June 23rd may be known in the UK as the anniversary of a certain referendum we shall speak of no further, but here in Spain it’s celebrated as ‘Noche de San Juan’ – Saint John’s Night.
Although it’s named after John the Baptist, the festival has pagan roots and is all about celebrating the arrival of summer. Traditionally, here in Valencia (and in other coastal regions of Spain), it’s spent on the beach and it heavily features the cleansing and purifying elements of fire and water. Indeed, not only is it the one night of the year that you are allowed to make bonfires on the beach, but the council actually hands out firewood so that you can! (For more information, visit Love Valencia in English here or in Spanish here.)
I’d heard a lot about Noche de San Juan, so of course I was curious to go down and see what was going on. Mostly, people celebrate it in groups, with friends or family members, but most of my friends were elsewhere or otherwise occupied, so I ended up going alone.
I’d been told that if you wanted to grab a spot and build a bonfire you should get there early but as a lone observer, I decided to take a more leisurely approach. I didn’t even leave home until gone ten o’clock and although I could have caught the last bus, my lack of enthusiasm for waiting at bus stops kicked in and I decided instead to walk. I’d already looked at the Valenbisi map and although I could have taken a bike halfway or so, the stations nearest to the beaches were all already full. It was a nice evening and I had time on my hands. So off I set.
It took me just over an hour to walk the 6kms across the city and it was noticeable how the streets got busier and busier the closer I got. Even when I first reached the beach, though crowded, it wasn’t noticeably more so than on a normal day. But as I wandered along, the promenade became more and more packed, the queues for the portaloos got longer and longer and the beach itself was a riot of bodies and bonfires.
I wandered around, feeling the still warm sand beneath my feet, enjoying the scent of wood smoke and snapping a few pictures of the people and their fires. The sky felt so big, the night so warm, the sea so open. It felt like a real celebration of life and the universe.
Midnight came and I – along with quite a few other people – stood and watched as others headed into the sea to jump over the waves. Tradition states that you should jump seven waves and then jump over the bonfire to ward off bad energy. Plenty of people jumped over the waves, but I only saw a couple jumping over the bonfires, and contented myself with trying not to fall into any by mistake!
Midnight isn’t late by any means on a normal night in Spain, let alone Noche de San Juan. I’m sure many of the people I saw stayed up much later, chatting, drinking, singing and generally enjoying being together on the beach. I took a few more photos and then set off home – opting this time to take advantage of one of the many Valenbisis that were available in the area!
And do you know what? It was a really nice night, full of positive energy. Maybe at some point in the future I might find myself sitting around one of those bonfires, but last night it was just great to be there, to soak up the good vibes and to feel that in my own way, on my own terms, the night was mine.