Category Archives: Customs & Traditions

San Fermin Bull Runs And More

Every July 6th, the central balcony on Pamplona’s Town Hall sees the Chupinazo, the rocket launched to mark the beginning of the San Fermin fiestas which started today.

In all, four rockets are traditionally launched during the annual encierros (bull running).

The first one is launched when the clock on the church of San Cernin strikes 08h00. Then the gates of the corral are opened and the barriers formed by Pamplona’s Municipal Police retaining the runners are withdrawn. The second rocket announces that the entire herd has left the corral, the third that the bulls and the oxen are in the Bullring and the fourth rocket indicates that the entire herd has entered the corral at the Plaza de Toros.

I have done a blog entry on the San Fermin activities in Pamplona in July 2007, and you might wish to check there on taurino matters.

 (photo: EFE)

Today, I am rather inclined to let you know that Pamplona has more to offer than just bullish things and events. Much more.

Surrounded by mountains, the plain of the basin of Pamplona has always favoured human settlement. Stone tools have been found on the terraces of the River Arga dating from some 75,000 years ago. In the first millennium B. C., there already existed a Vascon settlement beneath the modern-day city. This settlement gave rise to the name Iruña, Basque for ‘the city’. The Roman General, Gnaeus Pompey Magnus, arrived in 75 B. C. and founded a Roman-model city. He gave it its name, Pompaelo, and enhanced its function as a strategic link between the peninsula and Europe.

Quite a few years later, Pompaelo, now Pamplona, became a major venue for anyone walking the Camino de Santiago along the so-called Camino Francés.

The Gothic bridge of La Magdalena is the main entrance to the city for pilgrims. Built in the 12th Century, it has three slightly pointed arches as supports. There is a cross with an image of San Jacobeo at one end. After crossing the River Arga, pilgrims find themselves beneath Pamplona’s city walls.

Caminantes cross the Gateway of France, and climb Calle del Carmen, known as Rúa de los Peregrinos in the 14th and 15th centuries, to the ancient City of Navarrería. This is the oldest gateway in the city. It bears a coat of arms carved with the two-headed eagle and the imperial arms.

The Pilgrims’ road passes through the square in front of the Ayuntamiento de Pamplona (Town Hall), one of the most important stages of the San Fermin fiestas. 

A brotherhood used to attend and give shelter to pilgrims at the church of Santo Domingo. The church is large, open-plan and austere, typical of religious architecture. Inside, Saint James is present in the niche on the façade, dressed as a pilgrim, complete with stick, hat and scallop shell. The façade repeats the scallop-shell motif, icon of the Pilgrimage, on its niches and door.

The church of San Lorenzo saw the light of day in the 13th Century, but only the tower remains of the original medieval building. This church houses the famous Chapel of San Fermin with its bust-reliquary of Pamplona’s patron saint and first Bishop of the city. Next to the church is the Plaza de Recoletas with its Neoclassical fountains and the Convento de los Carmelitos, founded in 1634.

The good news, overall, is that you do not have to be a taurean aficionado, nor an Ernest Hemingway lover, nor even a pilgrim or anything, really, to get a lot of pleasure out of a visit to Pamplona, the capital city of Navarra province.

Navarra is the largest of the four Basque provinces that we have in Spain. A lot of good things come from the Basque culture and the Basque people, whatever you might think and hear, or read in the papers – good food, good music, good fun and lots of good life, all round. And of course, you know that on the French side of the Pyrenees, there are three more Basque provinces, with lots more good things, aussi.

But that is perhaps a story for another day.

All Saints

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Spain is a country where religion has played, and still plays, a considerable part in daily life. More so than in Northern European countries, or in Canada and the USA. Much more so. And religion in Spain, ever since the days of the Inquisition, has been exclusively Roman Catholic. That is 500 years by now, roughly speaking.

 

One significant difference to life, the way we know it, is the patron Saint.

Each child at birth is given a name, which most often has been passed down within the family. Traditionally, the oldest son is given the name of the paternal grandfather, and the oldest daughter the name of the maternal grandmother. The second son is given the name of the maternal grandfather, and the second daughter the name of the paternal grandmother. And so on.

 

As a consequence, you have an abundance of Miguels, Jaimes, Pedros, Antonios, Tomeus and Juans. And many Marías, Catalinas, Joannas, Antonias, Barbaras, Claras and Magdalenas.

All these names, of course, are borrowed from Saints. Each day of the year has been assigned to one particular patron Saint, and the child who is given the name of this Saint, will celebrate the day of their Santo with as much fervour and joy, if not more, as they will their day of birth. You get more presents as a Spanish child on your Saint’s day.

