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San Juan Night: Midsummer madness hits Spain
By thinkSPAIN Team Sun, Jun 23, 2019
SUMMER solstice celebrations are nothing uniquely Spanish; in fact, they're a Celtic tradition, meaning they stretch across the mass of regions this ancient cultural movement is thought to have pervaded, from Scotland to Scandinavia and from Galicia to Cantabria. Sweden's is particularly famous, with its Celtic crosses coated in yellow flowers set up on beaches, and folk songs, mainly about alcohol, sung with increasingly (deliberately) slurred speech.
But for Spain the main festivities happen two days after the longest night, on the day of the Catholic calendar which coincides with Saint John, or San Juan, and in no two provinces is it the same. In the aforementioned northern regions, plus their joint neighbour Asturias, the Celtic element is alive and well, whilst on the Costa del Sol it resembles Guy Fawkes' Night on the beach (without actually being about the man who reportedly tried to blow up London's Houses of Parliament), on the east coast, revellers take their lives into their hands (or at least their physical integrity from the ankles down) by leaping over bonfires on the sands, whilst inland, processions, Mediaeval craft markets, live music, food fairs, foam parties and even, in at least one case, blasting everyone with water are part of the schedule.
Wherever you are tonight (Sunday, June 23), there'll be something happening to start off your summer with a bang – literally as well as metaphorically.
On the coast
In most parts of the country blessed with a beach, San Juan Night involves bonfires, or hogueras, of some description; these are simple piles of junk wood set alight in the provinces of Valencia and Castellón and the northern parts of that of Alicante, as well as Barcelona, among others, but in most of the province of Alicante they take the form of gigantic, colourful papier mâché statues satirising celebrities and current affairs, which are then burnt down, in a very similar festival to that of the Fallas across the rest of the Comunidad Valenciana in March.
Straightforward beach bonfires, which anyone can light and which vary in size, are jumped over barefoot after throwing a 'wish list' into the flames of everything you want to come true between now and next year's San Juan. After leaping over the pyre, tradition dictates that you run into the sea and jump over the next three waves that break, all on the stroke of midnight.
Pick out the smallest bonfire you can find if you're flat-footed, to avoid a painful accident.
Correfocs, or moving, hand-held firework parades, plus live music are often a feature of the night, too.
Alicante city, and Jávea to the north of the province, in particular, celebrate the Hogueras de San Juan or, in the regional language, valenciano, the Fogueres de Sant Joan (second picture) with the previously-mentioned Falla-type monuments, and the festival itself has a similar significance to that of the much larger, world-famous version in the province of Valencia: whilst the latter is in March, on the eve of spring, the Fogueres is scheduled for the start of summer, with both being a symbolic reference to burning the old season to make way for the new. And they're usually funny and provocative – if you've been an avid www.thinkspain.com reader and kept up to date on news and current affairs in Spain this year, you'll be able to understand what most of them are about and they're sure to raise a smile.
Also in towns in the province of Alicante which celebrate the Fogueres de Sant Joan, an international folklore procession usually takes place – in Alicante city it is guaranteed, every year, with music, dancers and floats from all over the world filling the streets, starting from the Plaza de los Luceros at 20.00.
Barcelona is the epicentre of Catalunya's San Juan Night, or Nit de Sant Joan festival, with the jumping-over-the-flames tradition and also the typical firework-and-dance show, the Diables ('Devils'), involving folkloric footwork and costumes resembling Satan – and locals and tourists clamouring for a spot at the Montjuïc Castle for the best view of the fireworks across the city and to see the fire-and-water spectacle that the Montjuïc Magic Fountain becomes.
But much of this happens elsewhere in Catalunya, too, although in Tarragona city, the Costa Daurada capital, the night also involves human towers or castellers and the lighting of a huge torch atop the Canigó mountain, which is then carried through the streets – this year, you'll find it between the Francolí Bridge and the C/ Serrallo at around 19.00.
Leaving the east coast for the moment, San Juan Night on the Costa del Sol is one of the most eagerly-awaited dates on the fiesta calendar, as well as being one of the most-chosen destinations for Spanish and foreign holidaymakers over the shortest night of the year. Benalmádena, Torremolinos, Fuengirola and Marbella have some of the best atmospheres, although the jewel in the crown is the provincial capital, Málaga, where giant rag-stuffed figures along the lines of the Guy at UK Bonfire Nights, called júas, are burnt on the La Malagueta beach, from around 21.30. Live music is guaranteed, with this year's acts tipped to be Dasoul, DJ Nils van Zandt, and Danny Romero, among others.
Heading for the islands, the Canaries and Balearics both hold huge festivals, inland and on the coast – in the former, some of the most highly-recommended are in Tenerife where you can hop between the holy and the pagan on the same night. A small procession in Punta del Hidalgo carries the image of the sainted figure through the streets just before nightfall, as far as the sea off El Güingo, then at night in Puerto de la Cruz, live music and bonfires fill the beach and, during the day, sports tournaments, painting and sculpture exhibitions and even children's storytelling sessions are held.
