Sunday, 17 June 2012
baptism of fire
Pa-tum, Pa-tum, Pa-tum... a man wearing purple velvet with mutton-chop sleeves beats the drum, steadily, and thousands of people crowded above, below and around him let out a cheer. After hours of gathering and waiting in a small square never intended to hold so many, La Patum de Berga is beginning.
Men on horseback charge into the square, or rather, men dressed as though they're on horseback (complete with horse) and the show is on. This popular festival, unique to the Catalan town Berga, dates back to at least 1454, and has clear roots to pre-Christian festivals. We were promised demons, giants, dragons... and we got them.
Clearly the only thing to do when there are this many people around is... start some fires...
The "Guita" makes an appearance.
After they have thoroughly doused everyone with fire (one went into a nearby bar to make sure everyone there got a a taste as well), one of the Guitas moves gracefully through the crowd (at times with children riding on its back) to bring the drummer and the band leader a skinful of wine.
The eagle bows to the crowd. The man in purple on the tiny balcony (squished in with a number of children) is the drummer.
The eagle was my favourite; when it enters, everyone hushes and shushes until silence descends, and then the eagle dances to a haunting tune from the band, and as the tune picks up, everyone begins to dance along too, hands in the air.
And towards midnight there was a lengthy explanation about safety, and being sure to only dance in a counter-clockwise direction... and the square slowly filled with ... bushes (or rather, devils of the forest). With fireworks attached to their heads.
And then all the lights went off.
In 2005, UNESCO declared La Patum to be a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, which may be what has kept it so far from being banned in the name of fire safety. After seeing a documentary filming of the event a few years ago, I became obsessed with seeing it in person. I was worried it wouldn't live up to my ideas... after all, what is darkly majestic and quietly magical on the laptop screen can be exciting but uncomfortable in real life, with smelly people crowded all around and dragons pouring buckets of sparks on your head. But La Patum was even better in real life: three straight hours of standing amid fire and smoke, listening to the band play, watching an eagle dance and feeling like I was watching her through a haze (a smoky haze) of centuries, and understanding the common history that shapes people watching everyone from the village dance with her. I wouldn't have missed it for anything! Next time I'm bringing my fire-proof hat though.
Photos by Albert