How many cultures around the world celebrate with sheep decoration and alcohol? No, seriously, I’m asking. It would seem that the festival of Sant Joan de Ciutadella on the island of Menorca is not a singular event in the world, especially because it came from Pagan festivals and then incorporated Medieval traditions and Christianity, but they sure do make it all their own. For all the background information you can visit menorca-live.com/festes-de-sant-joan-de-ciutadella-menorca/.
For a bit over a week (9 days) the entire city of Ciutadella celebrates. The origin story, as it was told to me was, this annual festival is to celebrate the medieval knights who went to fight a war with the rest of Spain and the sheep was brought to all the knights’ homes as payment and to symbolize the call to arms. As the knights rode out to battle the celebration ensued. Fast-forwarding to the present, over the next several days the roads are covered in sawdust and broken nuts and knights on horseback riding through the streets. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It all starts with a sheep.
Beginning on Saturday, June 20 (at least in 2015) crowds all gather at a particular person’s home (I think it changes each year) where a male sheep is being kept in a pen about five feet above the ground. It is the tradition for people to visit the sheep and yell at it to keep it awake all night. As there are hundreds of people passing by, taking pictures, and talking to each other it is easy to believe that sound of the street quickly becomes a dull roar. Visitors come and go in shifts; some families come together before dinner, after dinner (which is when we were there), or later and later throughout the night. One can also imagine that as the night goes on a number of drunken people rises rapidly and some craziness can occur, but we left before that.
Day 2 – July 21:
After being kept up all night the sheep is pampered with a wash, a brush and is adorned with ribbons. This day is known as Diumenge des Be or the Sunday of the Lamb. All day long the Homo des Be (man of the sheep) carries the relaxed sheep on his shoulders circling around the city to the different knight’s homes while barefoot and wearing sheepskin. This man is accompanied by a small traveling band made up of a flutist and a drummer whom all met in the early morning at the balcony of the Caiser Senyor where the drummer is given the red and white cross flag of Sant Joan.
While walking through the city, mobs follow the procession through both wide-open squares and thin alleyways. This is not only to listen to the music that is continuously played nor to get a decent photograph or video, which is really difficult because of the sheer number of people (trust me, I was there) but also because petting the sheep’s wool is supposedly good luck. Maybe it’s just luck enough to make it out of the crowd alive, but in whatever way good luck presents itself I’m just happy that I can say I got a pet in while a was taking a video… which is probably why the video itself sucks.
And, of course, no festival would be complete without the traditional booze. In Menorca’s case, the special drink is called pomada, a mix of the island’s gin and lemonade. Even though we, along with the locals, drank this every night it will make a nasty and more entertaining appearance on a later date.
Day 3 – July 22:
As everyone knows vacations are hard, just kidding. With the week off from the field school, the instructors took us to various areas of the island that relate to what each course was more or less focused on. My group, of five, was the scuba divers and so we went straight to the ocean side. Up to the stone ruins of an ancient town high up on a cliff side. From this point, the citizens living there could have seen everything around, the perfect defensible position. We then drove a bit further northwest to caves that were used as homes and temples in an earlier era. What was incredible about that site was that while the outside rock was slightly carved to decorate ‘doorways’, the enormous inside was only a bit natural. While the caves themselves had mostly formed naturally the people who lived there carved most of the separate rooms with all of the special benches, fire pits, and columns.
After we all met together again at the oldest structure on the island (most likely a tomb) we visited a site with Roman and older pottery that was scattered across the ground like bubble gum wrappers or cigarettes in New York City. While a lot of history is known about that specific site it’s the time of Roman occupation not much is known from before, theories fly around that there could be buildings and temples built by the Minoans. Large stones stacked like capital T’s are thought, by some, to be reminiscent of the Minoan bullheads, though there is no official proof of this (for more info: https://www.historicmysteries.com/taulas-menorca/).
