For more photos of this night click here
The fiesta of Sant Antoni is my favourite El Maestrat tradition. Not that I have been to them all due to “not being here” or simply that some seem my idea of “not a very good time”. Take a look at the tomato throwing one in La Tomatina! Surely there are better things to do with tomatoes than smear them all over strangers’ bodies?
So far I have experienced Sant Antoni in my home town Atzeneta, nearby Albocasser, and last month Vilanova d’Alcolea. There are, I am told, quite a few to go still and each has its own charm, but I have to come clean. I can’t imagine any more authentic and exciting than Vilanova.
Having heard it was a wild affair, I could find no one to brave it with me other than my good friend, the eternally youthful Carol. Truthfully, I was a bit apprehensive having been assured a hotel was not needed for no one slept before 6am! If not a bed, then at least lots of wine and no endless bar queues, I hoped. And a straw bale or two. And good company. On that front we were not disappointed for within minutes of entering the village, just as I was telling Carol that many Vilanova houses were astounding inside, we were sucked into the heart of the most spectacular one as if the entire family had been waiting for us.
This jewel belongs to Vicenta and her husband Angel, and yes, I have written about it before. As Carol wandered entranced through their stunning Moor-like “Casa Señorial” with its two streets front and back (dos calles) and an ancient interior courtyard, I tucked into a cod bocadilla and a pint of local white wine. “I so want to live here”, Carol exclaimed, looking at me pointedly. Exactly what I thought the first time I saw it. I handed her a beer glass. We plotted together how we could open a bijou hotel.
I could say it started with a bang here, but the real bang was down the street to the left and in a giant football pitch. My eye was first drawn to the huge bonfire in the middle of the far end elevated on a stage, then to the right side where a number of interesting metal siphons had been installed. They looked like they were about to spurt beer all over the crowd, but in fact issued a brilliantly executed firework display accompanied by booming cinematic music. Art accompanied by art someone said later, and they were right. Carol and I stood speechless, entranced, like children. What an amazing sound system!
After this everyone poured back up to the left, to the right, here, there and nether. It transpired it was time for dinner. A three hour dinner to be precise, so no use hanging around. We returned to Angel and Vicenta’s and ate far too much scrummy fattening local homemade fayre downed with more wines. The time passed quickly – it does when you are made to feel at home. Friends and family poured in and out, and upstairs as well. At least 4 generations, all harmonious, and all enthusiastic. No bored teenagers here. Vicenta’s family worked hard – there must have been at least 80 in the house. She told us that every year a different street took turns in laying on the spreads and this was her year. Talk about luck!
Come 10pm, Carol and I rolled down to the Church for the commencement of what this fiesta is really all about. Magnificent costumed horses, saddled and ridden by young people, cantering through hot fiery streets. In Vilanova it started with a religious mass for the horses to give thanks for all their work and wish them health in the coming year. I’m sure they appreciated it. Into that the reverend added a prayer for rain. I think he tinkled a bell on a pole, definitely incanted some words I did not understand, then sprinkled holy water over the lead horse, its rider holding a very important flag above him – which he continued to do all night.
There were so many people there, intermixed with the horses turning in all different directions that quite frankly it was a little bit scary at times for us. The crowd was indifferent, roaring approval when prompted. Then, suddenly the mass was over. We parted down the middle like the Red Sea so that the horses could pass through into the dark.
Not having any idea what to expect, we followed the crowds and horses down Vilanova’s smouldering streets. After a while I realized it was wiser to anticipate where the horses would emerge in order to get a a better photo and avoid being pinned between man and horse. I abandoned Carol. Going against the flow, I followed the plumes of grey smoke from early fires rising into the dark night. Thus, I managed for the most part to stick to the front, along with the proper press from Castellon.
These beautiful horses with their young riders cantering along the dramatic paths fires were haunting. Each one had a guide front and back, and I regret to say, a stick. All the while, youth leapt across the flames as if a rite of passage. Girls too. The backlit figures, stark contrast to the swelteringly hot and bright flames, were somewhat devilish. At times some of the horses became nervous and turned unexpectantly around. No surprise then that the Red Cross were in attendance, helmets on their heads (the only ones!) – I had seen their tent earlier pitched next to the church as if looking for divine intervention.
As it was I saw no accidents, but a little bit of wind could have easily changed everything. The irony of this celebration while Australia was burning down under did not escape me. Neither did the heat. More than once I had to take refuge in the stone of a deep doorway to shield my burning face and eyes.
Somehow this evoked the end of the world, an inferno, a global warming. At the same time it was so exhilarating that I forgot to be frightened. Off I went, brushing the sparks out of my hair, and hoped that I would be able to capture something. The extreme contrasts were challenging, not least of all because I used no flash in order not to add to the horses’ confusion.
When the village bonfires finished, I have to admit the horses seemed very calm. I admired their meaty shanks, twitching slightly, as they stood nonchalantly around the main square. Parents placed eager children on the saddles for mobile photo sessions. Now instead of a sea of fire, there were waves of screens in the night like candles to the lord of digital media. Gradually the crowd thinned down as people trudged away for more food and drink. The poor horses had yet more performing to do. Their saddles were removed and there were bareback competitions for God knows what with loud announcements re prizes.
Carol and I could see nothing as the ginormous announcement podium had been placed square across our house’s entrance. Neither could we leave so instead settled in to partake further while the thunderous announcements echoed outside. In the inner courtyard a small stone pool hosted wine bottles floating amidst a few beer cans like beleaguered dolphins. I watched them bobbing up and down in the ancient basin and could not help thinking of my boys’ christenings so many years ago.
Eventually the podium was displaced and we bid farewell. Watch out for the police, Angel warned! They are breathalysing all around the entrances of the village! Jikes! How much had I imbibed? Two, Carol declared firmly. Really? I was not so sure so stayed for a litre of water and a pound or so of spinach tart. Then we drove off via an old track towards the open fields behind Vilanova, passing a sprinkling of stumbling young revellers destined for very big hangovers. I pointed the car towards the sea, then back towards Castellon airport, and coasted, very slowly, home.
Not a police man in sight.
It was 4am. At 5am, as if in answer to the reverend’s prayers, the heavens opened up and a heavy, yet gentle, rain soaked the too long dry land. It continued for 3 days, my trees were happy as was all of El Maestrat. They said it would come again soon, and not just in England. I said ojala, ojala and waited in vain…
P.S. I WANT to be here all the time!
For more photos of this night click here