Each year throughout Spain, particularly in Catalonia’s Girona Pyrenees, as the sun reaches its zenith, summer begins with a celebratory bang: the Fire Festival of Sant Joan’s Eve, claiming to eliminate evil spirits, cure disease, and cleanse souls.
Rhythmic drums beat. Horns blared down the street. From our apartment’s shallow Juliet balcony in old Girona, we glimpsed a crowd gathering in the plaza—a spirited but joyful audience, unlike the nightly Catalan protests we had experienced in Barcelona before the pandemic. Drawn to see what was happening, we headed down to join the group.
Townspeople of all ages, many dressed in a yellow show of Catalan support, donning face masks prudently required in 2021, assembled in Girona’s Plaça del Vi to kickoff a nightlong party. Between a giant medieval king and queen and a gilt crowned chicken, the man speaking on a stage repeatedly proclaimed, “Foc!” in his Catalan oration as everyone cheered. What kind of party was this?
This wasn’t a call to some hedonistic ritual, despite how it sounded to our American ears. As we discovered, residents were celebrating the shortest night of the year: La Nit de Sant Joan in the Catalan language, the Night of Saint John the Baptist.
This tradition was a local affair. Performers dressed in some sort of demonic medieval garb lit fire pots around the plaza, while all attention was on the fire blower. Each time fire spewed from his mouth, the delighted crowd around us oohed and aahed, presumably cured and cleansed.
“Foc” means fire in Catalan, Catalonia’s regional language. Since ancient times fire has been the symbol of abundance, purity, and fertility. The element is important to many Spanish festivals, including this Nit del Foc, or Night of Fire as this fiesta is also known.
As it goes, high in the Pyrenees Mountains, a lantern is lit using a fire that has been burning since 1955. On the evening of June 22, hikers start a bonfire atop Canigó Mountain with that same flame. At dawn, the Canigó flame, la Flama del Canigó, travels by torch in the hands of volunteers through the Girona province from its Pyrenees peak in Perpignan, France, across the border into Spain to unite the Catalan people on both sides. The flame makes its way through ancestral Catalunya lighting bonfires, called fogueres, along the way in cities like Girona and Barcelona.
Open-air celebrations, known as revetllas in Catalan or verbenas in Spanish, last throughout the night. Parties in each barrio, or neighborhood, start in the early evening on June 23 with feasts, fireworks, bonfires, and music. Sleep can wait. The next day is Saint John’s Day on June 24, a public holiday. It would have to be.
Like so many religious celebrations, Midsummer Eve, Revetlla de Sant Joan as it’s also called, has pre-Christian roots that celebrate nature, the changing of the seasons, and in this case, the summer solstice. Herbs with restorative properties are important. Thyme, rosemary, and particularly verbena (revetlla) are collected and eaten on this night—verbena was once offered to pagan gods and is still thought to be an aphrodisiac. Maybe this night was to be a bit seductive after all.
The sunset over the River Onyar cast a creamy light on the old city. As the daylight dimmed, cracks of fireworks summoned us from across the bridge.
No central fireworks display attracted large crowds, just individuals of their own accord, kids and adults alike, creating their own spectacles. We simply walked around, from one plaza to another, meandering over cobblestones. Shops were closed but the streets felt alive and convivial. As visitors we were spectators, never joining, just observing cultural traditions between a father and his children, sweethearts, groups of friends. At the same time, we felt part of the energy.
The restaurant umbrella vibe drew us back to vibrant Plaça de la Independencia. Food and drink are important components of any Catalan festival—as we fully appreciate. Families and friends gathered at tables around the plaza. Traditionally, popped cava, Spanish sparkling wine, is sipped with la coca de Sant Joan, sweet brioche cakes classically anise-flavored with candied fruit and pine nuts.
We were full from the pintxos (Basque tapas) bar so we just relaxed in the lit porticoed square on a bench sipping Valencian horchata made with chufas, tiger nut tubers. Under the shadow of creamy stucco and iron balconies, kids continued to set off firecrackers. A monument stood between us and them—the plaza’s namesake. The sculpture, created in 1894 by Anthony Perera, is dedicated to the defenders of Girona during the Napoleonic French invasions of 1808–1809 and recalls their independence regained in 1813.
We reflected on this region’s fierce pride in its Catalan heritage—like all subcultures contained within the larger whole of a nation—not to be misjudged or forgotten or erased. Spain is Catalonia’s guardian, big sister; little siblings just want to be seen and heard, to be championed as equals.
Crossing the iconic red Pont de les Peixateries Velles, an open iron-truss footbridge designed by French engineer Gustave Eiffel just before he built the Eiffel Tower in Paris, we paused in the darkness. A dim, orange flame-like flicker replaced the brighter warm glow that had emanated from the arched openings in the cathedral tower on previous nights—blunders burned away to allow a fresh start.
Pyrotechnics continued to rocket into the black night sky. Blasts, jarring at first, proceeded into the night with a festive sense of renewal.
Weaving through the maze of streets, we made our way back to our apartment. Opening the French doors to the balcony, we stepped out to take in the warm dark air. Music played and firecrackers popped late into the night. This was clearly not a night meant for sleeping.
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