Fire & Dragons in El Vendrell (Catalonia)

Photo: El Caramot i les Puces del Vendrell

"I soon realised that there really was no escape. The square had two exits but both would have meant running straight toward the dragon. I decided to stay put and attempted to cower behind Jordi while sneaking glances at the fire as it rained off the walls of the houses and the church façade. My God, I thought. These buildings take some heavy battering! Ear splitting bangs signalled that this particular dragon had used up its final burst of life. And yet, at that moment, something both incredible and terrifying happened. El Caramot, already loaded and alight, lumbered his twenty-metre body into the little square, shooting flames from over fifty different holes."

It was summer in Barcelona and an unrelenting sun caused sticky heat to radiate from every surface. The atmosphere felt heavy and humid, even at 8am. I sat in my office in a puddle of sweat, the fan on full, while the morning shouts of children, delivery men, car horns, barking dogs and the bar below beckoned tantalisingly from outside. The cat padded over, flinched and shivered as the cool air of the fan passed over her fur. I sat trying to work, constantly distracted by the summer sounds outside, tempting me into the thick heat of day.

Until then, the 26 July was just another scorching summer day, distinguishable only by the fact that it was the day after my birthday. This period of the year had, of course, always been dreamy, generally hot and sunny, when time stretched beyond its normal constraints into open holiday terrain of long evenings and slow days. In England, when I was a kid, late July meant the high-pitched melody of ice cream vans from suburban cul de sacs, day trips to the coast with windbreakers and sandwiches, donkey rides, paddling, jelly shoes and 99p ice cream cones with a chocolate flake on top. Or, when I was seventeen, July was about walking into town, late at night, with my best friend and clubbing at Peppermint Park, a haven of purple soft light and kissing in dark corners amidst cigarette smoke, Malibu and R&B: sweet summer, when anything was possible.

Since moving to Catalonia, summer was all of this, multiplied by a thousand. The intense heat waves its wand year after year, and everything is drenched in soft and sunny magic where the long scorching days merge into a parallel reality. This year, though, things happened that changed my idle perception of dates forever. This was the summer I visited the town of El Vendrell and the first time I experienced a Catalan fire run, known by locals as a correfoc.

That evening, as the sun went down in the distance, I began to feel excited. Small tendrils of adrenalin worked themselves up my throat. "The biggest fire breathing dragon in Europe," was how one book described it. "El Caramot." Its name was full of promise. My partner Jordi parked the car and we headed over towards the bridge where a crowd of around one hundred people waited in small groups, some holding straw hats and almost everyone wearing trousers. I looked down at my own summer skirt and was glad not to be wearing jeans on that hot July evening.

People began to surge onto the bridge, and in the distance I could see an ambulance waiting in the shadows. That was the last thing I consciously registered as dusk turned slowly darker and the first bangs rang out from the road leading onto the bridge. The crowd became tense, straining forward to see if anything was yet visible from our position. “They’re coming, they’re coming,” shouted a little boy of around seven. And then they were upon us.

Photo: El Caramot i les Puces del Vendrell

Ten figures huddled together, long poles extended above their heads, like a living wigwam. Another figure ran over to them with a blowtorch and shot a flame out over the tops of the upturned forks. A whooshing roar could be heard as the firecrackers on top of the forks caught alight simultaneously, illuminating the people underneath, revealing them to be demons dressed in long hessian tunics painted in red and black. The group broke up and the devils began to run towards the bridge, each carrying a fork held high overhead. The firecrackers on top twisted round in a sweeping circular motion, spraying sparks at the crowd. The devils began to move on the spot, still holding their forks high, kicking one leg in front of the other in a type of tribal rave dance until the firecracker burnt out and exploded with a final deafening bang. While this went on, some of the crowd donned their straw hats and ran in next to the devils, skipping along with them. Other spectators kept well out of it, backing further away as the devils came forward. At that moment, I realised why everybody wore trousers. Sparks rained down on my legs, causing me to cry out in pain. I stood to the side, trying to shield myself behind Jordi, as the devils moved on past the bridge and through the walled archway leading into the old town centre.

Then came the dragons. Great lumbering beasts sprayed fire out through their mouths and nostrils. A team of three or four people pushed each dragon, while another person operated the dragon from inside, moving its head into different positions as it spat fire. The procession moved along for a few paces and then stopped so that the spent fire crackers could be removed from the dragon’s mouth and new ones loaded. Then the blowtorch was sprayed over the firecrackers again.

It was an intense experience, as I didn’t want to get burnt but I did want to take good photos. I saw one photographer dressed in a fireproof suit with a protective helmet; he looked like an astronaut but was able to get right up to the dragons and devils. In total there must have been about fifteen different dragons, all with their own names and, more impressively, all belonging to the little town of El Vendrell. I later learned that most towns and cities have maybe one or two dragons, but never this number. The sheer force of the bangs, sparks, dragons and fire was mind blowing. It was like being part of a dream, or even a nightmare.