 

Today, by the way, is the day of Sant Calixt. Yesterday was San Teófilo. Tomorrow will be Santa Teresa de Jesús’s day. Enhorabuena.

If you look around, you will probably find it very hard to find a Tamara in Spain, or a Timothy. It is not unheard of, but it is extremely seldom. It is much more common to meet a Vicente, or a Gregorio. Or a Teresa, or an Apolónia.

Of course, churches are most often named after a Saint as well, here. That’s why we have the Basílica de San Francisco, here. The Oratorio de Sant Blai. And the Parroquia de San Nicolas.

It seems that more churches are named after Santos than Santas, but that may be for a future blog entry to look into.

 

Anyway, your very own Saint plays a very big role all of your life, if you live in Spain, or in a Catholic country. You celebrate your Saint’s day at every opportunity that might present itself. But you also live in a parish that has its own Saint. And you live in a village that also has its own Saint.

Santanyí for instance, has San Jaime as its patron Saint. Felanitx, where I live, has San Augustín. And Palma has San Sebastian. Another day off, every time. Sounds confusing to most of us, but it is an important backbone to people in Spain, and to your very own next door neighbour, provided he is not Swedish, German or Dutch. Or Moroccan, as it may be.

Unlucky is the person in Spain, who is first born in a village who’s local Saint is San Pedro, whose paternal grandfather was called Pedro and who goes to his parish church that is also named after St. Peter. He will only have one Saint day’s worth of celebrating a year.

 

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate our Muslim neighbours on completing their fast of Ramadan, and celebrating the Eid al-Fitr festivity to mark its joyous end.

 

How to Win the Lottery From a Blind Man

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Spain, as a country, is pretty poor.

Yes, there are countries much poorer, but if you compare Spain to other modern European countries like Britain, France, Holland, Italy or Germany, Spain is definitely in a different league. The average national income here, last year, seems to have been under 14,000 € (make that £ 9,000, or $ 18,000). Not a lot, really, unless you live in Burma, or Myanmar, now Burma again, or else in Cuba.

Relative poverty is one of the reasons why lotteries are so popular in Spain. One of the most popular lotteries in Spain is the ONCE lottery. ONCE was not set up to be a lottery company. ONCE is the Spanish organization for the blind people. This organization was founded almost 70 years ago in 1938, in the midst of the mean struggles of the Spanish Civil War.

There seem to be a lot of blind people around in Spain, as well as other ill or handicapped folks. Perhaps one finds a similar percentage of disabled people in other countries as well, but it seems, that one see mores of them on the streets here in Spain. Maybe they are in hiding, elsewhere. Or, joking apart, there are perhaps better medical facilities available elsewhere that Spain can not financially afford to offer.

ONCE has managed somehow to become a rather large and influential institution over the years. Apart from setting up a national lottery scheme, they have also wisely invested their money in some key industries such as the media, radio stations, TV, and magazine press. In all, they rank amongst the top fifty enterprises in Spain, in volume of turnover. You might compare them to Oxfam perhaps, except that ONCE seems to be more economically minded in how they manage their money and make it grow successfully.

The way the lottery works nowadays, is this: any day, from Monday to Thursday, you can buy a décimo from one of the green kioscos that can be found in Spanish towns and villages, anywhere. Or from one of the many impaired street vendors like the one shown in the photo above. One cupón will cost you 1,50 €, and with that small outlay you stand an – albeit small – chance to win 30,000 €. A good enough reason for plenty of Spaniards to buy their coupon regularly. On Fridays, the cupón sells for 2,50 €, and prize money increases to 600,000 € per décimo. Again, a very tempting amount for a lot of people to chase that special dream. Including yours truly. I bought a tenth of a Friday ticket, yesterday. My number did not come up, sadly…

 

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On Saturdays, there did not used to be an ONCE lottery draw. Very recently though, they have introduced a scheme called Combo, that I have not quite managed to work out, yet. On Sundays, the ONCE lottery ticket sells for 2 €. First prize on Sundays is the sum of 100,000 €, paid annually every year for 25 years. Tax-free. Wow.

Apart from the ONCE lottery coupons, there are other Spanish lottery schemes galore. The most famous of them all is probably the Lotería Nacional, playing twice every week, and every so often, putting on a special draw. You may have heard of El Gordo which is Lotería Nacional’s Christmas lottery, on sale from now. Coupons cost 20 €, and the main winnings are quite phenomenal, as a total of 2,201,500,000 € will be paid out in prize money. Spain goes crazy on the morning of December 22nd every year, when the winners are announced on television, the numbers being sung by children from an orphanage.

 

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There is a special Lotería Nacional draw today, October 6th, with a ticket price of 12 €. The big win per ticket today will be 5,000,000 €.

