Words by Genevieve Shaw
Barcelona simmers in June day time heat as the refreshing evenings grow steadily longer. Firecrackers left by teenagers in street rubbish bins explode late at night, reminding us that the longest day of the year celebrated on the eve of Sant Joan, the 23rd of June, is only just round the corner. In fact, a multitude of grandiose celebrations are on the verge of sparking to life as the summer festa major season is set off with a bang throughout Catalunya.
The Pyrenees city of Berga, located 100 kilometres from Barcelona, is no exception. One week before Mid Summer's night, from the 15th until the 18th of June, its rambling streets are transformed into a four day medieval showcase for one of Catalunya's most electrifying fire festivals. Officially celebrated for Corpus Christi, the Patum is without doubt one of the most extraordinary and spectacular outdoor festivals in Catalunya.
The Patum is so called due to the pa-tum, pa-tum, pa-tum sound of the drum whose sound dominates all the individual dances that make up the overall festa. Starting on Thursday of Corpus Christi, when morning mass ends at 12 o'clock, folkloric twirling gets underway in the first Patum festivities of the day, the "Shining Patum" (Patum de lluiment). It is not until dusk fall at 9.30 pm, though, that the bigger and more eye catching celebration of the "Complete Patum" (Patum Complet) is celebrated in the main town square, Plaša de Sant Pere.
First time onlookers are advised to stand outside of the main square arena as the interaction of the crowd with the dancing figures and fire can be overwhelming if never experienced before. A good spot just out of the main action is on the stairs next to the church that look down over the square. From this prime viewpoint, the first of these ritualistic style dances springs into life with the entrance of the Turks and the Little Horses (Turcs i Cavallets). This dance enacts the war between the Muslims and Christians, experienced in Berga in the Middle Ages. The choreography, as in all the dances, is used to act out a scene from the city's past.
Next to appear on centre stage are the "Maces" who, as their name suggests, are devil like characters bearing mace like instruments and fire crackers. The Demons jump maniacally around the square as Saint Michael and his accompanying angels enter stage left. As the fire crackers explode into darkness each Devil falls to his theatrical death, symbolizing the victory of the Angel Saint Michael and Christianity over the Devil.
Enter the Guites: fantastical hellish creatures with mule like bodies and dragons` heads supported on long grotesque necks. These characters sway to frenetic drumming, breathing fire and sparks at the crowd. The Eagle (Aliga) subsequently calms the atmosphere as the rapid drumming gives way to a stately, more majestic type of music. The Eagle wears the Bergueda crown in a representation of Berga's liberation from Aragon in 1393. The dance tells the story of an Eagle princess who patiently embroiders a flag in preparation for her freedom. As the choreography progresses, the Eagle's movements become stronger and more chaotic until the she escapes from her imprisoning chains and flies towards liberty.
Kicking up their own frenzy are the Old Ones and the Young Ones (Nans Vells / Nans Nous), little people with massive heads, that were added to the Patum at the end of the 1800's. Likewise the Giants (Gegants) tap out a distinctive choreography. It is, however, the final act known as the Triabol which represents the climax of the Patum, in which the entire crowd participates in a cathartic dance described by Berga's own city council as "orgiastic and festive." Over one hundred demons enter the square with flaming fire torches held high above their heads in a parody of Hell itself.
The Demons hold a special title awarded to them by the town of Berga that allows them to be demons. They are called "Patumeres," which is a tradition passed down through families and generations of people. Rumour has it that some people are so keen to be "patumeres" during the festival that they pay for the privilege. The "Patumeres" are dressed in a tunic that looks like it is made from moss. Underneath this garment the person's hands and face are bandaged so that they do not get burnt. For this reason a "patumera" must be accompanied by a guide who walks by their side linked at the arms, as the bandages and horned mask make it difficult for them to see. Once all the demons have lit their fire torches they begin to walk in a circle shape, while the crowd walks in the opposite direction. Looked down upon from above, massive swirls of fire amidst smoke is the only site visible as everyone whirls to the insistent Pa-tum of the drums.
The night time Patum festivities can be seen on Thursday and Sunday evening from 9.30 pm onwards. On the same days, a series of dances are performed straight after morning Mass at 12 o'clock midday. On Friday there is the Patum for kids, celebrated with the same sequence of events but acted out by children. The festival was first recorded in written documents in 1454, when street theatre became an accompanying part of the Corpus Christi procession in Berga. Originally named "Bulla" which means "frenzy" or "commotion," the Patum is the only remaining festival that stems directly from a series of dances known as the "Ballades Bullicioses" (the Dances of Bulla). It has since evolved into the massively celebrated festa that it is today.
This festival has been declared World Heritage by Unesco and is one of the most special and exciting festivals in existence. It is best to see it from above as the main arena can be quite dangerous if you have never been to this festival before. There are literally thousands of people pushing together which can be quite daunting. Should you want to participate in the festivities in the centre square, it is imperative to wear sturdy shoes and old clothes such as jeans, t-shirt, a long sleeved sweater as well as a hat to protect the scalp from getting burnt from flying sparks. Even if you do not wish to participate, take a sweater as it gets nippy at night.
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