It’s deep summer and the atmosphere is electric as Barcelona celebrates its annual Sant Joan festival.
Celebrated on June 23, the “Night of San Juan” marks the summer solstice and the shortest night of the year.
And here in Barcelona, it’s all about fire, explosions and all-night partying on the beach.
Thousands flock to Barceloneta beach, leaving the stickiness of the city behind.
Some have been here all day and are happy to see new faces arrive. Others struggle to find their friends and get lost in the colony.
The sand is cool. A breeze bounces off the tired blue sea.
Locals arrive early to set up camp, only to find that they are late to the party.
The beach is already overrun with tourists, just like the rest of the city.
They find themselves thinking back to previous years, to better times when the crowds in this city were smaller.
The cool breeze is a relief after trudging through the crowds with carrier bags full of wet beer cans and soggy sandwiches.
And as the sun begins to dip behind the horizon, the sky fades from blue to powdery shifts of grey and violet.
Gentle rays of gold and bronze caress our skin, a fleeting moment of calm before the inevitable storm that we all know is coming.
In a frenzied last dash, hawkers patrol their territories. “Cerveza, cold beer, cerveza, beer,” they call for the millionth time today. They have sales targets just like everyone else.
Others try a different approach. Surely tonight’s the night for success.
Regulars at the beach try to get on with their normal routine.
Some have more luck than others.
Some seek a moment to contemplate.
Others to share.
Many won’t remember their first Sant Joan experience, for one reason or another.
Others will never forget it.
Pablito puts a cracker into a plastic bottle, being careful not to rub off the phone number that Papa just inked on his forearm.
Papa has a twelve-pack to enjoy and knows how nights out with Pablito usually end, so he’s being careful this time. No one can call him an irresponsible father.
Not like last time.
Pablito places the bottle next to a group of tourists for greater effect. Papa will like that.
It pops, hops two metres into the air and explodes, leaving an ephemeral cloud of smoke that sweetens the air with sulphur.
“I do love that smell,” confesses Jason, an Irish expat. He’s made chocolate and raisin cookies, a fresh loaf of bread and a Spanish omelet to share with us tonight.
We’re impressed by his baking ability and joke about opening a coffee and cake place.
“We could call it Holbrook Mangan Coffee & Cake,” I suggest playfully. “It’s such a huge trend here at the moment.”
Papa notices Pablito’s latest effort, and he approves. The tourists move to another spot and Pyro Pablo is rewarded with another box of dynamite – bigger sticks this time.
“There was a really big one in the city centre earlier today and my first thought was that it must have been a terrorist attack,” says Darren, an expat from Manchester.
“It was so loud. Just ridiculous.”
He’s extra chilled and content today. One of his songs was signed by an indie record label recently and he’s just seen that it’s available on iTunes and Spotify.
Maybe he’ll make it big after all.
Tonight is a night for hope, a night for dreams.
As the sun burns out and the explosions grow more frequent, the mood morphs and families look for cover.
The bare-footed, hot-headed and tattooed dig in for the night, their bodies slowly numbing, their tongues lightly loosened.
The rumble of revelry rises as the chiringuito cranks up the house music, pulsating hypnotically through our chests.
Hearts beat a little faster.
An urge to move takes over.
The staff store their tables and chairs on the roof in an attempt to make more space for dancing.
They learnt their lesson last year.
Those who came for “a quick hour before it gets too crazy” are seduced into staying a little longer. By the sense that something is definitely about to happen.
The sudden awareness that we are here, that this is Barcelona. That we are the lucky ones. Aren’t we?
Tired of waiting for the action, others take matters into their own hands.
While others get busy waiting.
Then, suddenly, unceremoniously and without warning, the first firework of the night spirals up into the velvet sky. Sizzling, crackling and cascading above us.
Sparks of hope that lift us up.
And for the first time in a long while, we stop worrying about what we’re doing with our lives, or about where we’ll be this time next year.
We forget about the rest of the world, detach ourselves from ourselves, and focus on the moment.
On the sweet smell of sulphur.
On the explosions in the sky.
Make it Happen
When: Barcelona’s Sant Joan celebrations are held on the night of June 23rd, while the actual feast is held on the 24th.
Where: Head to Barceloneta beach (if you dare) for the best San Juan celebrations in Barcelona.
All words & photos by Ben Holbrook