A shot rings out, waking me from a deep sleep.
Beside me, someone stirs, sits up and moans, rubbing hands over face.
‘Christ! What was that?’
‘Noooooo…’ Lies down, pulls sheet over head.
The sound of church bells crashes through the open shutters and frightens off the sparrows chattering on the pergola outside. Another couple of fireworks, about fifteen seconds apart. Even though I expect them, their loudness makes me jump. I strain my ears for the sound of the band. Nothing. No, wait, I can hear the pulse of a distant drum, then a trumpet. The faint strains of a pasa doble reach me on the still, warm air. They’re on their way.
Day one – Friday, 8:30 am. The annual Fiesta de San Pantaléon, patron saint of our village, begins in Bérchules.
For the next few hours, the band makes its way up and down the steep, winding alleys of the village, pausing from time to time to strike up a loud, jaunty tune aimed at rousing sleepy villagers from their beds. Quiet contemplation in the bathroom is shattered as they stop just outside our window, wait for the deafening crack of the latest firework, and launch into yet another traditional piece. Every hour, the church bells peal into the morning air, signaling the festivities to come. No one sleeps in Bérchules on Fiesta Day!
At eleven, a long peal of slightly discordant bells fills the air in honour of San Pantaléon, followed at noon by a service, the Solemne Eucharistía. At the bar opposite the church, table and chairs fill with those of lesser faith waiting for the service to finish, when they are joined by their (mainly) wives and mothers and a buzz of conversation and laughter fills the air. We sit there with everyone else, waiting for the concert by the Banda de Música, not quite so discordant as the bells. As we listen, the door to the priest’s house opened to disgorge a number of handsome young men of the cloth – so handsome, I felt an inexplicable urge to go to a church service at some time in the relatively near future. Sipping beer, we eyed the clouds boiling up over the crest of the mountains behind the village, hoping they would not result in rain, thus spoiling the main event – the procession of San Pantaléon, due to begin at nine that evening.
After an afternoon and evening of doing nothing but lying around trying to snooze, (the siesta is an essential part of Spanish life in midsummer) we shower and dress for the procession with no thought of going in tatty, comfortable casuals – this is an Occasion, with everyone in their Very Best Outfits. Men, more used to wearing overalls and greasy straw hats on the campo as they toil in the fields appear their best suits, no matter how old or shiny. Women with carefully coiffed hair, full make-up, super smart dresses and the highest possible heels, in spite of the rough concrete roads and steep alleys that could easily cause injury, appear as if from nowhere to attend the church service that marks the beginning of the procession. Young men and women in immaculate casual clothes and young children beautifully turned out for the occasion mill among the non-churchgoers, waiting for it all to begin.
As first the church bells strike nine o’clock then begin a full peal that will last for at least fifteen minutes, the Banda de Música strike up and the first, deafening volley of rockets launches into the sky. A vibration of sound shudders though the pit of my stomach as thunder reverberates round the mountains surrounding our valley, followed by a rain of hundreds of spent rocket sticks and charred cardboard casings. The smell of gunpowder lingers in a bluish haze, while a team of a dozen village men slowly carry the statue of San Pantaléon from the church to begin his tortuous journey through the main village streets.
By now, the sun has dipped behind the mountains and the electric candelabra flanking the statue on its heavy base are glowing brighter. The fiesta lights arcing over the streets flicker into life and the procession begins. The packed crowds in the Plaza de la Iglesia somehow arrange themselves behind the statue: the priests, nuns, local dignitaries and representatives of the police and the Banda de Música, then the whole lot moves off at a snail’s pace through the narrow streets. The faithful follow the statue on its journey, while others (including us) sit outside bars drinking beer and sampling tapas, while awaiting its return. Several more volleys of loud fireworks signal various stopping points on the route, but the best is saved until last.
After a short firework display for children in one of the squares on the way back to the church, the statue, carried by a different set of strong village men, wends its way home. Once back at the church, a barrage of loud fireworks, far more than before, thunders across the valley followed by a wonderfully colourful firework display that fills the sky above the village with magic. A final volley of loud rockets, and San Pantaléon is returned to his place in the church until next year.
The crowd disperses – some to the open air music that will play in the square beside the town hall throughout the night, others to the stalls of trinkets, toys and foodstuffs, some to eat at the various food outlets and the rest to various bars, or home. After a few extra beers and a quick look around the stalls, that’s where we head, knowing the all-night music will penetrate through shutters and curtains until it finally stops, followed by a final burst of fireworks, at 7 am. After that, we sigh with relief, turn over in bed and slide into a deep sleep. One day done, two to go!
