A long arm and a long day of Santa Tecla

Trip Start Sep 14, 2011
Trip End Sep 26, 2011

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What I did
I looked at a cake and did some other stuff too.

Flag of Spain  , Catalonia,
Tuesday, September 20, 2011

So what's all this about guilt and redemption, I hear you ask (well I imagine that you might be asking that by now). Nothing much to feel guilty about so far. Well I'm coming to it, but it will take a few days for all to be revealed. However it all starts today.

The programme included lots to see and do today but the mornings are mostly quite relaxed so a chance for a bit of a sleep in and then a leisurely breakfast.

The morning light in Tarragona can be very seductive with the sunlight casting long shadows in the narrow lanes. We stopped in at the Tourist Information office on Carrer Major to find out whether there were any rules about getting a seat at a table for the Concert Vermut and were delighted to discover El Lleo (the grown ups version) had got there before us.

A walk around the old city helped to justify breakfast and we found evidence just in front of the cathedral that the mamadetas had been selling well, with a box full of empty Chartreuse bottles and other strong drinks. We walked for quite a while, reminding ourselves what a handsome city Tarragona is, before meeting up with the others and making our way to the Casa de la Festa.

This was our first look inside the building proper, having attended a Santa Tecla event there in 2010 but not being able to have a look beyond the first room then. This is something that should be on the itinerary of all visitors and it is worth finding out the opening times. The Casa de la Festa houses many of the elements of the Seguici Popular, which means that you can get up close the the Mulassa and friends and get plenty of photos as well as reading a little about their stories/histories. You can decide for yourselves which ones are your favourites but for me at least, it's got to be the mule with his jingling bells and playful nature - but Cucafera is not far behind.

Another popular creature, especially with the children is the fearsome Vibria. This is apparently part dragon, part eagle and part woman and to be honest it's not difficult to tell which bits are which (see pic). At last year's Correfoc Petit we were standing close to a gentleman who was carrying his young son on his shoulder. The boy was probably under four but when he spotted this monster from hell coming along Rambla Nova and spitting sparks and fire he shrieked with delight and shouted "La Vibria! La Vibria! La Vibria!" at the top of his voice. We laughed for ages and each time we see a vibria (there are others), we always shout the same.

From the Casa de la Festa it is a very short walk to Tarragona's main Roman era attraction, the Circ Roma and although we had visited before we thought it would be good to let James have a look inside (Tony and Kay had gone in search of some lunch) and we were pleased to see that entrance was free again for the festival, though we would have been happy to pay the normal ticket price. There's quite a lot to see, so allow at least an hour and more if you're not in a hurry. In 2010 it had rained quite hard when we were there but this was a perfect Mediterranean day with a cloudless blue sky, so it wasn't hard to linger on the roof of the tower, from where splendid views across the city and out to sea can be had.

The sun takes its toll and we were parched when we left the Roman site, but help was near at hand in the shape of one of the shady bars on Placa de Rei where we had a couple of cold drinks whilst musing about what might be served with snails in one if the special dishes 'de la feste' that was on offer soon, as well as discussing the wisdom of another traditional Santa Tecla treat, 'un cafe, copa i un puro per un duro' which seems to be a coffee, a cognac (or Chartreuse) and a cigar for a small amount of money.

Thirsts slaked, at least temporarliy, we remembered that we were hungry so it was another walk down to Serallo to try Donosti again. There were people sitting outside but they told us they were closing and only had sandwiches so we tried another place a few doors down where they were much more welcoming and where the calamari, fried fish and patatas bravas were just as good. No cider, though.

Something unusual was on the programme in Placa de la Font at 19:30. A cake. A really big cake. A cake representing the arm of Santa Tecla, no more and no less than 75 metres long and with enough slices to feed 2,000 people. Well it's not every day ...

So why an arm? That's an easy one. Santa Tecla, who was a follower of Saint Paul (see also Saint Thecla) is the patron saint of Tarragona, with the cathedral being named for her, and it is in that cathedral where the holy relic, the Arm of Santa Tecla, has been housed for hundreds of years. And why a cake? I've no idea - but nearly everybody likes cake.

I don't suppose it is possible to bake a single cake 75 metres long and this was of course lots of smaller segments laid end to end. We decided against queueing for a piece because the construction was taking ages and the line was enormous so we popped into the hotel to sort out our vodka and limons for the night (if you're planning to visit a Spanish festival and haven't been before, then put some thought into what you might do for a drink, especially if you're fond of a drop of the hard stuff. There is often so much happening that you won't want to spend much time in bars and restaurants. We have a couple of durable flasks from outdoor shops that hold a reasonable pre-mixed cocktail and even keep it cool for a while). Suitable lubricated, we made our way down to Rambla Nova where the Correfoc Petit was starting.

Correfoc Petit. Wouldn't you have loved to do something like this as a small child? Run through the crowded streets brandishing a pitchfork topped with a blazing firework and dressed as a demon. Can't you here killjoys all over the world muttering 'health and safety'? Smoke, fire, drums, monsters. What better way to spend the evening. I'd have liked to have been a drummer but I would really have liked to be a fiery demon. Great fun and an opportunity for the youngsters to experience some of the excitement and adrenaline of the adult version. Don't be fooled though - it is all very controlled and the safety of the participants is paramount. It's just that it's done with the minimum of fuss and the responsible adults only intervene when necessary. Every town should do this, all over the world.

