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Carnival Time in Ituren

Veronica Yuill (aka Veronical in France)

Ituren Carnival

We stayed in Ituren, Navarra, for a week in January/February to see the UNESCO-listed carnival. We spent three months here in 2010, and our friends had urged us to return for this special event.

On Sunday morning we headed to the neighbouring village of Sunbilla -- along with about 999 other people. It was so crowded that we just did what a lot of other people were doing -- parked the car on the hard shoulder of the main N-121 road bypassing the village and then walked down the main street to find a good vantage point. Sunbilla's only a small village, but it's obviously well known for its carnival.

Sunbilla Spain

The procession had about six floats, and the first few were cooking and serving free refreshments, which they doled out as they passed: caldo (chicken broth), red wine, talos (corn cakes) with cheese. We were out of reach, but the woman in front of me spontaneously grabbed extra and passed it back to us. That's Basques for you.

Ituren's carnival was on Monday and Tuesday. We headed down to the village about 11am and found not a lot going on. But we then strolled up to the little hamlet of Latsaga where we came across our friend Maika butchering a sheep (yes, this is the Basque country). "The joaldunak from Zubieta are going to meet up with the ones from Ituren here," she told us. "But they won't be here till about 12:30 at the earliest."

Ituren Carnival

So we carried on up the road and through the woods to Aurtiz, a "suburb" of Ituren. Here there was more action; the local joaldunak, ranging in age from babes in arms to 70s, were getting dressed in the village hall. They clunked around in their laced up black slippers, sheepskins, white petticoats, inevitable Basque checked shirts, pointy hats with ribbons, and the all-important cow bells tightly strapped to their backs.

We went into the bar for a drink, idly wondering how the new Spanish smoking ban was shaping up. One of the teenagers propping up the bar got out a cigarette and broke it in half. "Goodness," I thought, "they are so poor they have to share cigarettes!" Then my husband pointed out the little silver foil package extracted from another pocket. Once they'd rolled their joint though, they dutifully went out into the street to smoke it.

At no particular signal, the joaldunak lined up in twos and went for a no doubt carefully planned walk around the village, with the particular skipping step that makes their bells clang in unison. We watched and took photos, before heading back to Ituren by a different route, planning to eat some tapas in the bar there. Here, the joaldunak were now limbering up in the square, along with a host of onlookers. We ran into a couple of friends, and went into the bar to drink chicken broth (seems to be traditional carnival fare here).

When the joaldunak, joined by a masked man dressed up as a bear and a small marching band, set off to Latsaga to meet their colleagues, we followed along. In the small square there, we were met by the Zubieta contingent who, I noticed, had less enveloping sheepskins that left their shoulders bare, and were also all wearing white shirts. They even included a couple of girls. A local householder brought out bottles of wine and they all stood around chatting and smoking before getting into line and processing back down to Ituren.

Ituren Musicians

As soon as joaldunak start actually performing, their faces set into a strange, trance-like gaze, fixed straight ahead. There's no chatting or waving to friends; it's all deadly serious. As we approached the square there were several loud bangs, as someone set off flares. Then a strange intermittent roaring, which turned out to be a bunch of half-naked men wielding chainsaws, their faces concealed by motorbike helmets. Arriving at the square the joaldunak marched steadily up and down, looking neither to left nor right, while the chainsaw wielders charged randomly into the now packed crowd amid much screaming and running. For health and safety conscious readers, I should point out that the chainsaws were not armed with chains, but they were still rather alarming.

The floats arrived; one sprayed the crowd with water from a water cannon mounted in a cow's skull on the bonnet. Another consisted of a five-metre tall wooden tower mounted on a trailer, with two paint-daubed men wrestling at the top of it. A masked priest shook "holy water" over everyone. A goat whose function was unclear dragged its owner on the end of a rope while randomly butting people in the crowd. Two men rode on top of an enormous wheeled contraption. A surprisingly placid donkey pulled a cart, and a bunch of women cooked and sold talos, chorizo and cheese from a decorated trailer to a mass of people who had to take their food and pay for it while niftily dodging waving chainsaws and the rampant goat. In short, it was chaos. Meanwhile, the regiment of joaldunak marched impassively up and down between the flying weapons, eyes front at all times, and the local policemen looked on mildly. I began to realise why there was an ambulance parked discreetly to one side of the square.

All the children who had been watching the joaldunak in Latsaga had disappeared, sensibly herded off by the adults with them. This was not carnival as kiddies' entertainment, like the one in Sunbilla, but the true carnival spirit of "the world turned upside down", revolt against authority, being able to commit outrageous acts without fear of punishment. Part of the significance of the joaldunak is that they represent a force for good, chasing off evil spirits.

Veronica Yuill lives in southern France and blogs about food at La Recette du Jour, when not actually cooking or developing websites for clients, most of them in the vacation rental business.

© Veronica Yuill, 2011

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