Continuing on with the day we all take the time to stop running around and eat a simple lunch at a beach, specifically Cala Pilar. I brought my white bikini, which may have not been the best idea looking back, and I was fairly uncovered. The water was warm and relaxed, not much in the way of waves and so clear we could easily see the bottom. Sand led, on the right side, to large basalt and sandstone rocks growing into a cliff face. In this area, there is another tradition that was shared with us, mud therapy. The red mud at the base of the cliff has been used for a type of lotion for centuries. All the coolest people of our group, at least the ones who didn’t care about getting dirty, climbed over the rocks and reached the mud. We covered our legs, stomachs, backs, and arms. I even painted my own to be more like war paint, putting a few lines on my face as well. Over a short period of time I could feel the mud drying and tighten on top of my skin and in several more minutes, I jumped back into the water to wash it off.
My skin was so soft and smooth, the best ‘lotion’ I had ever used. I know they pack and sell it to different countries, but I would rather spend the time and money to just go back and get it for free. Would be worth it for another vacation. The slight downside is that the mud stained my bikini, but there is an upside to that too; whenever I see that suit with its red stains I always remember that wonderful experience.
Day 4 – July 23:
According to my photo history, since looking back the days all seem to bleed together, the next day was the ‘horse party’, the main event. The main square by the waterfront was where the knights displayed their prowess and control over the huge Menorcan horses they rode. With a growing crowd comes an aspect of danger. While the knights ride directly through the crowds they also rear the horses. Just like the sheep a few days previous it is supposedly good luck to touch horses as they are being ridden, even more so if you touch them while rearing. With a crowd of hundreds attempting to touch the same horse, at the same time, accidents happen. Just one year before we arrived a man died after being kicked in the head as the horse came back down. Whether he was just being an idiot, running up to a rearing horse and not getting out of the way in time or if he got pushed up to the rearing horse and couldn’t move out of the way because of the crowd, it is still a tragic occurrence. And one that I was not anxious to duplicate.
All day and into the night the horses ran through the crowds all around the city. I was able to touch and even pet a few of them (while stationary) over that time and even for the next few days, but I was always weary about where the crowds were because I had a couple close calls early in the day. With the enormous crowds pushing you closer and closer to the action, there are times when you just might have to duck.
Day 5 – July 24:
Over the off week, nights were spent out at bars or clubs almost every night. There was one wide alleyway where the water for the harbor ended and the occasional bridges became shorter and shorter until streets on either side came together in a triangle shape; that was where the clubs were. Where most of the young people spent their time. But this particular night didn’t take place at a club at night, oh no, this started in the early evening and ran throughout the entire city.
Almost nearing the end of the week there were more and more traditions that continued to reveal themselves. One of them was the throwing of hollowed out hazelnuts at each other. During the late morning, before the mandated siesta (break time after lunch), we were out walking as a group and saw heaps of people, both young and old, throwing nuts at each other and laughing. We all decided to join in, throwing at the other people we knew in the group rather than total strangers. It was really fun! Since the nuts weren’t very heavy it didn’t hurt when you got hit either. While we were having our ‘battle’ a film crew made their way over and started to record us. I don’t know whatever became of that taping, but it makes me laugh when I think of a bunch of archaeology students from abroad being featured on Spanish TV at a Spanish festival.
Continuing on with the day another student, Teddy, and I took a break from everyone and went to write in our journals at a café across town. (And yes, I’m being completely literal and serious right now.) For at least an hour we sat outside and didn’t speak while writing. As the sun began to set more and more people were coming outside for another night of celebration. This time I really wanted in on the fun, so after my journal entry was completed I slipped the book and pen back into my purse and together with my friend set off to find the best pomada.
It seemed like every single café and bar had its own pomada recipe, but they all tasted pretty much the same, but also different. At each place, one cup would cost 2€ so Teddy and I took even turns paying for the drinks. Of course, every place gave us cups that we could take away and toss in the garbage, making it easier and faster to walk to each different shop. Personally, my favorite variation was the slushy version that we found at one café, but sadly, we would never find it again.
