When you’re a mopey, misanthropic, joy-consuming black hole like me, Barcelona can be a total drag. It seems like every time I finish revising my goodbye note, leaving the wifi password some place where I know Pam will find it, and climbing high onto the roof of my building to board the ol’ Gravity Train to Pavementville, I suddenly hear the rat-tat-tat of an approaching drum corps leading a parade. Or I hear the hep cats from the local swing dance schools blasting Benny Goodman at their free monthly classes. Or I smell the smoky-sweet char of sausages being grilled for a street fair.
“Again with the revelry? Can’t a guy get anything done around here?”
Deflated, I climb off the ledge and head out to see what everyone is celebrating now.
My favorite temporary distraction here so far is the Sant Medir Festival. It’s not the biggest festival in Barcelona. In fact, it mostly just takes place in my neighborhood. It’s not the fanciest or the most exciting, either. It is officially known, however, as “the sweetest festival.”
The story of the Sant Medir Festival comes in two parts.
We start in the year 303A.D. The Roman emperor Diocletian was busy stomping the Jesus out of Christians all across Europe. The bishop of Barcelona at the time was a fellow named Severus. When Severus prayed to the lord for guidance, God must have told him, “Run, fool!” because Severus soon hightailed it out of town. About ten miles outside Barcelona in the Collserolla mountains, he came upon a farmer named Medir who was busy planting broad beans in his field.
Their conversation supposedly went something like this.
“Good day, farmer. I’m about to get sent into the afterlife by a horde of Roman soldiers. Not how I planned to spend my weekend, but what can you do? If they ask you if you’ve seen me, don’t lie. They’ll arrest you and torture you until you beg for mercy. Then they’ll kill you. So just tell them the truth, OK?”
“Boy, I can’t make any promises. I’ll sure try, though.”
The story goes that because Medir so graciously agreed to speak the truth, the Lord rewarded him with a miracle. As soon as Severus took off, Medir’s bean seeds suddenly sprouted and grew to full height. Dinner is served!
A while later the Roman soldiers came to Medir’s farm.
“Good day, dear farmer. Have you by any chance seen–”
“He went that way!”
“Severus! Bishop-y looking guy, right? Robes, sandals, and all that? I was right here planting my bean seeds when he walked by. Go quick before he gets away!”
“Planting seeds, you say? Yet your broad bean plants are three feet high?”
The soldiers thought Medir was punking them and hauled him to prison. They captured Severus a bit later. They were both executed shortly thereafter.
Medir was given sainthood and became the patron saint of farmers. A small chapel was built in his honor near the town of Sant Cugat close to where his farm had been.
That’s the first part. For the second part, we head to 1828 to meet a baker named Josep Vidal i Granés who lived in my neighborhood, Gracia. Josep had been ill for quite a while and prayed to God for help. He cut straight to bargaining with the lord.
“Cure me, and I promise I’ll make a pilgrimage to the Sant Medir chapel every year and pray my brains out. What do you say?”
God must have liked the terms, because Josep recovered.
Josep kept up his end of the deal, too. As soon as he was able, he made his trek from Gracia to the chapel out in Sant Cugat. To make the journey festive, he brought along a drum to beat on and a bag full of broad beans to hand out to people along the way. A doddering old hypochondriac beating a drum and handing out beans? No wonder the tradition caught on!
Groups of people began joining Josep on his journeys. They played drums, too, and they also convinced him that throwing candy to people instead of hurling beans at them would really push his pilgrimage over the top.
The tradition continued and led to the festival we have today.
Every morning on March 3, approximately 30 groups of people from different parts of the neighborhood climb on to makeshift parade floats. They spend the next 12 hours zig-zagging over and over through Gracia and throwing literally tons of candy to people on the sidewalks. It doesn’t take long before the streets are covered with brightly colored, individually wrapped pieces of hard candy. Hence the “sweetest festival” moniker. In the evening, all the groups form one long parade and march down Gran de Gracia, the main street in my neighborhood. The day ends with a fireworks display.
Each group, or “colla” in Catalan, has its own sponsor and float design. The floats themselves come off as rather workman-like as far as parade vehicles go. You won’t find wildly ornate, thematic designs like you see in a Macy’s Thanksgiving parade floats. The only real difference between most of them is simply how many red and yellow striped Catalan flags have been draped over them. Some people use flatbed trailers for the floats. Others just stand in pick-up truck beds. My favorites floats are the horse-drawn buggies and apple carts.
