No matter where you explore in Europe, the Summer Solstice is celebrated in different ways every year. Some countries use the longest day as a reason to have a party, while others link it with Christian holy days. Some countries take a more scientific approach while others prefer to acknowledge its pagan roots. This is what makes Europe such a diverse continent to discover.
As St. John the Baptist is the patron saint of Barcelona, the Catalan city is the place to be in Spain during the solstice. Most saints have their feast day on the day of their death. St John (or St Joan as the Spanish refer to him) is unique because his feast day is the day of his birth. He was born six months before his cousin, Jesus. In Europe, he is connected to the period when the sun reaches its highpoint in the year while the birth of Jesus represents rebirth in the winter. The city-wide celebrations in Barcelona culminate in the Night of Fire. Each district has bonfires, fireworks and street parties to mark the event.
For added solstice symbolism, Gaudi's Park Guell has many carvings incorporated into it which are definitely referencing the solstices.
Like the rest of Europe, France used to celebrate the Solstice through St John’s Day with bonfires. This has changed in recent years. As a result of a study in the 1980s, it was discovered that one out of every two French people played a musical instrument. Since then, public parks and spaces have been given free to musicians at the Solstice.
The Fete de la Musique was born and is now a major annual event in the French calendar. In Paris, musicians take over the most prestigious locations such as the Louvre, the Jarden des Tuileries and all along the Seine for 24 hours of music.
The term “solstice” comes from the Latin “solsitium” which means “the sun stands still”. In the days before computers, calculating religious feast days like Easter was achieved by studying the movement of the sun and the moon. During the Summer Solstice in sun-filled Italy, many of the Renaissance era cathedrals are crucial in this regard.
In Florence, the lantern at the top of Brunelleschi’s Duomo directs the sun through a special 4cm bronze hole. This is deflected 90m to the floor where it creates a sunbeam that glides across the dark marble at 7cm per second until it fills a precisely carved circle at midday.
In Rome, the Pantheon is one of the oldest sun markers. On June 21, the sun shines directly through the oculus in the roof to create the exact same circle in the darkness every year.
In Milan, the Duomo is another pinhole sundial. Added to the Duomo in the 18th century, the sun shines through a hole over 20m up a wall, creating a miniature sun that strikes the brass meridian line on the center aisle at noon.
The Vatican were no strangers to astronomy. While sunrise and sunset are easily identified as prayer times, noon was more difficult to pinpoint. To keep the faithful in time, the 83ft obelisk in St Peter’s Square acts as a huge sundial. It marks midday and the solstices by striking special markers embedded in the square.
England, the land of the Midsummer Nights Dream, has perhaps one of the oldest solstice experiences in Europe. Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument made of strange standing stones has been part of this landscape since 3000 BC. Despite being one of the most studied archaeological places on Earth, it is still a mystery. What we do know for sure is that if you are inside the circle during the Summer Solstice the sunrise aligns perfectly with the Altar, Slaughter and Heel stones. As a result, it has been a gathering place for thousands of solstice seekers for hundreds of years.
Wherever you go in Europe, the highpoint of the Summer will be marked in some way. There may be modern music or traditional prayers. There may be bonfires, festive fireworks or astronomical happenings. You may even get to see the sun line up perfectly with ancient monuments as the earth tilts on its axis. This is what makes Europe such a fascinating place at any time of the year.