Water, water everywhere: Festa de Sant Magi, Tarragona, August 2008

We walked into our nemesis quite casually. What had started out as a rendez-vous for a look at one of the better parades of Sant Magi, Tarragona’s Festa Major Petita, and a quiet drink in the Plaça de la Font began to take on the all too familiar fiesta fever as friends passed by, stopped, suggested the next place along the trail of the parade . . . Innocent fools that we were, we all thought we’d be safe. After all, this wasn’t Santa Tecla, the city’s Festa Major proper, who’s Chatreuse-charged, pyromaniac debauchery is not for the fainthearted. In contrast, Sant Magi is a staid affair. Both fiestas have their due portions of piety, or course, but their corresponding profane elements, a very necessary counterbalance, are profoundly different; Santa Tecla is above all else about fire, whereas Sant Magi is based around water.

Sant Magi*  himself was probably an III or IV Century hermit who lived in the Sierra de Brufaganya, his hermitage is hidden among cliffs overlooking a delightful secret valley near the headwaters of the Riu Gaià. After the dramatic ravines encountered downstream the landscape beyond the Sierra de Brufaganya opens out to reveal the rolling hill country that separates the Segre basin from the plains of Tarragona. This is wheat and sheep country where the horizons stretch away to the distant Pyrenees. There’s a curious similarity with the English Cotswolds, however, maybe it’s the honey coloured stone of the buildings and the drystone walls that stretch away in all directions. Or perhaps it’s the sense of ominous desolation; in winter this area is bleak, with unstoppable cold dry winds and the few villages have a closed, shut-away atmosphere about them. Life must have been hard indeed for the likes of Sant Magi. Nothing is known in detail about his exploits but it appears that from the early XII Century a cult grew up around his tomb, resulting in the establishment of a monastery or ‘Sanctuary’ alongside. Magi appeared in papal lists of saints in the XVI Century with over 300 miracles accredited to him. By the early XVIII Century the number of pilgrims was such that extra wells had to be dug to cope with the demand for healing waters and it was during alterations to the crypt in 1735 that his remains were found to be uncorrupted and have the ‘odour of sanctity’.

One curiosity from Sant Magi’s iconography is that he holds an Arab scimitar. There’s no possibility of him being involved in the reconquista if we accept that he lived at least two centuries before the Moorish invasion in 711CE. Perhaps his name was invoked as part of a blood-curdling battle cry by subsequent re-conquering heroes. Brufaganya is just about within the sphere of the Counts of Urgell, a rough lot who used to smite the Moors with a will, when they could tear themselves away from smiting each other, and when they smote their enemies stayed well and truly smitten!

The link with Tarragona dates from 1588, when the city’s bishop made a pilgrimage to mark the departure of the Spanish Armada. Perhaps he had family among the ships’ crews as Tarragona had a history of naval jaunts; Catalan King Jaume I, the Conqueror, launched his invasion fleet, said to consist of over 500 vessels, from this coast in 1229 and,

We set sail on Wednesday morning with the land wind behind us . . . and when the men of Tarragona and Cambrils saw the fleet getting under way from Salou, they too made sail, and it was a fine thing for both those on land and for us to watch, for all the sea seemed white with sails, so great was our fleet.**

Pilgrimages to the Sanctuary are also recorded from other towns and villages, and that of nearby Santa Coloma de Queralt is known to have been continuous from those days. A feature is that water from the spring at Brufaganya is carried back. This water is noted for curative powers, most notably for venereal diseases, so it’s always handy to lay a bottle or two. What is certainly true, as proved in actual tests, is that it tastes revolting.

Nowadays the route of the aigüa miraculosa, or miracle water, is followed by a caravan of horses and carts, which carry the water itself. The passage takes two days and its progress is eagerly reported in the local rag, the Diari de Tarragona. As one of Tarragona’s two Festes Majors, the celebrations start well before this, but when the cavalcade finally arrives in the early evening of August the 18th the party really begins. The caravan is joined the seguici popular, or entourage of bands, giants, caps grossos, colles of castellers . . . All in fact, but for the city’s Mythical Beasts, who are kept well and truly under lock and key until they ‘break out’ at Santa Tecla in late September and all hell lets loose! The seguici does several circuits of the mediaeval city centre. One notable feature is that the drovers and crew of the carts bring huge amounts of basil, so as to disperse the fleas, flies and other beasties that they might have picked up in the countryside, and to scent the city with its sweet smell.

There comes a moment in all fiestas when, sometimes after a long gestation as the fiesta really gets in to the swing, one finally just let’s go; the mind losses all sense of being sensible and earnest and all one’s other anglosajon virtues. It happened to our little party when we unwittingly entered the Plaça del Rei, where huge set pieces of carts, barrels and watermelons (another ‘icon’ of the Fiesta, on the first big night, literally called La Sindriada, crowds queue up to buy slices of deliciously refreshing watermelon for a token 5 cents to a musical accompaniment – it’s all completely silly!). We’d passed this way in previous years and seen the illuminated fountains of water gushing out of the sets, but we had no idea of what was to happen next; a deluge of 35,000 litres of water suddenly soaked us to the skin. There was nothing for it but to go completely crazy and what followed is a blur of recollections; walking through the city, still soaked, passing amongst all the ‘respectable’ folk in their big-night-out night finery going to or coming from the cities packed restaurants, straying into a late night bar and freezing as the powerful air conditioning chilled our damp clothes, falling on a gut busting Full English Breakfast next day with lashings of brown sauce, red sauce, Worcestershire sauce . . . getting stuck among the Xiquets de Tarragona achieving a new personal best tres de nou (nine ‘storeys’ of three persons each, a very fine ‘castle’ indeed!), running into our ‘gang’ during the lethal l’ora del vermut, when the only hangover cure on offer is the proverbial hair-of-the-dog . . .

Postscript: we were flattered reading the report of the fiesta that the Plaça del Rei was filled with jóvenes, as none of our party will see fifty again, and some not even sixty, or maybe even seventy! Having got our guests well and truly slaughtered at Sant Magi I was somewhat dubious about accepting an invitation for a day’s sailing, a first time for me, on their retirement home, the twenty-two ton ketch Samothrace***. But I needn’t have worried, having fixed the date the fickle weather did its worst and laid on a dead calm. But at least I could learn the ropes in peace and the subtleties of keeping her head to the wind, achieving a personal best of 2.4 knots – no match for the automatic pilot’s effortless 2.8!

* With thanks to Dr Graham Jones of Leicester University

** From Jaume’s autobiography, El Llibre dels Feits, or Book of Deeds, translated in Robert Hughes’ Barcelona (1992)

*** Photo courtesy of Dave Gayler