At the end of my last post, I was making ready for a weekend trip to my ex-village, Hinojosa del Duque, to celebrate her ‘feria’. Mainly I was going just to catch up with old friends, but I was also full of curiosity and excitement to see the village en su salsa, in it’s sauce, in it’s element. Having already spent one afternoon at the Feria de Cordoba, and attended a mock ‘Feria de Sevilla’ (in a two bedroom flat), I thought I had a pretty good idea what these fairs entailed.
In the end, I stayed nearly a week. And now, having been, gone, and survived (just), the true, full-length, Andalusian village feria, I’m left feeling a bit confused. Not to mention exhausted. What just happened? It was mostly a cacophony of bright lights and loud music, with little apparent structure or scheduling. I think the best definition of this kind of feria would be a cross between a funfair, a country show and a latin carnavale. To decipher the blur that is my memory, I’ve attempted to break it down and describe some of the key components.
Religious stuff – The whole shenanigan is technically for religious regions, in honour of a patron saint or virgin. There are masses and occasionally processions with effigies, although these are fading traditions. I should point out that in my last post I made a mistake (or was misinformed) about the patron. The patron of the Hinojosa feria (not the village itself) is St.Augustin. No-one can tell me what came first, the feria or the Saint. Perhaps the villagers wanted their feria at this time of year and so randomly picked a saint who’s day fell on an ideal date, or maybe they just really liked this Augustin fellow and decided to throw him a week long party for the hell of it.
Stuff with animals – Namely horses and bulls. The (very impressive) Andalusian horses strut, dance, prance and parade around (carrying equally well groomed riders in traditional costumes), as well as participating in various competitions. The bulls just fight, with people and each other, sometimes to the death. (Or so I’m told, it’s not something I agree with and I didn’t see any of the corridas).
Colourful stuff – showground attractions, ie rubber duck shooting, ferris wheels, fairy floss, giant Sponge Bob Square Pants jumping castles, smurf flavoured soft serve, dubious looking dodgems, and rollercoasters that make me grateful I don’t have children to fret over.
Cheap stuff – Temporary markets, run mostly by African clandestinos and gypsies. These sell all the usual gimmicks; imitation designer watches, mobile phone covers, Gucci underwear, cakes, lollies, turron (giant slabs of chocolate and nuts), children’s toys, and hundreds of hot pink miniature doll’s prams. The tradition in Hinojosa (and possibly elsewhere) is to enferiarse, a verb meaning ‘to buy oneself a present at the fair’. Excellent. I enferiared both myself and my host with some rather snazzy but totally unnecessary handbags… all in the name of tradition!
Churros and Kebabs – hot food vans (and plastic dining areas) pop up everywhere to make the most of the drunk and hungry hordes that stream in and out of the casetas at all hours. I’m not a huge fan of churros (I’ve given up trying… everyone says that their village’s/grandma’s/local churrería’s taste different, but to me they all taste like oil dipped in something that is supposed to taste like chocolate but doesn’t)… so I ate a lot of kebabs.
Casetas – make shift bars inside enclosures, usually run by different sororities, or as ‘sibling bars’ to other fixed venues in the village. I think each caseta is supposed to have a theme, a particular type of music or a feature beverage. In reality, they were more or less all the same. The same pop music on repeat, several times per hour, for hours upon hours, days upon days, until you want to find this Mr Paquito Chocaletero (the mythical subject of an inanely stupid song that has a corresponding dance which makes The Nutbush seem interesting) and stab him to death with your cheap tinsel-adorned swizzle stick.
The music is at such a volume that it’s impossible to talk, creating an inescapable cycle, in which the more they raise the music, the more you raise your voice, the more hoarse you become, and so the more you must struggle to raise your voice. By the end of the feria everyone’s got laryngitis and is too tired for the charade that is required for conversation inside a caseta… but still they persevere! Glumly sipping their sugary ‘mojitos’ (if a brown slimy mint leaf in a plastic cup of rum and lemonade can be said to constitute a mojito), and bobbing awkwardly to the music (whatever happened to Spaniards all being able to dance?), and then grimacing internally as they muster the energy for what sounds like another torturous round of Paquito Chocaletero…
Okay, that’s a pretty harsh rendering of the casetas, they weren’t all that bad. It’s just the pop-music-repetitivity issue hit a nerve with me, it’s something that’s plagued me since my college days, and is seemingly much more of a widespread global problem that I initially feared.