In the Balearics, one of the most unusual and fascinating spectacles is in the small fishing town of Ciutadella, Menorca, where advanced dressage displays and parades on horseback attract visitors from all over the country. Nobly-dressed riders, known as caixers, summoned by the head caixer, enter the Plaça Es Born square – sometimes over 100 at a time - and perform splendid moves such as the paso español (long, slow steps with the forelegs extended as though shaking hands) and passage (a very slow, high-stepping trot, often on the spot), and jump over volunteers crouched on the ground, which is said to signify aristocracy and power. And it all shows just how beautifully-schooled and bomb-proof the horses are, that they can stay focused and calm surrounded by those huge crowds; in fact, this is one of the most attractive features about the Menorquín horse, a breed native to the island known for its finesse, elegance, excellent conformation and movement and stunning beauty.
The parade, known as a caragol ('snail') circles Es Born beach to music – catch it all from around 18.00 in the town centre and on the shores.
Not every coastal celebration for San Juan Night involves travelling to somewhere on the international tourism trail: the northern coast, popular with Spanish holidaymakers but as yet relatively unknown to northern Europeans, is a great place to be any June 23. In the region of Cantabria, much of the action happens on, appropriately, San Juan beach, where thousands of locals and visitors flock to the cliff edge to watch the fireworks on the sand and where the traditional cross-sea swimming race takes place from 10.00 in the morning. Throughout the day, children's activities are held, then a giant bonfire is lit on the beach on the stroke of midnight, just before the annual live music gig starts. This year, the guest artist is Polola, who won the TV reality show Gana Con Tu Voz ('Win With Your Voice') for her region.
Galicia, in the far north-west, and particularly Orzán beach in A Coruña, revives its Celtic roots with parades, performances and costumes reminiscent of mythology from colder climates such as trolls, elves and witches in a type of half-year Hallowe'en celebration, since San Juan Night is supposed to be when the doors of the underworld open onto the earth – but you won't have to face these scary creatures on an empty stomach. One of the biggest traditions of the festivities in A Coruña is fish and seafood cooked on open fires.
You don't need a beach for a great San Juan Night, although it helps. But towns and villages some distance from their nearest coast still know how to celebrate, and often in bizarre and somewhat unique formats.
The village of Lanjarón (Granada province) is famous for its water, in both senses – firstly, because it produces the mineral water of the same name you often find in Spanish restaurants and supermarkets, and secondly, because it's sprayed everywhere on the night of June 23. The Carrera de Agua is a mile-long procession where those who take part carry full buckets, bottles and water pistols, and soak everything in their path and on either side of it. Plenty of members of the public deliberately stand in the firing line – what can be more pleasurable in the heat of midsummer than to get a cool drenching? Also, Serrano ham-tasting sessions are held by the fireside in a celebration whose name gives a clear indication of its content: the Fiesta del Agua y del Jamón.
San Juan Day (and Night) is an official heritage fiesta in the land-locked centre-northern province of Soria (fifth picture), in Castilla y León – folk songs and dance and traditional costume as well as various other deep-rooted customs from the area feature heavily in the three-day festival, particularly in Soria city itself. This year, as in the past, a huge foam party will wake up and cool down the revellers in the Santa Bárbara neighbourhood from 18.00, and a musical parade with the marching band Las Cocochas is scheduled for tonight.
Celtic tradition raises its head again in Asturias, with a giant flower-offering to the gods in the town of Mieres followed by the cargüeta, a re-enactment of how ancient residents would carry cargoes of wood and rags into the town hall square for burning before dancing round the fire in a ring, holding onto each other by the little finger, on the stroke of midnight. Live gigs, costumed parades, open-air dance shows and sports tournaments are held throughout the day, although on Asturias' beaches, the usual bonfires with 'wish lists' are held.
You can't get much farther from a beach than in Madrid, but the city and wider region still know how to have it large on San Juan Night. Huge bonfires are lit in the centres of almost every town, with cooking on them and dancing around them, and other features include a fairground in Ciudad Lineal, concerts – chart-topping band Efecto Pasillo plays in Vicálvaro on June 29 – a Mediaeval market in San Fernando de Henares, Celtic minstrels and a torchlight procession in Alcobendas, a craft market in Alcalá de Henares, a giant paella for everyone, children's water park, poetry competition, parades and karaoke in Madrid's Retiro Park, and different concerts and discos in practically all towns within striking distance of the capital.
Wherever you are in Spain, superstitions, talismans, traditions and rituals, designed to welcome the summer, leave behind the bad and attract good luck and wishes coming true are at the core of the San Juan fiestas, although for the vast majority of Spaniards, it's really just a huge party with flames, fireworks and music on one of the most magical nights of the year and one that ends with the promise of three months of sunshine, holidays and warm weather to come.
First photograph: Tourist information boards for provinces of Valencia and Huelva
Second photograph: YouTube
Third photograph: Flickr
Fourth photograph: El Alpujarreño (blog)
Fifth photograph: Soria city hall
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