Perhaps you might have a go yourself, when you next come to Spain.

 

Wine Festivals, Grape Treading and Merriment

The heavy rain that fell in Mallorca, Spain, last weekend could not stop the merriment of the Binissalem populace when the annual Verbena de la Vermada, the Grape Harvest Festival, was about to be celebrated. Binissalem, you should know, is the Mallorcan wine producing capital.

As the name suggests, the village of Binissalem has its origins in the period of the Moorish settlement in the Balearic Isles some 1,000 years ago. And yes, believe it or not, the Arabs were known then for the production of some fine wines. I cannot vouch that they actually drank the stuff because I was not around at the time, but they are reported to have been very knowledgeable in the fermentation of grapes in many ways.

Part of the festivities last weekend was the Battle of the Uvas. 4,000 kg of grapes were supposedly used to fight, battle, attack and compete in the friendly skirmish that got everybody soaked, stained and muddied. The rain helped along in the general saturation.

The following day, it was time for a bit of grape treading.

Grape treading is an ancient method already used by the Romans and the Greeks in their respective ancient empires and has since been practiced by the French, the Italians, the Portuguese and the Spanish, here in Mallorca and elsewhere on the Iberian peninsula. The Book of Hours illustration shown below hails from Paris, France. This exquisitely illustrated work was written and decorated by hand on vellum in Paris in about 1490. Among its brilliantly coloured miniatures is one for September, which shows a person treading grapes.

The human foot is considered to be far more gentle than any form of mechanical grape pressing. Although there are now automated alternatives, grapes for the highest quality wines are still routinely pressed by the foot, which still results in the best juice and colour extraction.

The grape treading competition was introduced into the Binissalem festival nine years ago, and is now one of the most popular events in the Vermada programme. This year, 30 teams took part, 10 of them of children, made up of girls and boys of between 12 and 16, taking part for the first time. The teams consisted of four people, two of whom tread the grapes first, then the other two, grasping each other by the shoulders as they do so. In the children’s category the winning team extracted 8 litres of juice in the five minutes allowed. Their prize was 120 Euros. The winners in the adult category managed to extract 10.5 litres in the time allowed. During the competition 1,280 kg of grapes were trod.

To avoid misunderstandings: in general, wine in Mallorca does not get produced nowadays by treading. It is a tradition that is celebrated at festival times, once a year. There are not enough little feet around in Binissalem to tread all the grapes for all the wine that is produced in Mallorca, every year.

September is the month when the Mallorcan wine is harvested. The grape harvest is traditionally related to the cycles of the moon, hence, the wine festival moves along in the calendar. Another highlight of the Binissalem festivities, apart from the Battle of the Uvas and the grape treading, was an open air dinner where locals as well as visitors sat down at the longest arrangement of dining tables that I have ever seen. Thousands of portions of seafood paella were served, together with the red wine that was trod here last year. There were also other events, such as dance exhibitions and sport contests, as well as a concert held in the parish church, to be followed ultimately by fireworks displays.

Whilst I like the wine festival of Binissalem, my personal tastes in Mallorcan wine go for some other areas of the island, such as the Pla i Levant region.

In case you are interested, my favourite vino tintos of the Mallorcan denomination are wines from Son Sureda Ric, Ànima Negra, Toni Gelabert, Miquel Gelabert, Miquel Oliver, Jaume Mesquida, and Armero i Adrover, probably in this order of descent. Of course that varies to some extent, as not every year can possibly result in exactly the same vintage quality or taste.

 

There are other grape harvest festivals throughout Spain, at this time of the year. Of course there are other great Spanish wines as well, outside of Mallorca, but that would be too long a story for now. Perhaps in a future blog entry I shall tell you all about wines from the Rioja, the Ribera del Duero and the Toro, my secret favourite. Unless you prefer to follow Robert Parker’s musings.

Salut.

 

The Annual Sopelana Beach Race Near Bilbao

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Every year in September, the Spanish go crazy, at least since 1999. No bulls this time, nor tomatoes. Nudity, yes, nude bodies, and a race along the beach. Okay, not all Spanish, but some.

Last Saturday marked the 9th annual “Sopelana Nudist Race/Patxi Ros Trophy”, a 5,000 m run on Barinatxe Beach (also called La Salvaje), located between the villages of Sopelana and Getxo (Vizcaya), near Bilbao in northern Spain. 136 men, women and children took part in this year’s race. 

The idea for a nudists’ race was started in 1999 by a certain Patxi Ros, who wanted to combine his two favourite pastimes into one public event. The Basque Country Naturist Club (ENE) took over the race in 2003 and renamed it the “Patxi Ros Trophy”. According to the group’s website, the purpose of the race is “to promote the Naturist way of life and to develop a healthy life style along with Naturism and sports”.

