Tarragona’s Santa Tecla Festival
Tarragona, Spain – The noisy, colorful, incendiary processions of dance troupes and Big Head puppets, separated by a “fantastic and popular bestiary” spewing sparks and fire, snaked through the narrow streets of Tarragona’s old town day and night. There was no end to the theatrical entertainment, or the excited crowds, or the general roar punctuated by applause. The Santa Tecla Festival was amazing!
Each year on the autumn equinox, Tarragona hosts the Santa Tecla Festival, a days-long celebration of the arrival of a religious relic – the arm of Santa Tecla – in 1321. Christianity used that event to absorb the ancient pagan roots of the traditional harvest festival. It grew through the Middle Ages until today you’ll see maypole dancing, juggling and elaborate acrobatics celebrating fertility and abundance transitioned into a Christian celebration of Santa Tecla, often referred to as the Patron Saint of Tarragona.
The Festival takes place in the streets and squares of Tarragona, the last day of which brings a pageant depicting a triumphant Santa Tecla battling the pagans, accompanied by noisy pyrotechnics. This and the human castles are the culmination of the daytime festivities. That night, the parading, fire-breathing fantastical beasts and the huge fireworks display light up the sky. Through it all the drums beat rhythmically.
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There is something exhilarating about the sheer physicality of the performers and acrobats in the Santa Tecla Festival in Tarragona, Spain. Imagine groups of similarly dressed men, women, and children, climbing upon each other’s shoulders until they are eight or nine tiers high. It is an amazing sight! Neighborhood organizations, called collas, are descended from the guilds of yore. Their members train all year to create the phenomenon of these human castells and pillars during the final day. There are five groups of about 100 people each, some massing as a base on the ground to encourage and support their neighbors on their shoulders who climb higher and higher, one on top of the other until the littlest ones shimmy up to the top and steal the show. Then, tier following tier slides back down until all are safely on the ground.
That’s the plan, anyway. Here’s a link to one human castle that came tumbling down. Don’t worry, the injuries were mostly bruises and cuts, but it was most frightening to watch it happen. One of the young men told me later that when he was little he was the top person, called l’enxaneta in Catalan, and that he worked his way down the tiers as his frame grew. He said “I’ve fallen hundreds of times and was never hurt badly, no brain damage or anything. It’s not as dangerous as it looks.” He must be right. Somehow they regrouped and used their second chance to build it and break it down successfully.
What is remarkable about the festival is that it takes over the streets of Tarragona. With the ancient Roman walls and Medieval Cathedral towering over the processions, you can imagine yourself hundreds of years in the past watching the same spectacles as today. You can also be enjoying the same refreshments.
There’s a peculiar tradition of making an iced drink called Mamadeta using sweetened, icy lemon juice laced with Chartreuse. The high alcohol content liqueur is made by monks and associated with early Christianity. Its green hue and bitter taste derive from the 130 herbs used in its top-secret recipe. The mamadeta is served in a green cup called a barillet and is sipped through a straw. It is available for sale everywhere during the festival and usually consumed on the go. There is also a traditional dish called espineta amb cargolins (a stew of salted tuna with snails and potatoes in a fragrant sauce) that is again usually available only during the festival.
The beautiful city of Tarragona is just a short drive or train ride down the coast from Barcelona. There is a Ramblas punctuated with sculpture and lined with modernist architecture, a beautifully preserved Roman Coliseum overlooking the beach-lined shore, and a walled old town to rival any you’ve seen, with narrow cobblestone streets winding through the ancient buildings. It can be visited year-round, but when Tarragona is filled with Santa Tecla revelers, it is an amazing feast for your senses!
Drummers and dancers and puppets parade in period costume as the smoke of the fireworks mingle with the medieval sights and sounds echoing off the ancient stones . . . Go!
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