Just when one thinks they have heard of every wild festival in Spain, another bizarre event is tossed to the forefront. About two and one half hours, southwest of Madrid, is the mountain village of Piornal. In snow laden streets, men are chased by turnip throwing demons. Those who survive reasonably intact, are newly virile. Move over Viagra. Our guest expert, Alissa Greenberg, tells the truth on turnip tossing.
By Alissa Greenberg
The morning of Jarramplas dawned clear and cold. It had snowed in the Sierra Gredos overnight, and a wintry paradise of delicately-frosted trees and families building snowmen greeted us as we approached Piornal, the highest village in Extremadura.
Despite its population of just 1,500, every year on January 19 and 20, Piornal hosts a festival that rivals the adrenaline of Pamplona’s running of the bulls and the happy chaos of Tomatina in Valencia. We had come to investigate.
In the village, a festive atmosphere permeated, with every bar overflowing and swarms of teenagers in matching T-shirts running and shouting through the narrow alleyways. All along the main street, houses were covered in protective boards or netting. Turnips were piled in drifts along the sidewalk. Yes: turnips.
The short-version explanation is that each year five or six Piornalego men are tapped to act as “Jarramplas.” One by one, each dons an elaborate, multi-colored patchwork suit and horned helmet, then walks the streets of the village as the entire community pursues him, throwing turnips. (To prevent serious injuries, the suit and mask are reinforced with fiberglass.) The longer version is not that much longer: no one knows exactly where the tradition comes from, although prevailing wisdom suggests it started centuries ago when a cattle thief plaguing the village was punished with a bombardment of vegetables. These days, playing Jarramplas is considered a great honor and test of manhood. A waiting list stretches until 2030.
We arrived in Piornal’s main square just before 4 p.m. People were streaming into the small, plaza from all directions. The church bells began to sound, and there was a shout–“He’s coming! He’s coming!” A drumbeat sounded in the distance, and then: complete chaos.
As someone who rarely consumes turnips, I was surprised to realize how big they can get—some close to the size of a human skull. Jarramplas shuffled into the plaza with slow purpose as, around him, what had been a jovial group turned suddenly into a seething mass of humanity. Turnips flew fast and furious from all directions: I threw a couple, as well, and felt an animal thrill. Seemingly undeterred, Jarramplas continued beating his drum until he reached a small stone niche in the town hall facade: his throne. There, he bowed his head for a few moments, facing down the barrage, before moving suddenly again toward the center of the plaza.
It was here I discovered the element that adds such adrenaline to the Piornal experience. Jarramplas may go anywhere he likes, with unpredictable pauses and changes in direction. Caught up in the crowd, each festival goer must remain hyper-alert to his movements, or risk being caught in the line of fire. This need to constantly reassess and react to turnip trajectory, combined with the fierce, contagious glee of the turnip-wielding masses, creates a kind of natural high that stops the entire thing from tipping from exciting into scary. (That being said, people who don’t enjoy crowds are encouraged to watch safely from one of the village’s many bars.)
In the middle of the plaza, by the fountain, Jarramplas began to stagger. As a hail of turnips rained down, he shook visibly. In a moment he fell to his knees, and the scene was instantly transformed. What just seconds before had been an almost blood-thirsty mob lunged forward as one to lift the battered beast gently up, remove his helmet, and hoist him onto their shoulders. The square erupted in cheers. The man who had been Jarramplas smiled widely, his eyes every-so-slightly unfocused.
Throughout the afternoon, the ritual was repeated again and again, with a few notable variations. At one point, the festivities were paused so that the entire village could file into the church and sing a hymn to Saint Sebastian, their patron saint. Later, a boisterous group appeared carrying enormous heads of lettuce, which they used as bushy ammunition. But by and large it was this unique rhythm of short bursts of intense, turnip-based violence followed by cheers and celebration that occupied the afternoon. The air was filled with happy tumult, a palpable excitement, and bits of flying turnip. Even as an observer, the experience was intense and intoxicating: the concentration required in keeping balance on the slushy ground, navigating the crush of the roiling crowd, and keeping alert for errant turnips left my face frozen in a half-dazed grin.
As the sun began to set, a fourth Jarramplas reached his limit. I saw him burst into tears of relief as his horned helmet was removed and he was led into the bar next door for a well-deserved drink. My friends and I headed back towards our car, and in the maze of backstreets we came across a small plaza, deserted except for a heap of turnips and a family recovering from the celebration. As the parents looked on, two children dressed in miniature Jarramplas costumes were chasing each other in increasingly widening circles– shrieking and laughing, preparing the next generation.
Alissa Greenberg started her love affair with travel as a young child and cemented it with a six-month stint in China in 2007 and a year-long trip around the world in 2009. She returned to her home city of Boston to work in public radio and at a local newspaper but eventually was compelled to follow her curiosity about the expat experience into a new life in Spain. After one year enjoying the stately cathedrals of Castilla y Leon and another eating her weight in tapas in Andalucia, she now enjoys the contrasts of north and south in Talavera de la Reina, Toledo. Her work has been broadcast on National Public Radio and has appeared in the Sampan newspaper, Wesleyan Magazine, and the travel websites 48Horas, DGuides and GoMadrid. She writes about culture, language, travel, and adventure at www.alissaswideworld.blogspot.fr/