Some of the casetas are flamenco themed and host competitions, I just never seemed to be in the right place at the right time to see the performances.
By the small hours of the morning, the music generally improved across the board, as the jukebox monkeys were replaced with real DJs and nightshift bartenders, who had a slightly more polished repertoire. It just meant waiting until 6am to hear something that made me genuinely want to lift my feet.
Pretty dresses – At ferias you see all sorts of people; teenagers in hotpants, sunburnt guiris in socks and sandals, women dressed as though they’re going to a wedding (with a different ensemble every day of the feria), well scrubbed farmers with their best shirts tucked in, and regular folk in fun/comfortable smart casual. I even had the audacity to go in flip flops and didn’t feel out of place. But the signature costume of the Andalusian feria is the traje de gitana, the gypsy dress. These are long, brightly coloured, figure hugging dresses, with a flattering V shaped neckline (very low at the back), and a whirlpool of ruffles at the bottom. They’re traditionally worn with large earrings, an impressive floral headpiece, and long tassled necklaces. Everything, from bracelets to nailpolish, must match the dress, which is usually of two to three contrasting colours. They can cost anywhere between 100 and a couple of thousand euros, and you can usually tell which end of the price spectrum the dress comes from. With all those frills and accessories, there’s a lot of room for bad taste to look it’s worst. A particularly hideous example of a poorly fitted orange dress with large brown spots comes to mind. But some of the tailor made, tastefully coloured dresses look absolutely stunning. They are utterly feminine. Perhaps it’s a sign of my changing tastes, or maybe of growing up, but I want one. I don’t have the requisite hourglass figure, I’m too short for long dresses, and the idea of putting a giant flower on my head would usually make me run for miles in the other direction (or scramble up a tree like a boy), but suddenly I’m seriously considering buying or hiring one of the silly things next time I go to a feria. Perhaps in a deep wine red colour, or a brighter red and black for my football team…
Marching Bands – Not the stiff, synchronized, stuffy kind. Just informal groups of roaming drummers and brass musicians. They steered well away from the casetas, and mostly hung around the park and pavilion where they caused the crowds to intermittently leap into enthusiastic (albeit chaotic) paso dobles. During an afternoon cooking competition, one band honoured the prize winners by hovering around their picnic area and playing songs on request.
The Portada – the gateway. A giant, fairy-light studded structure, which marks the official entrance to the feria. The one in Cordoba was absolutely magnificent, and Hinojosa’s was a rather pretty miniature. Portadas, amongst other feria expenses, are paid for by local councils. It’s rumoured that due to the financial crisis, councils are stripping rows of fairy-lights from portadas all across Spain…
Botellón – a rather sad and recent development. Hundreds of teenagers have a giant piss-up, just outside the fairgrounds. I’m generally in favour of pre-drinking, it’s cost saving and it’s great to have some bevvies with your close friends before mingling with the masses, but this particular botellón has swollen to ugly proportions. Whereas the feria was originally an all-ages party, the groups are now more segregated. The teenagers do their own separate thing and then hit the casetas at around 5am, when the old people and parents of toddlers have finally gone home. As a more ‘mature’ friend of mine said, it’s a shame because the young people have always made the party, and now that their energy is gone, the older people don’t party as long. Personally I think the older generations show a lot more festivity than their offspring, who huddle in an unanimated group, swilling hard liquor in the shadows so that they can build up the fortitude to awkwardly dance to music that their grandparents bop to with comparative ease. The other shame is that all the smuggled alcohol represents lost revenue for the casetas. It’ll be interesting to see for how long the feria can continue with it’s current set-up, under Spain’s current economic conditions.
The Rules – Unlike big city ferias, where the locals drop in for an evening or just go for the main weekend, the small town ferias require 100% participation, 100% of the time, from all citizens. This is needed to populate the casetas, to justify the migration of all the markets and attractions to their humble location, and really just to keep things running and the atmosphere buzzing. The rules/routine are fairly set.
- Sleep in
- Early afternoon: drinks in casetas, order food in casetas or go to local bar for lunch, more drinks and dancing in casetas, see a show or activity (bull fight, paella competition, childrens phantomine, whatever), coffee break and chillout in bar/cafe
- Late afternoon: more drinks and dancing in casetas
- 11pm: everyone goes home to shower, change clothes, eat dinner (optional). DO NOT SIESTA. It’s too late and you’re too drunk and if you sleep you won’t wake up. Leave camera at home, but keep sunglasses in handbag for the next day.
