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Going nuts! How a small town in northern Spain (usually) celebrates its walnut harvest

In pre-pandemic times, the inhabitants of this town in Navarre threw health and safety concerns out of the window (along with an ample supply of walnuts) during one of Spain's weirdest festivals.

Going nuts! How a small town in northern Spain (usually) celebrates its walnut harvest
Photo: VademVasenin/Depositphotos

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Spain is unparalleled when it comes to celebrations, and will engage in a festival at the drop of a pin. Or, in this case, at the drop of many kilos of nuts.

In November 2019, I had the good fortune to attend the Fiesta de Nueces (Festiva of Walnuts) on the southern edge of Navarra, right along the Ebro River, where the agricultural communities grow some of the finest produce in Spain.

Fustiñana is a small town of about 2,500 people, surrounded on one side by abundant gardens and wheat fields irrigated by the Ebro, and on the other by the Bardenas National Park, one of the driest spots in Europe that recalls Utah or Nevada in the United States.

It is a full weekend of events, religious ceremonies and a parade. But the main show is at 9:15pm on the Saturday night when people gather in the small plaza in front of the Town Hall.

First we went for drinks at one of the only bars, Al Otro Lado De La Capilla and I asked everyone there if they knew how this tradition got started. No one had any idea, but, it had been going on a long time.

I was directed to Alberto, a history teacher who teaches at a nearby high school, and who is also a local history buff, but he could only tell me it goes back at least 180 years, and if he didn’t know, no one else would. Also, they serve free wine after they throw all the nuts. I was still really looking forward to seeing just how many there were and how hard they threw them.

Photos: Deirde Carney

 

I read in the programme that the priest Don Francisco would bless the nuts and wine and then the sacks are carried up to the second floor of the Town Hall and would be chucked down from above onto the crowd. I was fortunate enough to procure an invitation to witness the whole thing from the Town Hall with the local dignitaries.

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As we walked through the plaza towards the Town Hall, the crowds were also flowing in, carrying bags and many, if not most, of the kids were wearing bike helmets. None of the adults wore protective gear.

The children and adults jostled for space and kneeled on the ground facing the Town Hall balconies waiting for it to rain walnuts down upon them. There was a massive bonfire in the middle of the square and kids danced around it throwing pine cones. The energy was fizzing.

I made my way up to the reception for the organizers of the party and other local administrators. There was a room off to the side with all the bags.

Each year, a different group of families gather the funds for the walnuts and wine and take turns thus organizing the festival. They then are the ones who get to actually throw them as well.

In the old days, someone explained, they just went door to door and collected the funds from everyone. You were not expected to donate if you were struggling financially but were still welcome to collect nuts and drink wine.

I was sadly not invited to throw any but I was allowed to stand on one of the balconies, squeezing in with the throwers, news cameras and other observers.

After a display of fireworks down by the river, it was time. The throwers had baskets they filled and carried to the balconies where they threw them by the handfuls while people screamed and called for more below.

The children scrambled to pick up as many as they could while they continued to get pelted from above. The chaos and fun went on as such for about 30 minutes until the nuts ran dry.

Before they finished throwing them all, I went downstairs into the plaza to experience having them hit me, which they certainly did. It did not hurt nearly as much as you would think. They boing and bounced off my winter coat and move slowly enough to keep off your face.

The nutty part was finished but the party was just starting. We pushed into the room where 250 litres of red wine and sherry were being poured into plastic cups.

It was so crowded we had to wait for quite a long time while being proactive about getting to the table of wine cups. I started to comment about how nice it is sometimes to have orderly lines at times like these like in some other countries and my Spanish companion reminded me “other countries” don’t have the imagination for an event like this, so take my free wine and be quiet. Good point.

We were well rewarded with a big full cup of really decent red wine and proceeded back to the bonfire, crunching as we crossed the piles of shells now covering the ground. People feasted on their nuts and drank the wine.

At this point the Fustiñana Band, made up of younger teens and adults, was playing rousing Navarran tunes by the bonfire and some people swayed around.

