Dancing with the devil, building human towers, and being chased through narrow streets by frantic bulls are only a few of the ways Spaniards celebrate. Once a year there is the famous running of the bulls in Pamplona, but it seems that just about any day is an excuse to have a party and the people of Spain really know how to whoop it up.
We have been fortunate to witness and participate in a few celebrations in the time we have been living in Spain, thanks in part to happenstance (right place, right time) and in part to meeting some great people who have their fingers on the pulse of events in our area.
Christmas and New Year’s—which don’t seem to be especially big deals in Spain–are followed by Epiphany, called Día de los Reyes. This is the main Christmas-time event and the day Spanish children dream about all year. The evening of January 5th we were in Tarragona and we asked a taxi driver what we could expect. He said there would be fireworks at the waterfront and then a parade through the streets ending at the town hall right near our apartment.
Before nightfall, we walked from the old town to the port in a river of humans flowing downhill and positioned ourselves where we hoped to get a good view of the fireworks. The crowd was buzzing with excitement when the first bright white line wiggled its way into the night sky with a pop. Accustomed to 4th of July fireworks shows, Al and I expected the single burst of attention-grabbing light to be the harbinger of the spectacle to come. But surprisingly, and admittedly disappointingly, it was followed by a few more single whistles and pops and that was it for the fireworks display. But there was much more to the celebration.
It turns out the “fireworks” simply announced the arrival of a small barge festooned with lights and, at the bow, stood three men dressed in velvet robes and wearing gold crowns. Clearly the Three Wise Men were coming to town. They disembarked and that was the cue for the crowd to begin making their way back up the hill to Tarragona’s rambla or main boulevard. We joined the sea of people, and at the rambla had a quick dinner, grabbed a couple of bottles of beer, and found a place to stand where we expected the parade to take place.
And what a parade it was! There were scores of gigantic floats with papier mache elephants, camels, lions, phoenixes, and castles. Youngsters and adults rode atop them dressed in all manner of costume – courtly figures, harem ladies, biblical characters, soldiers and yes, even caganers – but the floats that got the most attention were the three carrying Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, the Magi. The highlight of the parade for most people seemed to be the sweets being thrown into the crowd from the float-riders. It was like a free-for-all Halloween with kids stuffing their shopping bags full of carmelos (hard candies) and begging for the candies to be sent their direction.
The whole parade made three turns around the entire length of the rambla, which took well over an hour before starting to progress to the town hall plaza, where the Three Wise Men, bearing their gifts, were received by the mayor of Tarragona. He handed each king a large, golden key to the city and declared that they had free liberty to enter each and every home that night to deliver gifts to the good children of Tarragona. More candies were hurled into the audience and finally sticky children and their exhausted adults dispersed. January 6th, the actual day of Epiphany, is a national holiday, and the streets were mostly deserted. People spend this family day opening gifts and visiting one another’s homes bearing a rosca de reyes, a special crown-shaped fruit cake.
Every city, town and village in Spain has a patron saint. The merged towns of Vilanova i La Geltru, just a 10 minute train ride from where we are living, claim San Antoni. (To be clear, this is Saint Anthony the Abbot, patron saint of animals – mostly pigs – not to be confused with Saint Anthony of Padua, patron saint of lost things. Though if you lose your pet you are welcome to appeal to both saints using the unspecific name of St. Anthony.) San Antoni’s Feast Day is January 17th and the town holds a week’s worth of special events in his honor.
One event, held during the day, is an opportunity to have your pet blessed with holy water by the priest. It is known as Tres Tombs, which has nothing to do with the place people are buried, but in fact is Catalan for Three Walks or Tours. To start, all the town folk gather in the church plaza where a dais has been raised. The priest and his entourage take up their positions on the dais with a huge bucket of holy water. Using something like a plastic feather duster, the priest begins shaking water onto anyone able to crowd into the space in front of him clutching their animal. Mostly people brought dogs of all sizes and breeds but we also saw cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and a few birds getting blessed and splashed. The priest was clearly enjoying dousing the pet owners as they tried to contain their confused, distracted, and otherwise unimpressed furry friends.
After the chaos of pet wetting it was time for the working farm animals to have a turn getting blessed. A magnificent procession of draft horses passed the dais pulling elaborately decorated, old-fashioned drays piled high with agricultural goods from the surrounding fields and farms. Carts were laden with vermouth barrels, gunny sacks filled with grain, hewn logs, chicken crates, and mountains of vegetables. People dressed in their finery were pulled by teams of coiffed, bejeweled horses. Dressage horses with poised riders pranced by. Even dolled-up donkeys and ponies had their moment. As with the parade in Tarragona, the procession of horses made three passes – three being a religiously significant number – on the route through town and by the end the horses were sweaty, the riders were wilted, and honestly even the crowd seemed ready for the whole thing to be finished. And just as with the Fiesta de los Reyes, there is the requisite purchase of a Roscón de Sant Antoni – a sweet, ring-shaped, flat cake containing dried fruits.
An even more dramatic event during the San Antoni festival week is known as the Correfoc, which translates from Catalan to ‘fire-run’ and trust me when I tell you it involves a fair bit of fire and running. In the post-Franco years, liberated from the oppression of a Fascist regime, the Catalans have resurrected this medieval festival. The Correfoc takes place in the evening and you are welcome to spectate. But if you prefer to participate there is an encouraged, though not mandatory, dress code. Mostly it is teenagers and young adults who arrive dressed from head to toe in thick cotton clothing with a wide-brimmed, straw hat, a neckerchief of cotton, work boots, and more often than not, protective eyewear.