Correfoc Petit reaches its climax at the end of Rambla Nova, around the statue and overlooking the sea, where each participating group sets of a final round of fireworks en masse to cheers and applause from the hundreds of spectators. "What next?" JD and CC were asked as we weaved our way through the departing crowds but we had something planned that we weren't going to tell them about so we went all mysterious with "Wait and see"s.

We managed to get everybody past the "Jove's" practice hall on the way to Placa del Rei without them noticing that there was something going on and through the square itself without distraction and within minute we were at the open door of the home of the Xiquets - Tarragona's senior castellers group. Tonight was practice night.

Castellers are brilliant. Just that. A truly remarkable thing to see. They are extremely popular in Catalunya where thousands turn out to see them build human towers 6, 7, 8, 9 or even 10 levels high. The police often have to close roads leading to the squares were most castells are built to avoid public safety risks, so if there is some going on when you're in the area, get there early.

The actual events are tense affairs because everyone is aware of the dangers but their motto is Força, equilibri, valor i seny" (Strength, balance, courage and reason) and all of that is much in evidence. Practice sessions on the other hand are much more relaxed. In our limited experience, members of the public are allowed in because they might come in useful at some point so again, if you're in the area and come across a session it won't hurt to ask if you can come in and watch.

At first there were a lot of small towers, giving the youngsters who are essential to the completion of the bigger castells the chance to practice their skills and balance. There was a lot of chatter and coming and going but by keeping an eye on proceedings we started to get a feel for the management. Each tower has a specialised diagram and the people in charge of getting them built have a very clear idea of who does what and who goes were. Speed is important because of the huge stresses on the people on the lower levels but too much speed and stability might be sacrificed, so it is a challenge to get it all right. Although CC and JD had seen many castells over the years, this was perhaps the first time we'd gained much insight into the way it is done.

Gradually, more of the bigger Xiquets started to arrive, needing assistance to get their long cummerbunds tightly wrapped around their waists. These are essential both for adding a bit of physical support and also as a convenient place for castellers bound for higher things to use as a foothold. A couple of towers with the bigger and taller castellers were built and a bit of a buzz began to build. Tony and Kay had popped outside for a breath of air, which was when one of the guys in charge came over and asked CC and James if we'd like to help. Of course we would! He took us over to one side of the pinya, the base level of the castell that was just forming and showed us where to stand, where to hold on to the person in front and how to push (oddly, with you chest which is quite an odd feeling).

Funnily enough, because you are encouraged to keep your head down and in line with the direction of pressure, you don't see all that much in the pinya, but you certainly feel it. Several big blokes stepped across us without prior notice, using our shoulders and even heads as stepping stones. As more people climbed over us, the room fell quite quiet with only the instructions of the managers being heard until there was a definite release of tension and the people from the upper levels started to descend.

By the time the tower had reduced to levels where safety was less of an issue it became clear that the Xiquets were very pleased with themselves. One of the big guys came over to James and CC to thank them (actually we wanted to thank the Xiquets for giving us the opportunity to do something special and memorable). He asked us how long we were in Tarragona for and seemed a little disappointed when we told him that it was just for one more night. It was only later that we realised he was finding out whether we would be able to help a little bit in the Xiquets next performance. We'd have loved that! Hopefully next time.

Whilst we'd been on the edge of the pinya, playing our minor role, JD, Kay and Tony had been invited to the upper levels where windows look into the building. The photos weren't the best quality because the use of a flash would have seemed really bad manners - if you're climbing up the side of another human being, 10 metres above the ground you probably don't want a flash going off in your face. JD noted that the castell looked very different from above - much more like a living and moving creature compared to the view that you get from ground level. She also translated the short speech that the man who had been in overall charge of the construction gave at the end, which basically said that it had been a really good session and that he was confident that they were ready for the difficult and ambitious tower that they were planning for their next appearance.

There are plenty of souvenirs available from the lovely ladies on the front desk and we were only too pleased to part with a bit of cash and buy some splendid Xiquets t-shirts in black and yellow.

After the excitement and triumph of castellers, our next move was in the direction of the cathedral, were it was almost time for the Retaule de Santa Tecla. This is another annual event and worth a look for the location and the ambience. It is a retelling of the story of the saint through the medium of dance, with a live orchestra. It attracts quite a crowd in a limited space so if you want a seat, early arrival is recommended. The performace lasts for about 30 minutes and is notable as much for its setting and the lighting as for the symbolism of the story which involves lust, cruelty, botched murder attempts and wolves. Arms feature heavily towards the end, as you might hope.

We were a little surprised that this year's performance was a repeat of 2010's albeit with different personnel, but on reflection we had no reason to expect anything different. The orchestra are very good and the lietmotifs quite appealing. A pleasant way to wind down after the thrill of castellers.

Suitably spiritually refreshed we then went in search of something less sophisticated to round the eveing off with. There was a concert billed for Placa de la Font and we still had some vodka to finish off (it goes off, you know - it does) so we took off down the steps and own the hill, much easier than climbing up, to the vicinity of our hotel. The music had already started by the time we arrived and there was already a lively atmosphere.

There were two bands on the programme, La Troba de Kung-Fu [http://www.latrobakungfu.net/ ] and Bongo Botrako [  http://www.bongobotrako.com/ ] La Troba Kung-Fu were blasting out some rumba-based stuff, albeit with a definite 21st century flavour and generally getting the crowd warmed up (it wasn't cold) and some time after midnight Bongo Botrako came on stage to entertain us with some Catalan reggae and ska.
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