed on eight. These weren’t your one-bite-and-gone whole sardines that live in ‘ickle oily, salty tins, but a good six to eight inches of glistening silver, lightly charred.
Five arrived. They were, it seems, the last five in the whole place. No problem. They were delicious, once disembowelled. No discussion over what accompanied – that was just taken as read. Boiled potatoes and a salad of tomato, onion, olives, cucumber and pickled green peppers; sufficient to feed a small army. As word reached the still-lengthening queue that the sardines were off, it evaporated. Instantly. People already seated, waiting to order, got up and left. Sardines are, it would seem, popular.
Fed, we continued to wander, along with the entire population of Braga. Old, young – they were all meandering, back and forth, to and fro, aimlessly – pausing briefly to look at the life-size plastic re-enactments of Biblical scenes from St John’s life, or to let a procession of marching bands, folk dancers and giant paper-mache-headed people past – but…
This is the bit that remains inexplicable, and there may be a prize for the best explanation. What – exactly – is the connection between the religious festival of St John the Baptist and squeaky plastic hammers? Or, come to that, five-foot long Allium flowers?
The nice lady at the campsite was unable to enlighten us. “It’s traditional”. Every ten feet, somebody presided over a blanket piled high with squeaky plastic hammers of varying sizes and colours. They were doing good business, too. Every other person was holding one – and, as they wandered, using it to hit the heads of every other random person. Squeak. Squeak. Then there were the Alliums. Long stalks, with round flowers at one end and a garlic bulb at the other – held at full stretch over random shoulders to tickle unwary noses. Squeak. Tickle. Squeak.
(It’s entirely my fault that there’s no pictures of the evening – I left the camera in the van. But, to be honest, I fail to see how photos can possibly capture the absurdity of it all…)
We’d considered going to the concert – but, in the event, the street party was still going strong when the last band started at 2am. One thing worth noting – in spite of the throngs of people hitting each other with plastic hammers, late at night, fuelled by beer & caipirinha stalls, not a sign of drunkenness or trouble – just a really friendly atmosphere.
At 1am, the fireworks had started – a spectacular show from the top of one of the heavily wooded mountains overlooking the city, the trees themselves were silhouetted by a golden-amber backlighting. Except that the backlighting started to flicker, and – as the fireworks finished – the smoke failed to clear. Then that backlighting started to grow and spread. Ooops.
The fireworks had started a forest fire. From the campsite, it became clearer, with trees across the upper swathe of our own hill merrily ablaze. Eventually – once they’d changed, presumably, out of their marching band costumes – the Bombeiros arrived and showed exactly how much practice they had at controlling burning tinder-dry hills.
Finally, satisfied that we weren’t going to have to evacuate the campsite, we hit the sack – our exhaustion being lulled gently and instantly to a deep sleep by the continuing deafening raucous oom-pah Pimba music and airhorns of the fairground.