Half an hour later, the fireworks start again, the Banda de Música bursts into sound and once again, the peace of our village is shattered. Day two begins.My favourite event by far of our Fiesta is the horse-riding competition. This takes place on the evening of Day Two in the main village car park, half of which is cordoned off so that the contest can take place. The concreted car park, ending in a steep uphill slope, becomes the focus of activity long before the event actually begin. Tables at the bar begin to fill, children line up to take a turn on the bouncy castle and the best vantage points – on top of the recycling containers – are secured by eager teenage boys, hoping one day to emulate the prowess of the riders who begin to gather, with their horses, nearby.
Nothing much happens for an hour or so. The crowd becomes dense and loudspeakers implore the owners of the two cars parked inappropriately, right in the competition arena, to remove their vehicles – or else! No one appears and the crowd thickens further. Like the rest, we sit, chat and drink beer. The Banda de Música tune up and try a few tunes to warm up the audience. A sense of anticipation sweeps the crowd as riders and horses begin to mill around, preparing themselves for the contest. A wire, along which ribbons, wound onto small rollers and ending in an eyelet about an inch wide and half an inch deep, is hoisted into the air between a convenient lamp post and a metal loop set into the wall opposite. One of the riders trots up to the wire, stands in his saddle and reaches towards the wire, high above his head. It is lowered to a couple of inches above his outstretched fingertips. He nods and returns to the starting area. Cheers, jeers, whistles and clapping fill the air as one person arrives to drive his inconveniently-parked car out of the arena then again, louder, as a team of strong men bounce the other car safely to one side. Several people lean against it. Cigarettes are lit and cans or bottles appear as if by magic. Children waving helium-filled prancing horses with only two legs stop running across the arena and the noise level drops considerably as the first rider gathers his horse for a run.
With much pounding of hooves and flapping of reins, horse and rider race, at full gallop, across the concrete and towards the wire holding the ribbons. On meeting the slope, the rider rises in his stirrups and, holding a four inch bodkin with a two inch metal spike in one hand and the reins in the other, he makes a stab towards one of the ribbons on the wire. A miss! Hard on his heels comes rider number two, who also misses. Number three, on a beautiful pale-coloured horse thunders up the slope, stands in his stirrups at the exact right moment and spears the eyelet of a ribbon with his bodkin. A stream of bright purple silk unfurls behind him as he reaches the top of the slope and raises his bodkin in triumph. The band bursts into action, the crowd cheers and whistles and the rider ties his trophy onto his horse’s bridle. The contest is under way.
After another music-filled, sleepless night and a day-long siesta, we prepare for the Finale – a Flamenco concert. Now, I like flamenco but my husband does not and it was with huge reluctance that he lined up with me outside the venue. The doors open at 8:30 and those in the short queue are soon inside the cavernous basement of the town hall. A few rows of plastic chairs fill the centre of the space in front of a tatty red curtain that hangs, hooks missing and not quite closing in the middle. Behind it, preparations are going on for the performance. We sit in the back row. Behind us, more people are crowding into the hall. More chairs are fetched from somewhere else. When those fill up, someone has the idea of bringing chairs from the school next door and a load of wooden seated chairs with green, metal legs (adjustable for the varied heights of the school children) are grasped by desperate concert goers. They are soon gone, apart from one which no one seems to want. We soon find out why. Unbeknown to the guy who, in desperation, takes it and tries to sit on it, one of the four legs is about three inches shorter than the others. He does not notice until he tries to sit down and is pitched onto the floor just in front of us.
The first flamenco act begins, hardly heard above the scraping of plastic chairs as latecomers say ‘buenos noche’ to everyone they know and take the seats their friends have been saving for them. Hisses from the rest of the audience soon drive the noise down and we enjoy an hour or so of excellent flamenco singing, dancing and guitar.
When the band take their final bow, my long-suffering husband heaves a huge sigh of relief and looks around expecting everyone to begin to leave. They sit tight. We stay where we are through several announcements until, finally, the MC introduces another act. Disbelief fills my husband’s face as he realises There Is More. This time, an aging singer with a voice like warm treacle performs impeccably, rousing the audience to heights of ecstasy as she flatters, wheedles and sings songs the (mainly older) audience have known and loved all their lives.
Finally, it is over and my husband hurriedly leads the way out of the venue and towards the nearest bar. Only after a couple of swiftly downed beers does he regain his equilibrium. After a few more libations and with disco music filling the night time air with its insistent Latin beat, we head up the steep hill to our house for a final sleepless night. Fiesta is over.