I was in the Valle del Alagón pruning my brother-in-law’s olive trees because the useless bastard threw his back out again. He gave me a heads up, told me Luis was going to show up at some point, that he might need a hand.
Luis. I’m not his biggest fan. He may very well be the worst plumber in Spain. When Lola and I bought an old fixer upper five years ago he did all the plumbing. Luis isn’t the sharpest tack in the pack. He’s slow, goes way over budget, and leaves cigarette butts scattered all over the floor. The first time I used the toilet after he finished the job I thought, that’s odd… it’s awfully steamy down there… The fecking guy connected our toilet to the hot water pipes. I suppose that wouldn’t be such a bad idea if you lived north of the Arctic Circle, but in Spain it’s really not necessary.
Out there on my own, in the middle of the countryside, the morning passed by pleasantly enough. Fresh air, bleating sheep, the frogs that take over the pool every winter croaking away, the storks clacking their beaks from atop the stone tower over by the chicken sheds… Occasionally the scratchy loudspeaker in the nearby village of Alagón del Río¹ announces a job offer or a town meeting, shaking you out of your hermit’s daydream, reminding you that civilization (and a cold beer) are just over the next hill.
Luis arrived and I opened the gate. He drove up to the house and went about his business, fixing a couple of taps in the garden that one of the dogs chewed to bits. He left his car radio on. Full blast. Luis isn’t the sensitive type. If I had asked him to turn off the radio and marvel at the magical sounds of nature’s very own music that were all around us, he probably would’ve thrown a rock at my head. He’s a miserable old fellow.
“Volando Voy” by Camarón de la Isla came on the radio.
“¿Luis, te gusta Camarón? ¿Te gusta el flamenco?” I asked. (“Luis, you like Camarón? You like flamenco?”)
“¿Que dices? Esa mierda es pa’ los gitanos y los guiris.”(“You crazy? That shit’s for gypsies and tourists.”)
“Bueno, pues nada.” (“Sorry I asked.”) I gave it a shot.
“Igual que el encierro de Pamplona, o esa fiesta donde la gente tira tomates todo el puto día. Una mierda.” (“Just like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, or that festival where people throw tomatoes at each other all fucking day. It’s crap.”)
“Dios, estás de mal humor hoy.” (“Christ, you’re in a bad mood today.”)
“Mira, tío, si quieres ver algo auténtico, tienes que ir a Piornal la semana que viene.” (“Look, man, if you want to see something authentic, you have to go to Piornal next week.”)
I knew what he was talking about: Jarramplas. When I told him I had experienced Jarramplas back in 2008, he briefly let his guard down. The look on his face was one of surprise and admiration. He was impressed, but he quickly recovered.
“Vaya, los guiris van a destruir todo.” (“Christ, the tourists are going to destroy everything.”)
Jarramplas mural, Piornal
At 1,175 meters (3,855 ft) Piornal (population: 1,500) is the highest village in Extremadura. Heading back to Plasencia from my brother-in-law’s place in the country you get a good view of Piornal where the new EX-A1 highway meets the old N-630 leading into the industrial park. As you pass the slaughterhouse on your right, just before you reach the neon lights of La Torre (the local brothel) on your left, you catch a glimpse of the rough, cement houses of Piornal clinging to the rocks of the Sierra de Tormantos up above.
Jarramplas is easily the most insane fiesta I’ve ever witnessed. Jarramplas is a figure who, according to local folklore, represents something from the most profound depths of hell, or a goat thief. The centuries old festival takes place every year on the 19th and 20th of January.
Back in 2008, we arrived in Piornal around noon on the second day of the party. The streets were completely littered with frozen chunks of smashed nabos, large turnips, that the villagers throw at Jarramplas as he makes his way through the streets banging on a drum. 14,000 kilos of turnips were shipped to Piornal for the festival that year.
A couple of villagers take turns putting on a protective suit covered in brightly colored strips of fabric and a large painted mask. They go out into the street, one at a time, and start beating on a large animal skin drum to announce their presence. Here comes the fun part: hundreds of liquored up villagers come running, armed with enormous turnips which they throw with all their strength at poor old Jarramplas, pummeling him mercilessly.
The crazy thing, even crazier than throwing rock hard turnips at someone for two days straight as a form of entertainment, is that there is a waiting list for those who want to be Jarramplas. Currently the wait is twenty years. Piornalegos (the citizens of Piornal) sign their children up when they are still pre-schoolers. Having one of your own represent Jarramplas is a real point of pride for the locals.
It was quite a stressful day, running through the streets surrounded by drunken revelers armed with giant turnips. I saw two guys with swollen faces and black eyes, but their injuries didn’t seem to slow them down in the least. I can only imagine how they felt the next day, after the alcohol wore off. There was a rather hectic moment at 4 pm when Jarramplas, after making his way through half the village, arrived at the church, la iglesia de San Juan. I got trapped in the crowd and was swept inside. The large wooden doors were hurriedly closed and Jarramplas, cornered just outside, took one helluva beating from the crowd. The sound of all those turnips smashing against the doors was terrifying.
The doors were opened and Jarramplas entered the church surrounded by cheering villagers. People began singing as a wooden sculpture of the Christian saint and martyr, Saint Sebastian, was carried through the aisles. A couple of people helped Jarramplas remove his mask. He wiped off all the sweat and turnip shrapnel that managed to make it through the eye slits in his mask with a towel. The villagers congratulated him for his bravery. The women gave him hugs, the men shook his hand, and the boys looked on in envy. One day that’ll be me…
The crowd filed back out of the church into the square and reloaded. A small tractor was driving around all day dumping mountains of turnips in strategic spots throughout the village. People scrambled to get their hands on the best ammunition. They drank and chanted, pumping themselves up in anticipation of Jarramplas’s exit from the church. The tension was building and finally Jarramplas was shoved out into the street and the doors were quickly slammed behind him. He started banging on his drum and the air was filled with flying turnips once again. Una auténtica lluvia de nabos. A bona fide turnip storm. People scattered in all directions.
It’s important to keep out of the line of fire of the moving crowd. It’s easier said than done. I lost sight of Lola (who was really not enjoying herself at all) for a couple of minutes. I found her crouched behind a phone booth (remember those?) that was covered in strips of plywood to keep the glass doors from being smashed.
from the Jarramplas museum
We wandered off for a bit to get a break from the constant ducking and dodging and stress of wondering when, not if, we were going to get clobbered by a frozen turnip. We took a stroll over to the local Jarramplas museum which, this being Spain, is equipped with a bar. At that particular moment the place was full of singing, inebriated revelers. We grabbed a couple of beers and strolled through the tiny museum.
And that’s pretty much it. We wanted to get off the side of the mountain before sundown. Those roads are treacherous enough in the daylight. We got back to the car, which miraculously survived the entire day without any flying root vegetable damage, and braved the narrow, winding, pothole-riddled mountain roads back down to Plasencia.
1: The village was called Alagón del Caudillo until 1983. Caudillo, the Spanish word for leader or chief, was Franco’s title on official documents. After the word signifying that the village belonged to the dictator was dropped, the village became known simply as Alagón. Then, in 2008 the villagers voted to change the name to Alagón del Río so as not to be confused with the town of Alagón in Zaragoza, in northeastern Spain. The humble road sign at the entrance to the village is still frequently vandalized. The word “Río” is regularly spray-painted over and replaced with the word “Caudillo”. Fascism dies slowly around these parts.