‘Primavera mor, l’hivern es retira,’ – ‘Spring dies, winter retreats,’ sang Catalan songwriter Jaume Sisa. And he’s spot on: the night of June 23rd marks the summer solstice, the shortest night of the year, which is also Saint John’s Eve. The origins of the celebration are unclear, and apart from the name, it has few religious elements. The basic ingredients are firecrackers, bonfires, music, dancing, coca de Sant Joan - a sweet pastry covered in candied fruits and pine nuts - and plenty of cava. The Ajuntament de Barcelona website helpfully lists all the firework shops that open in the weeks leading up to the festival, as well as the official bonfires and street parties that are organised all over the city. It’s a night when families, friends and whole neighbourhoods meet up and stay out late, and the best place to be is somewhere outside, whether on a roof terrace, by the beach, in a square or up in the hills.
Although the official public holiday falls on the 24th, Saint John's Day, the real celebrations take place on Saint John's Eve, what Catalans call 'la revetlla' - the evening before an important festival, where the concept of evening is stretched until the early hours of the following morning. Now we've covered the basics, it's time to sketch a plan for some midsummer madness. Start the night with a glass of cava and an aperitif: you'll need plenty of energy if you're going to survive until morning.
You'll also need strong nerves: unsupervised kids with bags of noisy firecrackers are part and parcel of the tradition. Pretty soon the whole city is vibrating to the sound of ricocheting bangers. This could be a good moment for a slice of coca - the colourful candied fruit, glace cherries, scattered pine nuts and liberal dusting of sugar make an edible firework display in themselves. A strong coffee and you're ready to join the party.
One of the best ways to experience the festival is to join one of the street parties held in Barcelona's different districts - there are over 50 in total. Some offer tickets that include a sit-down supper, drinks, coca de Sant Joan and concerts, while others simply provide tables and chairs so that people can bring their own party out onto the street.
As well as the information on its website, the Ajuntament has created a downloadable smartphone app that provides all the practical information you'll need to enjoy the festival. If all the different ways of celebrating Sant Joan have a common denominator, it's the inclusive nature of the festivities: it's a festival for everyone to enjoy in the open air, on one of the first nights of summer.