Like the actual floats themselves, the candy hurlers riding on them give off a “Jordi Lunchbucket” vibe, too. A few of them wear sashes or silly hats, but most just wear street clothes. I was surprised how many of them looked so serious. I suppose it’s understandable, though. They work all day like coal shovelers on a steam ship. Who wants to play dress up when they’ve got 200 pounds of candy to dish out?
Each float gets escorted through Gracia by three or four colla members on horseback followed by a fleet of drummers banging their way through the streets. The horsemen get into the spirit of things much more than the candy chuckers. They wear outfits ranging from military uniforms to court jester get-ups. Their saddle bags loaded with candy, they toss sweets with a grin and a wave.
It’s the drummers who really steal the show. Typically twelve to fifteen people make up each drum corps. That’s a lot of people hitting the skins, especially on the narrow, single lane streets of Gracia where sounds to tend to really reverberate off the buildings. The drummers play with religious fervor, which I suppose is appropriate given the context. They spin around, sidestep, and execute choreographed dance routines while they play. A few drum teams add a trombone or trumpet to the mix. But what really seals the deal is the fact that these guys and gals can just flat out play. I’ve been to plenty of Grateful Dead shows and spent hours enjoying the drum circles there. But if you put fifteen of these Catalan drum geeks up against fifteen of the best Deadheads you can find, the hippies will end up filling their bongs with tears of crushing defeat.
As far as the spectators go, the cops must haul you to jail if you don’t line up on the sidewalk and grab some candy, because every man, woman, and child turns out for this shindig. The age of the people trying to catch some “glucose gravel” ranges from two years old to death bed minus two days. Teachers drag their preschoolers onto the sidewalks to watch horses clop by and to snatch their share of the loot.
Teenagers stop brooding for the day and act as giddy as the kindergarteners squealing next to them. I saw an elderly woman about five feet tall slowly approach a horse-drawn buggy being used as parade float and matter-of-factly hold out a plastic shopping bag. A person on the float dropped a fistful of candy in the woman’s bag. She nodded politely, turned, then hobbled back to her stoop. I guess if you’re old enough they don’t make you catch your candy or grovel for it in the street. In some ways, the Sant Medir Festival resembles Halloween in the United States, except here the candy comes to you.
So it’s a joyous celebration. Thousands of people eating candy, playing music, and riding around on parade floats, all in the name of keeping alive a wonderful tradition more than 100 years old. Such an event would put a smile on any curmudgeon’s face, right? Actually, no. All these hokey, feel-good machinations sickened me. The kids reminded me that I’m old. The candy reminded me that I’m fat. The old people reminded me that I’ll be dead soon. And the drummers reminded me that I don’t know how to play the drums.
Instead, my spirits were lifted entirely by a different moment at the festival.
I’ll start by saying that when you combine 125 horses on parade with six tons of candy being thrown into the street behind them what you end up with is, well, most likely typhoid.
Not long after the colles started their routes, the whole neighborhood devolved into a grim “you got manure in my candy/you got candy in my manure” scenario. The Sant Medir Festival features screaming children, berserk drummers, and dainty biddies filling shopping bags with candy. What it does not have is a crew of guys with shovels. But it wasn’t simply the streets lined with candy and crap that got to me.
What stopped me in my tracks was a man digging a piece of candy straight out of the manure. No more than 30 feet away from him was candy that wasn’t in crap, but this fellow still bent down and grabbed candy that was right in front of him–lodged in a turd.
It had to be more than simple laziness. I’m lazy, too, but there are certain thresholds no normal person would cross. Maybe I was missing out on a delicacy. People in foreign countries eat all kinds of unusual things. Perhaps the rich, earthy tones of horse dung really complement a candy’s fruitiness. On the other hand, if the guy was resorting to eating candy from a turd maybe I should have stopped staring at him and bought him a sandwich or at least a king-size Snickers bar.
After the man picked up the candy, he held it up in front of his face and examined it. I wondered what he was looking for. A freshness date? A particular flavor? Was he checking to make sure there wasn’t too much crap on it? The candy must have passed inspection, because the man dropped it in his coat pocket then disappeared back into the crowd.
I skipped the rest of the festival and went home. It’s always good to end on a high note.
We all have our simple pleasures that we look forward to. Since living in Barcelona, I’ve seen a rampaging mob ransack a bank and set trucks on fire. I’ve witnessed a stark naked, 60-year-old man peeing into a jug in the middle of Placa de la Virreina. I’ve had two prostitutes sporting miniskirts and five o’clock shadows proposition me on a Tuesday morning. Barcelona always throws something at me to pick me up when I’m dragging rock bottom.
But a grown man plucking a three-cent piece of candy out of a steaming pile of horse shit and dropping it into his pocket? That’s better than if all the people on those floats threw Zoloft at me.