At a recent dinner party in London I found myself robustly defending Spanish fiestas, the annual lively festivals and street parties that form the backbone of community life in Spain.
One of the guests alluded to the giant Tomatina fiesta in the village of Buñol in Valencia at which as many as 50,000 people participate and throw more than 150,000 ripe tomatoes. She complained that lobbing tomatoes at fellow revellers seemed a rather childish concept. Another alluded to a rice throwing event in the north of Spain, asserting that the small missiles were a health and safety hazard and could put someone’s eye out. I told them that if they were concerned about tomatoes and rice grains, they’d certainly run a mile from the annual Jarramplas festival in Piornal in Extramadura when inhabitants surge through the streets hurling nigh on 15,000 turnips at a masked man dressed as a devil with horns and a large snout. Furthermore, I admitted that I had participated in both the grape throwing festival to celebrate the harvest in Majorca and the annual hazelnut shell fight at the St Joan festival in Menorca. Why, they wanted to know? A good question.
To the unsuspecting tourist, some of Spain’s fiestas might appear bizarre if not rather alarming. Take the annual Moors and Christians ‘mock’ battle that occurs in various parts of Spain and Majorca. In my rural town of Soller the event is so realistic that for the uninitiated visitor it can prove quite unnerving. Hordes of sabre-rattling pirates with blackened faces and emitting blood curdling roars, sail into the port while appropriately attired peasants rush at them, firing blunderbusses into the air and letting off firecrackers. Thick acrid smoke assails the nostrils as later a grand battle between the two factions kicks off in Soller town.
And then of course there is our famous Nit de Foc, night of fire, when devils and demons run amok in the town square, prodding participants with pitch forks and spraying burning cinders onto the ground. Locals arrive in wet clothes and hoodies to prevent anything catching alight and the fire brigade is on standby. Oh what fun!
The sheer scale and variety of fiestas across Spain is breathtaking. There are the famous ones such as Las Fallas in Valencia at which giant paper mache characters are burnt, or Pamplona’s bull running in San Fermin, and let’s not even touch on the pre-Lent Carnival celebrations or the Easter, Christmas and Three Kings parades. Often festivals have spectacular attractions such as the building of human towers, known as Castells. The team work, concentration and trust required by the intrepid participants is genuinely humbling and moving.
I was at pains to explain to my fellow diners that the origins of fiestas in Spain lie in the country’s rich and varied historical past-sometimes emanating from Roman or Moorish history or events of the Middle Ages. The most important aspect of these often high octane celebrations has to be the spontaneity and the coming together of a community to share a wonderful experience. There might be elements that appear dangerous, outrageous, childish, non-politically correct, strange or downright silly but that’s part of the fun of it.
At fiestas normal rules need not apply and people can truly let their hair down. They can sing and laugh, drink too much, stay up all night, dance with devils, dress up in fantastical outfits or let off steam by throwing vegetables at an object of scorn. Everything is possible and happily at odds with the structure of every day life and yet these extravaganzas rarely descend into chaos. There is control and an underlying respect for the history and traditions of the event.
When living in Spain it is quite easy to shift from wide-eyed spectator to dare-devil participant which is how I’ve often found myself in the midst of the action. Mind you, I’d draw the line at bull running and nothing in the world would induce me to form part of a human tower, even with the promise of a spectacular view from the top.
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