The first three weeks of January could have been better.
Barely back in Barcelona, I learned that Scotland’s Storm Scrotum, or whatever they’re calling it, had left my garden minus its fence and my shed showing its entrails. In the second week I came home to find that the Barcelona boiler had been leaking water directly into a surge protector, leaving the flat with no power and me without hot water for a week. And last week, not to be outdone, brought me a bout of egregious gastroenteritis.
So all in all, I was up for some light relief. And luckily, at a time of year I usually associate with being depressed and skint, Barcelona hasn’t been short of an uplifting street parade or two.
The Day of the Kings is celebrated all over Spain on the 6th of January (the Epiphany in the religious calendar). I’d heard about it over the years as the day when Spaniards traditionally exchange gifts, but I’d assumed it was something similar to Christmas Day in the UK, when people shut themselves up at home and eat too much. The streets were indeed strangely hushed that Friday, but what I hadn’t expected was the scale of the operation the night before.
To celebrate the coming of the Magi, who bring gifts for the kids, there’s a huge parade right through the city, with the jolly kings themselves accompanied by what seemed like hundreds of carnival floats. Here’s a photo of a passing giraffe to give you an idea.
The parade goes on for hours, with participants following the Catalan tradition of chucking hard-boiled sweets at the spectators lining the side of the streets (warning: the competition to retrieve them off the ground is vicious). A lot of kids are there, of course, with their letters written out to the three wise men, stressing how good they’ve been and what presents they deserve in return. They seemed genuinely enthralled at the procession, although the last float contained a motley crew of Captain Jack-like characters singing the ‘carbón’ song – threatening any kids who’d been bad throughout the year with a present of coal. A bit harsh, I thought.
You can bring your dog
I wasn’t quite sure how you top stilt-walking camels playing stage to belly dancers and a toddler practising yoga, but this weekend’s Els Tres Tombs parade pretty much managed it. My main reason for wanting to see this spectacle was that I’d heard there would be horses, and loads of them. I miss horses. You don’t often see them in the city, other than the odd desultory pair pulling a tourist cart up the Ramblas.
The other draw, which was one of those things you have to see to believe, was the blessing of the animals. This traditional dousing of the beasties is held in honour of Saint Anthony Abad, who’s usually depicted with a wild boar nuzzling his ankles. I’d heard tell of this a few months back and imagined the guy was having me on. “No, really, people bring their pets to be blessed by the priests!” Somewhat sceptically, I pictured orderly queues of owners patiently waiting their turns. “Those with gills to the left, rodents to the right!”
Of course, this being Spain, what actually ensued was a menagerie of mayhem.
Dogs, some on leads but most squirming in their owners’ arms, cats (not in carriers, obviously) wailing and eyeing everything with a caustic stare, bemused-looking rabbits on the side-lines and even a woman proffering a tortoise all took their places in the maelstrom, jostling for strategic position under the holy water. Meanwhile an Irish setter, let’s call him Wolfgang, had taken exception to the cat on his left and, thwarted out of the attempt to reach it, cocked his leg over a bystander’s calf in revenge. (Leg, that is, not baby cow. Although both were entirely possible.) Seeing me empty-handed, an old woman urged me earnestly to go and get my own pet. “They’re Java sparrows”, I smiled. “Well go get them!” she persisted, “there’s still time!”
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more bizarre, the mounted brass band struck up, prompting not-unjustified howls and hisses from the mammalian onlookers. I found it hard to keep a straight face amidst all of this, and completely gave up the attempt at solemnity when the inevitable rain of hard-boiled sweets started pelting down on our heads. It was at this point that, in a surreal final twist, the pairs of pretty prancing horses were replaced by a solitary sheep. Obviously not wanting to miss out on its 15 minutes of holy water either.
The weirdest thing of all, I thought to myself as I walked home, was the silent clash of cultures that went completely unnoticed at the whole event. Locals had given me the odd glance, no doubt wondering at the presence of a guiri in January in the middle of a tight-knit Catalan neighbourhood, but couldn’t have imagined that I thought anything other than them: I really need to thrust my guinea pig forward here, no matter how stressed it seems, so that it has a long and prosperous life. And I suddenly felt guilty at my duplicity, and unearned onlooker’s privileges.
Still, that sheep fair cheered me up.