Eventually, we found ourselves nearby the club alleyway and the harbor. There Teddy saw a sailboat that he thought was too beautiful to ignore, I don’t know much if anything about boats so I wouldn’t be a great judge. The owner was a young man hanging out with his friends who had all come from mainland Spain to celebrate for a few days. While talking, mostly to Teddy, I was kind of listening, in and out, and refocused when they invited us aboard. I was ‘on-board’ (see what I did there??) for this plan cause, hey, free booze and hot guys. This backfired on me a bit because what I didn’t know at the time is that they asked Teddy if he was my boyfriend. Since he wasn’t he told them no (duh), and that, to them meant that it was open season on me, for anything and everything. We chatted a little (and when I say little I mean 5-10 minutes) bit before they started pouring pomada down my throat. Sure I was saying yes at the time and actively participating, but at that point, I was already inebriated, already at the point when I could have easily been taken advantage of. Luckily, Teddy noticed this and asked me if I wanted to go, in one of those silent, mind reading ways, and we politely departed from the men on the boat.
In the square, on the way back to the apartment, we ran into another group from the field school. They brought their own bottle of pomada and were heading to the small inlet beach a couple blocks from our building to drink and chill out. I was definitely drunk at this point, but wanting do as much fun stuff as possible joined them. Here is where my memory gets a bit hazy. I don’t particularly remember walking to the beach, but I remember walking onto the rocks and sitting down and drinking more. We all joked around, though I don’t remember the jokes that were made. And the last thing that I actually remember from that night was joining people in their leap into the water. The funny thing was that I wasn’t wearing my swimming suit, so in true, drunk, 23-year-old fashion, I went skinny-dipping instead.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I was told what happened after that and got those slight recollections in third-person. When you don’t know if it actually happened or if it was just a vivid dream. When I woke up I felt sick, but not an actual hangover, and when I moved the sheets to get out of bed there was a medium sized stain of blood by my feet and my left foot felt stiff and sore. Apparently while climbing out of the water I gashed my foot on a rock, this is when I am glad that I was so drunk that I didn’t feel it, or just didn’t remember the pain. Also because I was so drunk I couldn’t put all my clothes back on so another student lent me a towel to tie around my waist and I put back on my cardigan. Because I just got a gash on the ball of my foot and couldn’t walk Teddy gave me a piggyback ride back to the apartment building where I proceeded to puke my guts out after slipping on my sweats, without underwear, and a spaghetti strap shirt.
Naturally, while listening to this, I was mortified and profusely apologized to everyone who had to see me like that. It was the worst night in terms of my drinking and I scaled WAY BACK afterward, even to the point of not drinking at all. So over the next few days, I went out with people, but I didn’t really party too much and I was even a bit apprehensive about going back to the dock area because I was nervous that those guys would still be there. They weren’t, and the rest of the weekend was enjoyable and ended without any more incidents. After hearing more stories from our group I do wish I had stayed out later on other night, more soberly though, so I could’ve watched the sunrise. Sadly, after that week no one wanted to stay out all night again.
When Monday came everyone had to get back to his or her normal lives and all the evidence of the weeklong party was gone. The roads were suddenly spotless overnight. With not even a speck of shattered nut or speck of sawdust was left on any road. I couldn’t help but marvel at all the work that goes into this festival every year, and how they’ve already been doing it for centuries. The end of it reminds me of a reset button, or a ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ type of a thing. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you learn from it, because everything can be washed clean.
How many cultures around the world celebrate with sheep decoration and alcohol? No, seriously, I’m asking. It would seem that the festival of Sant Joan de Ciutadella on the island of Menorca is not a singular event in the world, especially because it came from Pagan festivals and then incorporated Medieval traditions and Christianity, but they sure do make it all their own.