Photo: Els Puces by El Caramot i les Puces del Vendrell

Shouts from the crowd indicated that something even more impressive was making its way forward and I ran back to my original position near the bridge to see what was coming towards us. I thought about how in the UK, my home country, the streets would have been cordoned off with metal barriers, all movement controlled by police, if such an event were ever to take place, which I am pretty sure it wouldn’t; whereas, here at El Vendrell, and at all other towns I have to been to in Catalonia, people are free to run about and intermingle with the fire and beasts, running towards the fire and then away from it. In fact, the name correfoc (corre–run, foc–fire) describes the movements of the devils that run with fire, as well as the people watching, who run towards the fire, fascinated, and then away from it, terrified.

Photo: Walking alongside El Caramot by El Caramot i les Puces del Vendrell

At last, El Caramot appeared, rumoured to be one of the biggest dragons in Europe at over twenty metres long. He weighed 750 kilos, the equivalent of eight strong men, and needed as many to push him along on wheels. There were over fifty different points along his body from which fire spat and if you happened to be nearby, as indeed I was, it was impossible not to get hit by sparks. I stood trapped on the side of the procession, unable to dodge away, desperately trying to shield my bare legs with the sweater I had brought along. A series of smaller fire spitting creatures called Puces accompanied the Caramot. It was an impressive sight, this humongous beast of fire and, although aware of my bare legs, I was ecstatic to be there next to El Caramot.

Photo: Loading the dragon with firecrackers by El Caramot i les Puces del Vendrell

The fire parade entered the old town, through the stone archway, and toured round the narrow streets, passing though the square with the main bell tower. The sheer number of dragons and devils, coupled with the starting and stopping of all involved to light firecrackers and dance, meant that the procession lasted for several hours. After an hour and a half, Jordi and I took the opportunity to escape for a quick breather at the local bar. We made our way out of the town, over the bridge and up the road. This was the path that the dragons and devils had initially taken and it now looked like a war zone. Burnt out fire crackers littered the roadside, empty apart from the odd person making their way towards the bangs in the centre. We felt wrecked, even though we had done nothing more than run around and dodge sparks. A sandwich and bottle of Estrella soon settled my nerves and I felt ready to step back into it.

We edged towards the bangs until we realised that they had become stationary. Now the sound was emanating from the little square in front of the church. Here, each dragon stopped and was loaded up with firecrackers before doing its final swaying routine of the night. While the dragon was being tended to, we crept past it and stood on the opposite side of the square in what we presumed to be an optimum spot for taking pictures. In fact, this square was only about twenty metres wide and maybe fifty metres long, surrounded by houses and the church. The lowest building was a three-storey house and the sensation I had while standing there was that we were packed alarmingly close together.

Next to me was a tiny woman in her late seventies, with her friend. She smiled at me and said, “És la teva primera vegada?" (“Is it your first time here, tonight?”) I replied, “,” apprehensively, as the square seemed to be getting fuller by the minute. “I have never missed a year yet,” she continued. “People rave about the Vilafranca correfoc but I like this one just as much. It’s more like family here, you know. Vilafranca has become so big.” I smiled, although I had little idea what she was talking about as I had never been to Vilafranca and this was the first time I had ever seen a correfoc. That there could be more like this one and on a bigger scale seemed unthinkable. In fact, thinking was probably the least of my worries because, at that moment, the fire dragon was lit and giant sprays of sparks leapt from ten different places at once, raining down into the crowd and hitting the buildings, lighting up the stone facades before fizzing into momentary blackness.

I soon realised that there really was no escape. The square had two exits but both would have meant running straight toward the dragon. I decided to stay put and attempted to cower behind Jordi while sneaking glances at the fire as it rained off the walls of the houses and the church façade. My God, I thought. These buildings take some heavy battering! Ear splitting bangs signalled that this particular dragon had used up its final burst of life. And yet, at that moment, something terrifying happened. El Caramot, already loaded and alight, lumbered his twenty-metre body into the little square, shooting flames from over fifty different holes.

Photo: El Caramot alight by El Caramot i les Puces del Vendrell

The seventy-eight-year-old woman was behind me and I was aware of not wanting to crush her as everyone screamed again, half laughing but terrified at the same time. El Caramot could hardly fit in the square, his body was so big. This meant that he was positioned in a zigzag formation, and the sparks went everywhere, hitting everyone present. For the life of me, I still cannot fathom how nobody got hurt, but nobody did, and finally El Caramot’s life also came to an end. It lurched away, leaving a more bedraggled crowd this time.

As if a signal from the gods, a deep boom sounded from high above and all faces turned upwards towards the imposing bell tower. Deep green fireworks flew up into the night sky, followed by pink and blue blazes of light. The church roof was illuminated as a whole trail of fireworks was set off. It was a reverent contrast with the terrifying fire showers that had come before. And as the clock struck midnight, three final rockets were shot into the night sky before everything went black.

The applause and cheering lasted a full five minutes. I was dazed after everything I had seen. Never had I experienced anything like it and one of the things that really impressed me, which I would later come to see as normal, was the variety of people present. There were little kids, teenagers, adults and even seventy-year-olds. And everyone loved it. Everyone!

Photo: the team who steer El Caramot by El Caramot i les Puces del Vendrell

Photo: El Caramot by El Caramot i les Puces del Vendrell

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