“The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.” ~ Alain de Botton
It was Day 15 of a 16-day road trip through England, Germany, and France. After over two weeks of non-stop fun visiting various friends and experiencing new places, we were ready to get home but not up for tackling the 10-hour drive to our house from our last stop in Provence. We just needed a place for the night with easy highway access to break up the journey home, and maybe catch the penultimate stage of the Tour de France if our room came with cable television. A quick search turned up a suitable Airbnb in a little seaside town called Mataró, about 30 kilometers northeast of Barcelona.
Mataró is the capital of Maresme, one of the 42 comarques (counties) in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia. The town’s history dates back to Roman times; indeed, the two-lane coastal highway that runs along Mataró’s beach was once a Roman road. Our lodging there turned out to be the top floor of a five-story apartment building and the room came with a large private rooftop patio from which we could see the town below and the sea beyond. The streets were narrow and hilly, and our location was dominated by five- or six-story apartment buildings, many with laundry drying on folding racks outside on the cement balconies. While not luxurious or chic-looking, the town nevertheless had its own charm; a homey and low-key aura that perfectly suited the moment.
Although spotlessly clean, our room was missing both toilet paper and towels, so we tracked down our host: a pleasant but slightly harried guy in his 20s who apologized profusely for the oversights. He explained that two of his cleaning staff had called in sick. Rolling his eyes skeptically, he remarked that their illness seemed to coincide suspiciously with the local fiesta, which was beginning that evening and lasting through the weekend. Handing us the missing supplies he suggested that we too check out the festivities. Although we were tired, we decided to wander downtown, find something to eat, and maybe experience a bit of the celebration.
As we walked from our apartment building towards the downtown we passed a large, outdoor stage in the middle of a small park where roadies and technicians were setting up and running mic checks. As we slowed down to look, a man heading in the same direction passed us holding the hand of a little boy. Both were wearing matching red T-shirts. A block later, we saw another parent and a child, again in red shirts. A half a block more and we found ourselves surrounded by parents and grandparents almost all with small children, heading downtown. Most were wearing the same shirts that read, in Catalán, “Fiesta de Les Santos.”
Reaching what appeared to be the center of the action–a main street next to a large church–we were more or less brought to a standstill by the large number of townspeople. They smiled and laughed, greeted friends, and bent down to hug children. Almost everyone was wearing red. Hemmed in and unable to move, we struck up a conversation with a young couple. They spoke enough English to explain that the fiesta was the one of the most important in Mataró, a celebration of the city’s two patron saints: Juliana and Semproniana, and that this first was mainly for the children. Apparently the stage we had passed on our way, as well as others that had been set up around town, would feature musicians playing kids’ music later that evening. As we looked around we saw that many of the children were wearing black devil capes with fabric horns, some with names embroidered on the backs: Louisa, Olivia, Laura, Juan Miguel. Our neighbors explained the devil attire represented the perennial Christian theme of good versus evil, but the kids were so cute in their costumes it was hard to find them too menacing.
Several marching bands, the members of whom had been milling around casually tuning their instruments and chatting with each other, suddenly put trumpets, trombones, and tubas to their lips or slung drums around their necks, and fell into formation, marching in place, ready to play. At the same time, a loud, collective roar rose up from the crowd and we watched in amazement as four large painted statues about 15 feet tall that appeared to be of a queen, a knight, a nobleman, and a princess, were simultaneously hoisted into the air and began parading down the street. We learned later these were known as gigantes. A Catalonian parade tradition consisting of hollow superstructures made from wood and paper maché, gigantes are designed to fit over the shoulders of human carriers who, hidden by the fabric of the figures’ clothing, move in such a way that the statues appear to be alive.
Although early evening and the sun was well past its peak, the dense and lively crowd caused the temperature to soar in the three block radius of the main parade route. Spectators were three to four deep on the sidewalks. Some jammed together, shoulder to shoulder, in narrow shop doorways to take advantage of the air-conditioning blasting from the interiors. Yet the intense heat did not appear to dampen the revelers’ moods or enthusiasm.
The musicians kicked off a rousing song, and the gigantes began processing down the street. Everyone was clapping and chanting; the crowd had become an undulating sea of red. Every few minutes the procession paused to repeat the song’s chorus: a Catalán chant counting off from 1 to 15. The revelers sunk down a bit lower with each number, until they were almost squatting on the ground. Everyone was holding hands. Some strangers grabbed ours, nodding their approval as we gamely tried to follow along. When the count reached “quinze!” everyone leapt to their feet laughing and clapping, then resumed marching along the route; the musicians loud and lively as the gigantes dipped and whirled.