- Midnight-ish: rendezvous at a regular bar for more drinks, maybe tapas. Everybody’s appetites are out of sync so it’s every man for himself where food is concerned.
- Late: return to casetas for more drinks and dancing
- Early: Sunrise. The casetas are all outdoors so it’s pretty cool watching the sky change colours but my goodness we’re all so ugly by daylight.
- Breakfast: kebab and then bed.
- Midday: wake up, shower in slow motion and get ready to do it all again.
By the end of the week, not only is everyone completely hoarse, but visibly deteriorating. Bloated from beer, hobbling from wearing heels all the time, dark rings under every eye. Conversation frequently turns to what we all want to do ‘when the feria is over and life goes back to normal’. Every second person plans to give up alcohol, every other vows to never eat another kebab again. But the feria itself is treated as a compulsory activity, to be endured until the end, and if you’re not having fun then perhaps there might be something wrong with you. Even the elderly, or people with young kids, or people still working (in Hinojosa the whole week is a public holiday, but farmers can’t just let their animals run wild due to the feria), are expected to participate. For the most part it’s heaps of fun, emigrated relatives return to the village, the population doubles, the atmosphere is of chaos and reunion and light hearted wild abandon. But sometimes it seemed a bit much. One friend of mine, a working mother with serious health issues and who was emotionally drained by a recent family tragedy, had just had her only three weeks holiday entirely chewed up by three consecutive ferias, all of which she was socially obliged to attend. Surely there’s a limit, where it’s okay to just say ‘no, I don’t feel like it today’. But people don’t. They ludicrously keep pushing through, long after they’ve stopped having fun. This isn’t a phenomenon isolated to Spanish ferias, it happens in social settings all over the world, and it makes no sense.
I couldn’t help but get a little angry when on Wednesday afternoon I mentioned being just a wee bit tired of the casetas, and that I didn’t know if I felt like sticking around to see the closing fireworks that evening. I was told to aguantar, stick it out, and tolerate a few (10 or so) more hours until the feria officially finished and we could all proudly go home with our heads held high at having made it to the end. What rubbish. I love going out, I love drinking and dancing and being silly (probably too much), but I absolutely can’t stand doing it out of social obligation, and it pains me to see everyone trying so hard to carry out the script of a feria/rollocking Saturday night/insert orchestrated social event here.
That last evening I made an escape from the casetas, to have dinner with a friend in a bar where conversation was actually possible. Needless to say, after a few beverages, another night out didn’t seem such a daunting prospect, and of course I stayed up to see the fireworks. I’m glad I did, they were spectacular, and easily on par with any displays I’ve seen in big cities. However shortly after the last crack and fizzle, I made a thankful beeline for bed. A week of partying like I was ten years younger had left me completely sin pilas, without batteries, and feeling at least ten years older than I actually am.
The morning after the fireworks ‘closing ceremony’, I take a quiet stroll to Santo Cristo, the chapel on the hill where I used to regularly walk and run when I lived in the village. It seems surreal that it was just months ago. The countryside has once again dried up to the late summer yellow it was when I first arrived. Everything is dead and muted in the wake of the past week’s colourful madness. Back in town, the Africans and Gypsies have all disappeared, the food vans have folded inward and are making ready to leave, and the bars are closed so the waiters can finally have their holiday. The friend I’m staying with admits to feeling lost. It’s like the after-Christmas come down, all that waiting, and now suddenly it’s over. There’s a lot to be done, cleaning, shopping for regular groceries and balanced meals, petrol to be bought before the government hikes up the taxes again on Sunday. But for the moment, no one else leaves their houses, and Hinojosa is once again a ghost town.
So would I go again to a Spanish feria? Almost certainly. But forewarned is forearmed. Next time, I’ll stick to my pija, snobby, city roots, and just visit for the weekend. I’d like to go a larger feria, that of Sevilla, for example. There, I am told, they have a bigger variety of better casetas, and not all the rides are SpongeBob themed.
As for the onerous journey to and from Segovia to Hinojosa… I don’t think I’ll be making that trip frequently. As much as I’ll miss my ex-village and the people in it, I’m ecstatic to finally be moving somewhere a little more cosmopolitan. Before I leave Spain, I’ll definitely go back to visit beloved Hinojosa, but perhaps just not during the feria period.