A Dance of Memory - Sant Pere de Ribes, Catalonia

By Alan Nance:

An overcast Monday, a quarter strike from noon. At the edge of town I leave the road and start along the dirt track, and it is there I spot the pack of devils up ahead. Their hessian capes are emblazoned on the back with tongues of fire and dragon scales, while from their hoods two red horns protrude. The leader is carrying a long staff with a metal head split into six prongs, each threaded with an unspent gerb, a fountain firework. I watch him flick a cigarette end to the ground, and I think of the smoke that will soon fill the air.

Sant Pere de Ribes lies some 40 kilometres to the south of Barcelona and five kilometres inland from the coastal resort of Sitges. A town with its own quiet history, it is a place where people live and work rather than somewhere that draws the visitors. There are two days of the year, however, when a visit is worthwhile. In keeping with its name, Sant Pere de Ribes celebrates its annual festival on the Feast of St Peter, 29 June. But a year without festivities would be too much for any self-respecting Catalan to bear, so come midwinter – on 25 January – the townspeople take to the streets once more, this time in celebration of St Paul and his conversion on the road to Damascus. That, at least, is the official motive.

I walk this track almost every week, following its arc through the vineyards and scrubby groves of almond and carob that border the west of town. Today, however, I’m only going as far as the first fork, to where a path leads up to the Chapel of St Paul. On my weekly walks I rarely see a soul here, but today the crowd is thick and I’ve lost sight of the pack of devils, who by now must be gathering with the other demonic troupes in front of the chapel, the starting point for a procession that will make its way down the track and through the streets to the town’s main square.

Looking back I see the way lined with expectant families, many of them showing off their generations. The elders have seen it all before, and you can sense their delight as they wait to share the moment with their children and grandchildren. For a while at least, the thread of blood ties is taut and tangle free.

The neat stonework of the restored Chapel of St Paul belies the fact that this has been a place of worship for over five centuries. Festivities to mark the saint’s conversion are documented as being held here as far back as 1740, and for many years they consisted mostly of traditional dances rooted in Catalan folklore, followed by a communal outdoor meal. Afterwards, the townsfolk would return en masse to their homes, accompanied along the way by groups of dancers. Over time, the dancing descent from the chapel became a parade in its own right, and by the early twentieth century other folkloric elements had been added: drummers, devils and, most notably, a three-headed dragon that is now the main protagonist of every feast day in the town.

From the direction of the main square I hear the sound of four quarter bells followed by a toll of twelve, and shortly afterwards the faithful few who have been attending a special mass inside the chapel begin to make their way down the path to where I am standing. The stragglers barely have time to take their place among the waiting crowd before the drumming begins and the leading devil, his six-pronged staff aloft, starts to make his way along the track.

At the first bend he stops and is encircled by his henchmen, each of whom carries a shorter staff topped by a single fresh gerb. Someone throws a flare to the ground, and each of the devils lowers the head of his staff towards the flame. Contact is made, sparks fizz and fly, and the devils leap back and begin dancing in a circle, their raised staffs raining fire and delight over the onlookers.

Stepping back out of range I watch as hoodied teenagers wearing kids’ sunglasses lurch forward and start bobbing around at the heart of the whistling fountain. It’s not about getting hurt, but it might not be bad to go home with a singed jacket or a mark on hand or cheek, a badge of honour to be shown off at school tomorrow.

Once the fireworks are spent the band of devils moves off again, only to be replaced by a similar troupe of drummers and demons who have been following along behind, and who are now letting fly – with more directional malice – their own screaming shower.

Not far behind them I see the star of the show come into view. The dragon, some three metres tall, is scaly green with a red-plate backbone and four human feet, the only sign of the two carriers who are lodged inside its fibre-glass body. From its three mouths, long red tongues protrude, while around each of its necks it wears a pair of much larger gerbs that when ignited will make the devils’ rain seem like drizzle. As the fuses are lit, smartphones and cameras are held up before the beast, and I think of crucifixes and vampires and of how our talismans have changed. The dragon belches light and heat into the winter sky, and people cheer.

The parade will carry on like this all the way to the main square, and I decide to head there for the finale. The ground is strewn with carton tubes, discards from when the devils reload their staffs, and there is now a definite hint of sulphur in the air. So as to avoid the crowds I cut down a side road that will bring me out on the other side of the square from where the procession will enter, and it is then, tucked away in a back street away from the action, that I see something which makes me think of the man in whose name the festivities are officially being held.

It is too much for me to imagine that someone might walk the road to Damascus today and come away with anything resembling faith. Yet here beneath a makeshift banner that someone has strung between two trees in an ordinary Catalan town that few have heard of, I do at least feel that all is not lost. In one corner of the white rectangular sheet, someone has painted the stylised figures of a family in flight, two adults and a child who seem to be running towards the simple message, written in English, that the banner displays: Refugees Welcome.

In the square the terraces of the two bars and two cafes are filling up as people look to secure a spot from where to watch the finale, or simply to settle down to an afternoon’s eating and, above all, drinking. I linger until the procession makes its entrance, but decide then that I’ve had enough for today. It is as I’m leaving the square that I notice, strung between two plane trees on the far side, another banner, one whose message seems to capture two faces of this community, of this town that has become my home. Written in Catalan the banner calls on people to fight for a Republic and for social justice, but it is the hashtagged message at the bottom that most catches my eye. #FestasiLluitatambé – enjoy the party, but don’t forget the fight.

Alan Nance is a writer and translator based in Catalonia. He blogs at www.walkinginmind.com  and tweets @alanjnance