Once again, the crowd gathers at the church plaza. Marching bands pass through, whipping up the audience with thrumming drum beats and horns. All at once the church doors swing wide and into the crowd prances an enormous, papier mache pig encircled by a band of devilishly attired attendants holding long, wide, pitchfork-shaped objects upright. The music reaches a frenzied pitch, the crowd is equal parts entranced and afraid, and suddenly the pitchforks and the pig start shooting off screaming firecrackers in every direction. This is the moment when you must begin the fire-run. You have a choice: enter the fray doing a wild, can-can dance with your arms pressed tightly to your sides or you run away, praying you are not already on fire. The noise, the light, the heat, the chaos all reach a maddening crescendo and just as quickly stop as the last of the firecrackers fizzle.
You gasp, you gape, you turn to your neighbor and share a moment of awe and then it starts all over again when the next enormous papier mache creature and its fire demons make their entrance.The Vilanova i la Geltru Correfoc had more than a dozen different creatures and their fire-spraying attendants. They blasted the crowd with fire, smoke, drumming and horns and then processed to the town hall plaza for one final, massive blow-out session in which every group set off their fireworks in unison and the whole town, ourselves included, danced in the sparks. What a scene!
Our most recent seasonal event was of a much calmer nature. Spaniards, and more specifically Catalans in our area, celebrate what nature provides in its season. This time of year, it’s a particular kind of early spring onion. It is shaped like a scallion but is the size of a leek and has a mild, oniony, earthy, sweet flavor. It is called calçot (cal-soat) and is celebrated in a ritual meal called a calçotada. Typically the calçotada takes place at a countryside, open-air restaurant with long family-style tables and an enormous grill stoked with grape vines for fuel. We were invited to join a group of new friends for a Sunday feast of calçot at a restaurant in nearby Vilanova i la Geltru.
The eating of calçot is more than just popping a bit of grilled onion into your mouth. There is an entire ritual and manner of consumption involved. First, you gather at a bar or a friend’s home for an aperitif and snacks to stimulate your appetite. Then you mosey to the restaurant and order a second round of drinks. You munch on olives and decide how many plates of calçot your group can eat. There seems to be some competition involved here and the eight of us ended up with one hundred calçot – four platters of 25 on our table. Bottles of wine punctuated the spaces between the platters.
In order to eat a calçot you must first get into uniform: a large, brightly colored bib that hangs from nape to lap and a pair of plastic gloves. The calçotada is a messy affair. The onions are eaten with hands only. You must peel back the charred, soil-encrusted outer layer (supposedly the soil improves the flavor) much like a parent might remove a child’s tight, wet jeans, pinch off the root end, smother the mooshy inner flesh in a rich romesco sauce and, holding the onion over your head, tip back your face, open your mouth wide and bite-suck the whole mess into your mouth. Peal, dip, eat, repeat.
While calçot are the star of the meal, they are not the end of it. Typically they are followed by some kind of meat grilled over the same grape vine flames. At our table a few people had thick, juicy steaks. Others dug into some kind of beef shank that could have come right out of the Flintstones comics. Al and I chose to share the hind quarter of a small goat served with grilled root vegetables. Main courses were followed with desserts and finally coffees all around. By the time we pushed ourselves back from the table nearly five hours had elapsed. The sunlight was fading, the air was cooling down and with kisses all around we bid our friends farewell and ambled to the train station.
There are many more festivals we haven’t seen. In nearby Tarragona, we found a statue commemorating the building of “human towers”, which started there and is now replicated in many towns. Dozens of people crowd together, and in the center rises groups of 3-4 people clasped together and standing on each other’s shoulders, reaching up to ten layers high. Every two years in October (sadly, we’ll miss it this year), the local sports arena is jam-packed for what’s billed as the world’s largest human tower competition, which Spain’s tourism website proudly touts as having been awarded the “UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” designation.
Carnaval is another big one, at least in some parts of Spain. In our area there are events like: bed races, drag queen shows, parades (of course), candy fights (recommended to wear a raincoat), and my personal favorite, the “burial of the sardine.” Here the Carnaval King, who is (logically?) a sardine dies and a funeral is held for him, with lots of mock crying and wailing women (or possibly men dressed as women). His dead, fishy body is carried through town and then ceremonially burned or buried. We will miss this spectacle while traveling to Segovia during the week of Carnaval, but I am hoping there is some fun to be had there too.
I know that no matter what and how we celebrate in the coming months, just as it is for the Spaniards, every day we are in this amazing country is an excuse to do something a little wild and different. And be it the lowly spring onion or the freedom from fascism, there is always reason to be grateful for the lives we have and the place we are living.
11 thoughts on “¡Fiestas!”
What’s the difference between jealousy and envy? I’m not sure but I think that right now I am experiencing both. I can’t wait to join you in just 2 1/2 months! I hope the natives are not partied out by then.
Thanks for this beautiful essay.
I too can’t wait for your arrival here in this amazing country. We are going to have such a good time.
You both amaze me with every blog. I can feel the ground beneath your feet and taste the food and drink your are discovering. Thank you for the gift of traveling through Spain with you. Con besos.
Thank you for your kind comment. I was hoping you could feel the heat of the moment along with me through my writing.
What an amazing time!
Yes it is! What an amazing planet we get to live on (for too short a time).
Thanks so much for sharing, in vivid and vibrant detail, all the new experiences you and Alan have been having. You both are living a life that many of us just read about.
Thanks for the response. We are having a great time exploring this amazing world.
Okay – given that you are in multiple cities/towns – do you have a favorite patron saint?? As for eating 100 calcots…..even in a group, sounds like a lot although the entire process seems amazing! Wine to toss down the entire meal is definitely a plus.
Thanks for sharing all of it!!
As a worrier I found the fires and human towers. Hope not too many accidents. As usual, a fabulous read.