Europe 56 – The best of the rest

The best of the rest (16)

Wine War

Where? Haro, Spain

When? June 29

How long? 1 day

One of the truly great events of the summer in Spain, the Wine War (Batallo de Vino) is the modern-day remnant of ancient feuds between the wine town of Haro and its Riojan neighbours, and basically boils down to a massive wine-fight on a hillside overlooking Haro’s beautiful medieval centre. The first wine battle took place in 1710, but the event became popularized in the 1950s, and from the mid-1960s started to draw crowds from outside the immediate area, attracted by the fact that La Rioja is one of Spain’s – and Europe’s – foremost wine-producing regions.

The festival begins at around 7am with what must be one of the most bizarre religious processions anywhere: the congregation – as many as five thousand people, mostly dressed in white – comes armed not with Bibles, crucifixes and rosary beads but with an ingenious array of weapons ranging from buckets, water pistols and bota bags (or wine-skin bottles) to agricultural spraying equipment. This motley crew makes its way from Haro to a shrine 15km away in the Riscos de Bilibio, to pay homage to San Juan, San Pedro and the Virgin of Valvanera. Mass is said, and then on the route back to town wine is distributed free of charge by the city council. After this, battle commences and the warring factions start drenching each other with Rioja. In theory, the townsfolk of Haro are battling it out with those of neighbouring Miranda de Ebro, but in the good-humoured but frantic battle that rages, there are no obvious sides, and no winners or losers. Instead, the object is perfectly straightforward: to squirt, hose, blast or throw some 25,000 litres of what is presumably not vintage vino tinto over everyone else, inparticular aiming at the previously unscathed. You won’t be spared as a spectator, so you may as well join in. At the very least, come armed with a water pistol, though be warned that the locals have perfected the art of the portable water cannon, and can practically blast you off your feet from five metres. Whatever you use, you’ll finish the day a stinking, soggy mess, so don’t don your Sunday best for this one. White outfits are preferred; all the better to display your battle wounds. As noon approaches, the stragglers quickly return to town and the bars around the Plaza de la Paz to finish of the vats of wine that are left. Just to round things off as you’re staggering homewards, they let out steers into the plaza that are then sent running towards the bullring – not quite Pamplona, but enough to get the heart racing and to make you spend the rest of the evening having the odd stiff drink or two.

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