The stone path led high up into the hills where on the peak there stood an old church. From the foot we could hear the beating drums, rhythmic and ominous, luring us onward. Even our hearts seemed to take on that beat, pounding faster and faster as we started up the hill closer to the noise.
“It’s like the orcs at the gates of Helm’s Deep,” Gaurav said.
You know you’ve found true love when someone can apply a Lord of the Rings analogy to almost any sort of adventure.
People were coming down, drenched in reds and purples, soaked to the skin in wine.
The Haro Wine Festival had begun.
In fact, it had been going on since the night before when revelers gathered in the quaint square around Haro’s central gazebo to drink and wait out the night. At the crack of dawn many pilgrims had already wound their way through the Cliffs de Bilibio for the highlight of the festival: the Wine Battle.
The chapel in the cliffs is known as Hermitage of San Felices de Bilibio and, as early as the 6th century, people have been making pilgrimages to the site where Haro’s patron saint, San Felices, was laid to rest. The history behind how the Wine Battle came to be an annual event is something of a mystery, but one theory posits that baptisms held at the chapel at one point stopped involving water and were instead done with wine. Which, if you think about it, makes sense. I’d insert something here about Jesus turning water into wine and how all that ties in, but I’ll leave making the connection up to you.
The night before, Gaurav and I stocked up on wine we purchased at a local shop. This was sold in 1-litre soda bottles at a cheap price because it was deemed not good enough to drink—though we, and everyone else involved in the wine fight, did drink it anyway on the day of the battle. This we carried in bags up the mountain, along with water guns we’d also bought the day before.
We were soon to discover that our flimsy plastic guns would be no match for what awaited us on that mountaintop.
It began before we were even close to reaching the summit. If we had thought the Wine Battle was a joking matter, we were wrong. In fact, the ones who took it most seriously were the older Haro residents—usually crusty looking Spanish men who would cackle with glee whenever they hit a newcomer square in the face with a spray of wine.
They were stationed along the pathway up, fertilizer tanks full of wine by their sides, dousing anyone and everyone. This was treated seriously. Like a job. You weren’t allowed to reach the peak until your white shirt had turned to purple.
Then there were the ones carrying plastic tanks of wine on their shoulders. With eagle eyes (perhaps wine goggles give you better eyesight?) they’d pick out the weak ones, or the ones with white spots left on their t-shirts and sneak up behind to dump the contents of the tank over their heads.
You haven’t lived until you’ve taken a wine shower.
Still, Gaurav and I did our best to give back as good as we got, firing wine until our pistols were empty and we had to stop to refuel.
The real fray was at the foot of the chapel. A throbbing, jumping, mass of purple chaos.
Oh yes, that’s where we wanted to be.
And in the midst? A band. Complete with tuba, trumpet, drums and other varied instruments. You would think wine would be bad for instruments, right? Despite the high level of revelry and overall drunkenness—mostly due to second-hand drinking after getting doused in the face one too many times—people were still weirdly respectful of these valiant heroes playing their instruments in the melee. No one fired directly at their instruments, though the men themselves weren’t given the same space.
The two of us ventured inward and were immediately pulled and pushed into the mass, the energy consuming us with a rapidity we never saw coming.
We danced. We sang. We drank. Strangers passed bottles of wine for drinking, threw arms around one another, and bellowed out refrains to popular local songs. All around us wine fell from the sky like rain. It was a strange moment of community.
And when we descended hours later, our skin turned purple, our hair smelling of wine, our fingertips tingling with the adrenaline that still coursed through us, we knew something magical had happened on that mountaintop. Something that would probably never bear repeating. Something that was once-in-a-lifetime.
Something that could happen only in Spain.