The curious case of
Pirates, poison or purgatory?
James Dyson visits one of Spain’s most peculiar festivals
In late February, a friend of mine invited me to her home town of Torrenueva on the southernmost tip of Castilla-La Mancha to witness perhaps one of Spain’s most curious and impenetrable fiestas.
La Borrica, as it’s called, doesn’t even get an entry on Wikipedia, which in today’s digital universe must be the very definition of obscurity. There again, maybe the absence of Wiki recognition is also because no one can quite agree on when or why it became a fiesta in the first place.
Some will tell you that La Borrica was originally a thanksgiving fiesta for the return of Spanish soldiers from the war of Flanders. Others suggest that the fiesta was a Church fundraising activity created by a XVII Century lay brotherhood that simply dressed up as soldiers. There are even those that believe it commemorates a famous battle in Moorish times when the locals rode out on donkeys to defend their lands against the Arab invaders.
Even if it seems unlikely that a bunch of mule-mounted peasants would have seen off soldiers from what was then one of the world’s most advanced civilisations, La Borrica still has quite a few other peculiarities.
“IF THE ATMOSPHERE HAS SOMETHING OF A CELTIC WAKE ABOUT IT, THAT IS MOSTLY DUE TO THE EARLY MORNING CONSUMPTION OF ALCOHOL”
First of all, the fiesta begins not in the main square, in a church or even at the town hall, but outside the apparently nondescript home of one of the townsfolk. You know where to find it because scarecrows are strung up at either end of the street. This is just as well, since La Borrica is celebrated slap bang in the middle of carnival week and kicks off at eight o’clock in the morning – presenting something of a challenge for those with a hangover from the night before.
They make the effort because one of the duties of the family of honour is to offer everyone a free breakfast – which is just as well because on the day we were there it was windy, cold and wet.
What is less reassuring is the ceremony that proceeds breakfast. From the top floor of the house a family member unfurls a rather unsettling flag. Apart from wondering what a pirate’s insignia was doing in the middle of the landlocked province of Ciudad Real, I couldn’t help remembering that this is also the international symbol for poison.
Top: A lone donkey joins the procession; the church of Santiago el Mayor
Above: The mounted procession; traditional Manchego pastries are offered
In fact, La Borrica is not about poisoning or piracy.
It’s about a promise that the family has made to the dead spirits in purgatory. Part of that promise is to offer food and drink to Torrenueva’s entire 3,000 inhabitants. However, what is rarely known is why the family has committed itself to such expense in the first place.
So as everyone files inside the family home for breakfast, the big unspoken question is what joyful or tragic event has motivated the family’s promise. On this occasion, speculation centred on a shotgun suicide in the family – but lest I be accused of gratuitously contributing to the Black Legend of Spain, I should add that families often volunteer for La Borrica just for the fun of it.
If the atmosphere inside has something of a Celtic wake about it, that is mostly due to the early morning consumption of alcohol. After cups of hot chocolate and sponge cakes, festival goers move on to drinking the local Valdepeñas wine accompanied by rustic bread dipped into “ensalá”: a potent mixture of olive oil, lemon, garlic and pimenton. So when the family head off for morning mass the rest of us feel the irresistible urge to go back to bed.
In fact, a mid morning siesta is a good option because the main Borrica festivities do not begin until early afternoon. By then, the crowd outside the family’s home has swelled into the hundreds and they have been joined by dozens of townsfolk mounted on horses. Before farm mechanisation put them out of work, they used to ride donkeys, hence the name of the fiesta.
At 2pm, La Borrica flag is furled up and passed down to the head of the family, who is now seated on a horse. At his side, another family member takes up the mayoral staff and a third carries a drum. To the accompaniment of drumbeats, the local cavalry then trots off to the Plaza de España, where at the entrance to the church a prayer is offered to the dead.
Scarecrows are strung up across the street; the crowd waits for the cavalcade to arrive
What follows next is as entertaining as it is potentially dangerous.
The entire mounted procession heads off at a gallop through the narrow cobbled streets on a series of visits to the various religious shrines around the town. Cornering the right-angled streets at a gallop can be a risky business especially if it has rained, but I have read that only once was the cavalcade abandoned. Due to heavy snowfall, apparently the visits were carried out on tractors and trailers.
From time to time the riders take a rest at the family’s home, where they and the spectators are offered a selection of Manchego pastries including buñuelos, rosquillos, ojuelos, and sequillos. This is all washed down with a local punch of white wine, lemon, soda water and lots of sugar. The limoná has been prepared all morning and ensures that each tour of the town’s shrines is a little more reckless than the previous one.
Spectators with a taste for risk can also a hitch a ride on the horses, but I have to admit my courage failed me. By the end of the afternoon, the cavalcades get progressively shorter until the parish priest turns up to accept alms for the blessed souls of purgatory.
Whether or not La Borrica was originally designed as a fundraising-activity for the Church, it certainly is now.
James Dyson is a British journalist and communications consultant based in Madrid. At Dysoncommunications.com, he publishes a blog on cultural and professional events, as well as communication tips and advice. His Spanish-language blog Teosiesta focuses on the similarities and differences between British and Spanish society and culture.
Green Adventures March 2015