The group also added that the race helps to teach that “the concept of nudity is more than and goes beyond sunbathing, swimming and beach.” The race involved running down the beach and back, which also allowed the participants to admire fellow racers on the home stretch.

According to the group’s website, Rule No. 1 is: “Participants by all means are to run in full nudity, and are only allowed to wear a cap or hat on the head, sun glasses, socks and footwear. Any participant not conforming to this rule will immediately be disqualified and asked to leave the race by the organisation members”.

And the winner was … last year’s champion, Fernando Suances, with a time of 18 mins. 21 seconds. That’s not a bad time considering the track surface.

At least, you don’t have to worry about what to wear next year, should you want to come to Sopelana in September 2008.

 

Fiesta Time in Ecuador

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People in the Republic of Ecuador celebrate the Fiesta de la Virgen del Cisne today in the city of Loja in the mountains of southern Ecuador. Sadly, I cannot make it there but, if she got there in time, our daughter Kilina will.

The city of Loja is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador and was established in its current location in 1548. It was the first city in Ecuador that made use of electricity in 1897; quite an achievement considering the time. 

Loja has an estimated population of 150,000 people and is particularly proud of its music conservatory. It is said that the best, most talented musicians in Ecuador originate from Loja. Some people call Loja the cultural and musical capital of this Andean nation.

The best known attraction to visit Loja for, however, is the festival of the Virgen del Cisne. What’s that all about?

North west of the city of Loja you’ll find the place of El Cisne, a small town in Ecuador’s Southern Andes, the site of the venerated shrine of the Virgen María

Every August there is a three day pilgrimage of faithful Ecuadorians carrying the statue of La Virgen del Cisne from El Cisne to Loja with fiestas in every town along the way. The statue of the Virgin Mary is carried 74 kms to the cathedral of Loja where it is the focus of one of the oldest festivals in Latin America on September 8th, i. e. today. 

 

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The venerated statue remains in the cathedral of Loja until November 3rd and is then returned to El Cisne for the remainder of the year. 

We expect our daughter to be back long before that.

 

Tomatoes Anybody?

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Most people think of tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) as a food item and even a culinary symbol. But wait a moment. This blog comes to you from Spain.

The tomato probably originated in the highlands of the west coast of South America. After the Spanish colonization of the Americas, the Spanish distributed the tomato throughout their colonies in the Caribbean. They also took it to the Philippines, from whence it moved through south east Asia and then the entire Asian continent. The Spanish also brought the tomato to Europe. It grew easily in the Mediterranean climate, and cultivation began in the 1540s. It was probably eaten shortly after it was introduced, though it was certainly being widely used as food by the early 1600s in Spain. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692, though the author had apparently obtained these recipes from Spanish sources.

If ever you have travelled extensively in Spain or if you even live here, you might have become accustomed to the fact that Spain is different. How the tomato is typical of such differences you will discover as soon as you hear about the Tomatina.

La Tomatina is held in Buñol, a small town about 50 kms west of Valencia. It takes place on the last Wednesday in August every year. It has been held there ever since the end of the Spanish civil war, possibly as a celebration of life at the end of all the misery and pain endured in Spain before 1940. Yesterday, it was Tomatina time, once again.

I have to admit that I did not make it to Buñol yesterday and I do not have first hand experience of the Tomato Battle, but I cannot hide an eagerness to see it for myself, one day.

Buñol is a small Spanish town of perhaps 9,000 inhabitants, but every year, at Tomatina time, some 40-50,000 people congregate to celebrate the ultimate tomato festival that man, or woman, has ever invented.

Imagine the combined effect of San Miguel, sangria, sweltering heat, a profuse dousing with water from the public water hoses (lots of wet t-shirts there) etc. and you get a party atmosphere that easily rivals the running with the bulls party in Pamplona, also in Spain, but without any of the risks of physical harm that a fast moving object of 750 kgs or more could inflict on you.

Add to this some 120 tons of ripe tomatoes, streets crammed shoulder to shoulder with people and the senseless spirit of a party made up of Buñolians, Valencianos, Spanish, Germans, Brits, Americans, Australians, a Kiwi or two, plus a surprisingly large number of Japanese and Asian visitors, and you have probably the most insane thing you are ever likely to witness.

The blood-like red colour of the tomatoes suggests violence and injuries, but everything is totally good natured with almost no incident in this peaceful annual tomato throwing fight of tens of thousands of people. 

You will need a good and proper wash at the end of the fiesta, though. The combination of tomatoes, sweat and alcohol amounts to a very smelly and sticky matter, exciting as it may be.