The parade lasted several blocks, the horns blared and the drums beat to the same song over and over again but somehow it didn’t get old. Finally the parade reached a big public square lined with shops, bars, and cafés and began to disperse. In the center of the square was another large stage. Young children in their devil capes and red T-shirts crowded around the front, getting as close as possible, while parents and grandparents milled around the perimeter. The outdoor restaurant seating was rapidly filling and people of all ages sat in groups drinking beer or tinto de verano. We took a seat at a table and ordered a round of drinks. A few moments later a guitar chord struck and musicians dressed as M&Ms and aliens burst on stage dancing and playing a loud, boisterous pop song. The children screamed with delight as the costumed lead singer crooned and growled into the mic with his fellow bandmates joining in on the chorus. As soon as they ended the song, they instantly fired up another every bit as uptempo as the one before, then another and another. The children whirled and clapped. The parents, some of whom were now holding beers, swayed, smiled, and shouted to one another over the music.
Not wanting to leave we ordered dinner and another round. By now the square was filled with people. It was after 9:00, but the sky was still light, and the party showed no sign of letting up. But we were exhausted and decided to call it a night. We had been bested by a bunch of little kids in devil horns and a group of 20-something musicians dressed like pieces of candy.
Back in our Airbnb, we fell asleep to the sounds of music and laughter rising up from the streets. About 3:00 AM, we were suddenly awakened by what sounded like gunfire. Bolting upright in bed, sleepy and confused, we finally realized it was fireworks we were hearing: Boom! Boom! Boom! They were being set off all over town, some farther away; others a close as a block or two. Somehow we managed to fall back asleep, but I was awaked again a bit after 5:00 AM by the noise from below. The fireworks had not abated, and periodic laughter and music from late-night revelers punctuated the early morning air. Making my way out on the balcony I looked around but it was still too dark to see clearly. Suddenly I heard a long whine, followed by a streak of light that lit up the sky culminating in a silver flash and a loud BOOM. Then another, and another. Fireworks! The flashes and booms continued for a few minutes. A moment later, a brass band began playing. It wasn’t even 7:00AM. Clearly the Friday evening kick-off truly was kids’ stuff.
Unable to fall back asleep we got dressed and headed out the door, figuring if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! We walked around the town coming upon groups of teens and young adults who had clearly been up all night, laughing and singing as they strolled, sometimes five abreast along the sidewalks. We passed narrow, residential side streets decorated with Catalán flags lined with long dining tables. Families of 10-20 people, from children to grandparents, crowded around them, finishing last night’s beers and carafes of red wine, as well as starting in on the coffee and breakfast pastries.
About 8:45 AM, the brass and drum bands whose members were now in traditional Catalán dress, began lining up for another march through the streets. The sidewalks were once again filling with spectators, many of whom were also in traditional dress. Two teenage boys in black hats, black breeches, and crisp white shirts were helping each other tie the wide red sashes at their waists. They each took a turn holding taut the long end as the other expertly turned in circles. With each revolution the boy whose turn it was drew closer to his companion until he could reach both ends to knot the fabric. It was like watching a ballet. Before long the gigantes were back, the crowd once again roaring its approval as the royal party was raised high in the air by their handlers, towering above the throng. This time they were accompanied by statues of a a bull, a dove with a bouquet of flowers in its beak, and a dragon with firework launchers taped to its paper-mâché horns.
Hungry, we decided to forgo the second parade for breakfast bocadillos and strong coffees at a little outdoor cafe on a side street. Most of the tables were filled, and even at this early morning hour many of the patrons were drinking beers, sometimes in addition to coffee. A group of young women in jeans and midriff tops helpfully shared a cigarette lighter with an old man in a crisply pressed dressed shirt who was drinking coffee at a neighboring table. An elderly nun in a cream-colored habit strolled by, stopping to greet occupants at several of the tables. A young man who looked like he’d been up all night, leapt to his feet still holding his beer, shook her hand, then held it the whole time they smilingly conversed. I could have sat there and people-watched all day, but with our coffees finished and our Airbnb check-out time looming, we reluctantly paid our bill and headed towards our apartment.
As we walked back along the main street the morning parade was finishing. We knew the afternoon events would be gearing up shortly. In true fiesta tradition the fireworks never abated. We could see the flashes high up in the sky followed by great puffs of smoke and muffled booms. A firework machine that looked like it had been strapped onto some sort of riding mower drove up the street shooting sparklers that fizzled loudly as it trundled along. The younger people ran along beside for as long as they dared before leaping out of the way to escape the sparks.
And to think, the main act hadn’t even started. Mataró, you definitely know how to throw a good party. Now where can I buy a devil cape?