Fire and wine – Spain’s June festivals in the spotlight

In June Spain pulls out all the festive stops. From Alicante in the south-east to Barcelona in the north east Spaniards  – and thousands of tourists who flock to Spain – embrace the summer solstice and the birth of St John during a night of fireworks, jolly parties, traditional dancing and folk singing. A week later thousands of revelers converge on a small Spanish town in Rioja, called Haro, to douse one another in red wine and carouse the weekend away.

The Bonfires of St John (St John’s Eve)

The Feast of Sant Joan, also called the Bonfires of St John, is held on the evening of 23 June, the night before the official birthday of St John the Baptist, who was born six months before Jesus, according to the Biblical account.  It is a festival that marries Christian tradition with ancient, pre-Christian celebrations of the summer solstice.

Spaniards call the festival Hogueras de San Juan. It is an amazing spectacle that combines next-level merriment with prehistoric ritual. The parties and festivities center around three symbolic elements – fire, herbs and water.

Different regions have different rituals; most rituals include dramatics firework displays and huge bonfires. The night becomes a pyrotechnic dreamscape with flying sparks and explosions flowering everywhere against the night sky.

In San Pedro Manrique, a tiny town in the north of Spain, villagers piggy-back one another barefoot across coals so hot they reach temperatures of 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. In Alicante fireworks rip through massive paper maché sculptures. The Galician coastline becomes an inferno of bonfires, built from discarded objects and unwanted possessions, over which merrymakers jump to purify their souls.

Far less risky is the practice of gathering herbs such as St John’s Wort, fennel, rue and rosemary and steeping them in water. The healing power of these herbs is said to be a hundred-fold stronger on this auspicious day, so the herb infusion is deemed pretty potent. Those who live close to the beach also celebrate the healing power of water by gathering on the beach for picnics, lots of cava and sea-bathing.

On the small Balearic island of Menorca, which has a history of occupation by foreign rulers dating back thousands of years, the main attraction in not fire, but horses – the magnificent, black Menorca-bred Cavall Menorquí and their impressive riders, called cavallers. Things get a bit rough on Menorca when deft riders sprint through packed crowds and people pelt another with sacks of hazelnut shells as a sign of goodwill or to ward off evil (depending on whom you ask!).

The Wine Battle of Haro

A week after the Feast of San Juan a small town in the north of Spain offers revelers another opportunity to laugh, drink and make merry. Haro, which lies in the famous Spanish wine region Rioja, is home to 40% of the region’s vineyards.  The locals, and visitors who join them in their thousands, have found a peculiar way of celebrating the abundance of Rioja’s famous red wines.

Every year, on 29 June, visitors and villagers climb the Cliffs of Bilibio outside the town. In the lead is Haro’s mayor, who makes the journey on horseback. After a mass is celebrated in honor of St Peter at the top of the cliffs (29 June is the day of the patron saint, but he certainly is NOT the star attraction), the festival goers proceed to drench one another in thousands of liters of red wine. In 2015 some 130 000 liters of wine were sprayed, poured, bucketed and shot at festival goers.  Anything goes in this free-for-all drench-fest, even plastic pistols.

For those who abhor the thought of letting good wine go to waste, there is the option of having the wine poured down their throats by fellow roisterers. Revellers wear white shirts and red scarves of which they are obviously not particularly fond!

The event is fittingly called La Batalla del Vino de Haro – The Wine Battle of Haro.

After the wine battle, the crowd traipses back to the town square, Plaza de la Pas, where they eat the region’s famous chorizo and morcilla sausages, watch non-lethal heifer fights in the bull-ring and drink copious quantities of wine instead of hurling, heaving or tossing it.

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