On Wednesday the SheSpur and I made the epic journey from one end of the Island to the other (a whole 42 km; exhausting) to hang out, get pissed, and generally have a giggle at the first festival of the season: the Fiesta de Sant Juan in Ciutadella; the old capital of Menorca.
See, every town has its own Fiesta here - some bigger, some smaller - and while they're all technically built around religious events (beginning with lambs being paraded through the streets and ending with lavish processions via the church) the overriding Impression is of a 2-day street-party characterised by extraordinary numbers of cheerful young people, cosmic quantities of a strange local brew (essentially gin and cloudy lemonade), a bizarre lack of fights or aggro, and a series of deeply frightening traditional rituals structured around The Horse.
Horses are Big here. They're trained to the highest standard in the world, walk with that smug raised-hoof foppiness that makes your basic New Forest nag look like an inbred oik, and are called-upon at the fiestas to be dressed foolishly, harassed mercilessly, and generally spooked in every way possible. There's jousting, there's lance-tilting, there's racing, there's a whole host of amazing Bits And Bobs to show off the astonishing skills of the local riders.
And the higlight of the festival is the procession through the Plaza Des Borns: the town's main square. Which, before you go imagining a neat line of pretty stallions wombling round an empty circuit, is abso-fucking-lutely *rammed* with pissed-up people with a deathwish.
We were there, and - not knowing exactly where to stand - came a little too close for comfort.
The procession starts with a glorious cheer to announce the arrival of the horses. The crowds surge forwards, but - to begin with - keep to a respectful distance. The horses pile in behind each other, until a hundred or more are packed-in around the plaza; steaming and damp. Each horse wears a star on its head and a heart over its... um... heart... and it's considered lucky to touch either one. So ever-so-slowly the crowd - fuelled by the booze - gets closer and closer and closer...
Pretty soon the horses are slick with sweat and oh-so-very-fucking spooked. Everywhere they go people are shouting, cheering, whistling, then lurching out of the throng to slap them between the eyes or on the chest. They start to wheel in place; to strafe sideways; to bounce in agitation. Some of them stagger directly into the crowds, which tumble and pile aside as hooves lash out and teeth chop.
The riders are expected to show no signs of fear or anxiety: raising their hats and smiling indulgently at the terrified people around them.
At this stage, most of the tourists with whalecock camera-lenses, who've found themselves accidentally caught-up in events, make the wise decision to Go Stand Somewhere Else.
Note the "most". We have beer, and Will Not Be Moved.
By now the youths are seriously juiced-up. Frustrated by the speed of the riders passing by, they're no longer able to touch the heart-plate on each bridle. The game therefore becomes to dive in front of each horse with a whoop or a shriek; terrifying it into rearing up on its hind legs, hooves lashing out, where the bravest souls can slap at the heart-plate and dive out the way. There's a real sense of "I dare you" about it: lads jostling for respect (and self-respect) with increasing recklessness.
Speaking of reckless, it was at this stage that SheSpur suggested I touch a horse myself. I can happily report that you could easily fry an egg on the neck of an adrenally-hotwired equine - so toasty hot is it - if it weren't for the deeply sticky and highly stinky sweat covering it head to toe. I dripped for some time.
As the hours pass things start getting rrrreally crazy. By now the horses are in a frenzy; the riders are barely able to hang on (let alone maintain the pretence of calm and hat-doffing dignity). The crowds are pressing-in ever tighter, and we - at the SheSpur's suggestion - decided to pull back from the most dangerous parts of the action and get a refill for our beer.
Sadly this simple wish went awry when it was discovered the procession had changed its route to run directly via the streetside bar (or, as we came to think of it, the You Can't Escape When The Horses Rear At You Barrier), and in a haze of spilled gin and lager we tried to press-on towards a safer spot. Being swept along, sadly, into the main concourse and the craziest heart of the crowd.
By now the game has changed again. Now it's not a case of one or two lads startling the horse into exposing its heart, but whole packs of them leaping underneath the beast's flailing hooves to hold it upright - sometimes for ten seconds or more - braying and staggering the whole time, to keep the heart accessible to all.
Or at least "all" who don't mind being brained by a supersonic hoof.
At this stage the crowd is pumping and surging so much -- half of it rushing forwards to grab at horses, the other half staggering blindly backwards to avoid the spooked chargings of the next stallion in line - that the SheSpur and I got separated. (HINT: Always nominate a meeting place ahead of time.) (HINT-HINT: Make it a bar. You'll need it.)
Finding myself at the front-edge of the crowd, unable to push back into it and absolutely not fucking likely to try and cross between the horses to the other side, I kept clicking the camera (basically too terrified to do anything except dumbly execute the last order I'd got from the SheSpur before she vanished - "keep taking pictures!"). I was so focused on the frothing chestnut crazynag in front of me that I completely failed to notice the next two horses in line bashing into each other, flailing sideways into the crowd, splitting my section of sweaty youths in half, and leaving me and several other lads (who up until then had been oh-so-convincingly blase about the whole thing) caught between the two toothy buggers as they spun, reared and kicked. Even then people on either side - not in direct striking-range - kept leaning-in to touch the buggers' hearts. Rather than yanking us all out the way. Thanks.
It wasn't until a little later - with G&T in hand and SheSpur back by my side - that we found this rather terrifying, utterly unplanned, but actually pretty beautiful picture lurking in the camera: