Internationally, most people associate the Penedès with quality white wines, but this area is also famous for its strong popular culture. Nowhere is this more true than in Vilafranca del Penedès and especially during its Festa Major.
In 1699, the relics of the originally Italian martyr Felix of Girona were brought to Vilafranca and, after years of drought in the vineyards, it finally started to rain. Many elements nowadays associated with the town – the giants, the eagle, the devils and, above all, the dragon - trace back longer in history, but from 1776, when Sant Fèlix (Sant Feliu in other parts of Catalonia) was declared the new patron saint, the festa major celebrated to his honour follows the same structure.
Nowadays, the main sponsor of the event is the local government (ajuntament), but the vilafranquins as of tradition contribute directly as well through the so called capta. Historically, money used to be collected house by house, street by street.
On its first day, August 29, the festivity formally starts with bell ringing in all the churches, which in turn triggers the tronada - something an avarage Swede would describe as five minutes of unbearable noise, since one string of firecrackers after the other goes off along the rambla de la Nostra Senyora, but which is extremely appreciated here. As soon as the street has been cleared, the cultural teams (colles) start to move in the first performance parade (cercavila). Later in the evening, the same people take part in the first Sant Fèlix procession – l’entradeta - but this time they are followed by the statue of the Patron Saint, brought from the house of one of last year’s festa major organizers (l’administradors) to the Santa Maria church.
August 30 is the day of Sant Fèlix and starts with a solemn mass in the morning. Thereafter follows a commemoration at the monument of human tower builders (castellers) in the plaça de Jaume I. About noon, the focus switches to the plaça de la Vila, where a huge crowd of people sing the Catalan national anthem –els Segadors – and then see the castellers making their entry into the square in pillar formations. Only the four best ranked teams of Catalonia are allowed to take part in this high profile challenge and that usually means the Colla Vella dels Xiquets de Valls, the Colla Joves Xiquets de Valls, the Minyons de Terrassa and the Castellers de Vilafranca.
In the evening the same day follows a new Sant Fèlix procession (l’entrada). This time it makes a loop through the town but it is made up by the same cultural teams and, again, ends at the Santa Maria church, where all participants make a final joint performance - as intense as emotional. After that the saint is brought into the church and celebrated with a poetic elegy (goig).
August 31 is often called the’ day of the dances’ (dia dels balls), since – after another morning mass - there is a huge folk dance exhibition. Many of these dances can be found throughout the Penedès area, but Vilafranca has them all plus local specialties like the ball de figuetaires. An interesting detail is the fact that the ball de gitanes until 1999 used to be performed by real (roma) gypsies.
At the end of the show it is time for the Falcons de Vilafranca, in turn followed by more human towers – la diada de Sant Ramon - the chance for the Xicots de Vilafranca to, together with the Castellers de Vilafranca, show that also they are a team which easily reaches eight levels (colla de vuit), albeit not belonging to Catalonia's top four teams.
In the procession of this evening, the Sant Fèlix statue leaves the Santa Maria church and is paraded to the home of one of the current year’s administradors. During the year up to the next festa major, these will take turns keeping him in their houses.
The performance parade for children take place on September 1, when, after dark, there is also an opportunity to dance under fire in the ball de foc. On September 2, the festa major is symbolically rounded off with fireworks.
Vilafranca proudly claims to house the most typical festa major (la més típica) and most people agree that the conservation of its format, its rich and spectacular collection of monster animals (bestiari popular) and dances and, above all, the massive participation of the inhabitants makes it a model for the whole of Catalonia. This spring, it was voted one of the top 10 treasures of Catalonia’s and Andorra’s immaterial cultural heritage and it does, of course, form part of the Generalitat’s list of Festivities of National Interest.
Having started last year with the human towers of Sant Fèlix, this time I decided to try to capture as much Vilafranca atmosphere as possible – starting with the practice (assaig) by the Castellers de Vilafranca, followed by the cercavila, l’entradeta and, again, la Diada de Sant Fèlix. Although I am content, next year I will make sure not to miss l’Entrada, even if that means that I will have to fight for a restaurant table with all other people who are hungry after having watched castells for hours. That, I foresee, will not be my best memory from Vilafranca, but it does not matter. The more often I go here, the more often do I want to come back. Not only during the Festa Major.
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Find the official Festa Major de Vilafranca del Penedès web-page here. My other main source for this entry was this article at festes.org.
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Technorati tags: Castellers, Catalonia, Festa Major, Human Towers, Penedès, Vilafranca