When last I left you, Mike and I were on our way back to our hotel after watching a fireworks display that did not include guys running down the beach while swinging lighted torches over the heads of those crowded around. As we neared Las Ramblas, we heard screaming and shouting, and we smelled sulfur. Mike thought we had happened upon more fireworks.
We rounded a corner and almost bumped into one of the devil bands we had seen earlier. Thousands of sparks flashed against the night sky. As far up the street as we could see, waves of twinkling bursts exploded from “pitchforks” the devil-clad dancers swung over the heads of the jubilant partiers who pranced down the street with them in time to the pounding percussion. It was a parade of organized pandemonium, and we had stumbled into the middle of it all.
“Those aren’t fireworks!” I was ecstatic. “They’re the fire runners!”
(Allow me to explain that the Catalan tradition of the fire runners goes back to the 12th century. In celebrating the marriage of the Count of Barcelona to the Princess of Aragon, actors entertained the newlyweds with a theatrical battle between good and evil, darkness and light. The traditional battle passed from one generation to another until, deemed too regional by Franco, it was outlawed after the Spanish Civil War.
Shortly before Franco’s death, the tradition started to re-emerge, but with significant changes. Various neighborhoods, each with its own band, started to compete against each other. The devils, now festive and comical instead of evil, involve the crowd in their antics, skipping and dancing along the street while swirling their pitchforks laden with huge, flaming sparklers above the crowd . . . fire running . . . correfoc.)
I could not breathe. Part of it was the excitement of having stumbled on the correfoc, and part of it was due to the fact that there was so much smoke in the air. Via Laietana is not very wide, and the buildings, though only three or four stories tall, are very close together. There was no breeze, so the smoke from the matches and the sparklers just hung low in the air.
Eager to join in the festivities, Michael tried to pull me into the middle of the street where groups of devils were twirling their forks while the crowd shouted and danced underneath. The devils were swinging pitchforks laden with white-hot sparklers. We were both wearing shorts, short-sleeved shirts, and no hats . . . not a good combination, in my opinion. I wasn’t sure if the thumping I heard came from devil drummers or my own heart. Face it. I'm a wuss. Panicked, I ran for the sidewalk.
“I don’t want to get burned!” I shrieked as a devil leaped after me, swinging his pitchfork in my direction. I screamed again and jumped into a doorway much to the amusement of the two inebriated college students who were enjoying their cervezas as well as the spectacle before them as they lounged against the building. They assured me that the devil wouldn’t set me on fire.
“Just yell, ‘¡Agua!’” one of the two said, pointing to a group of people standing on an apartment balcony above us. Buckets – presumably full of water – sat on the floor. I grabbed for Mike, who had followed me to the doorway, and watched over his shoulder at the merriment exploding all around us.
After a few minutes, Michael and I continued to walk against the crowd up Via Laietana, dancing across the street at one point when the devils and their flaming pitchforks were at what I deemed was a safe distance. We stopped to watch. A dragon spewing fire (sparklers) bobbed by us. A devil skipping in our direction suddenly found his pitchfork black. Band members quickly loaded it up with more sparklers and lit them. He bounced down the street accompanied by a delighted group of festival goers, and we skipped back across the street in their wake.
We were almost to the cathedral plaça where the correfoc had started when it seemed as though all of the pitchforks went black at once, and the drumming gradually stopped. The devils and dragons vanished into the shadows, and the crowds dispersed. A fire truck from the city of Barcelona slowly traversed the street, spraying water to put out the remnants of the smoldering sparklers. Behind the fire truck, city workers walked the seven blocks, scooping up the spent sparkler carcasses. The 2007 correfoc was over.
“I would have been mad if we had missed that,” Mike said, breaking the silence. I didn’t want to tell him that, had we missed it, he wouldn’t have known what we missed, so he couldn’t have been mad.
I just smiled.