The fire was now roaring and reached heights of over 4 meters. There was still a lot of children playing around the fire when it suddenly, spectacularly collapsed and huge burning logs spilled out of the sandpit, scattering burning coal and branches over the plaza.

There was a lot of shrieking at the moment, of the kind you hear in other Spanish towns when a bull or cow sails over a barrier and scatters the onlookers in terror, but once it was seen that no child had been crushed or burned, everyone went right back to partying.

Traditionally the families would bring bread down to toast on the bonfire, doused in olive oil and fresh garlic. Nowadays, they bring their meat grills and set up a massive barbecue.

We went for dinner in the Old Folks Home nearby which hosts a large spread – we had our main courses at just about one o’clock in the morning, more wine, some delicious patxaran, and then back out to the plaza.

People were still grilling, piles of chorizo, steaks, and lots of this mouth-watering garlic toast. Despite having just eaten a three course meal, I gladly ate the bread and meat I was offered. I don’t know if it was the joy of the evening, but I had the best piece of chorizo I think I have ever had.

Our night was finished off back in Al Otro Lado De La Capilla, where we danced the night away. It was all us “old” people. The teenagers and young people had their own peñas they disappeared off to, away from their parents who were partying in the Capilla.

One of the main reasons I moved to Spain was to get to continually experience this kind of community and traditional festivity. And there’s no doubt, there are hundreds of festivals to choose from, each more colourful and bizarre than the next.

Article by Deirdre Carney

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PROPERTY

Why are Spanish homes so dark?

Despite being known for its year-long sunny weather, Spain is the EU country with the fewest homes with natural light, often intentionally. Why is it that when it comes to spending time at home, Spaniards seem to love being in the dark?

Why are Spanish homes so dark?

Spain – the land of sunshine. The country gets between 2,500 and 3,000 hours of sun per year on average, almost double the 1,600 hours the UK gets, for example.

You’d probably assume that finding a bright apartment in such a sunny country would be a piece of cake, but unless you’re renting or buying a modern home, it might be trickier than you realise.

More than one in ten Spaniards live in dwellings they feel are “too dark” – the highest percentage among all EU countries, according to figures from Eurostat.

As far as dark homes go, Spain is head and shoulders above the EU average of 5.9 percent, and higher than other nations with a high rate of gloomy homes such as France (9.5 percent), Malta (9.4 percent) and Hungary (7.7 percent).

At the other end of the brightly lit spectrum, it’s no surprise to see that countries with cloudier skies and darker winters such as Norway, Slovakia, Estonia, Czechia and the Netherlands have homes that let in plenty of natural light, and yet Spain’s sun-kissed Mediterranean neighbours Italy and Cyprus do make the most of the readily available light.

Dark homes are almost twice as common in Spain as the EU average. Graph: Eurostat.

So why are Spanish homes so dark?

Is it a case of hiding away from the sun, and keeping cool during the summer months? Or is it something else? 

Apartment blocks

The vast majority of Spaniards live in apartments as opposed to houses, often in tightly-packed cities with narrow streets.

In fact, in Spain 64.6 percent of the population lives in flats or apartments, second in the EU after Latvia (65.9 percent.)

By contrast the EU wide average is 46.1 percent.

By nature of apartment living, Spanish homes tend to get less sunlight.

Depending on whether they have an exterior or interior flat, they might not actually have a single window in the flat that faces the street.

If the apartment is on a lower floor, the chances of it receiving natural light are even lower. Internal patios can help to solve this to some extent, but only during the mid day and early afternoon hours. 

why are spanish homes so dark

A dark, narrow street in the centre of Palma de Mallorca. Photo: seth0s/Pixabay

Hot summers

During Spain’s scorching summer months, there’s no greater relief than stepping into a darkened apartment building lobby and feeling the temperature drop. 

In southern Spain, and in coastal regions, Spanish buildings were traditionally built to protect against the heat and hide away from the long sunny hours. White walled exteriors and dark interiors help to keep homes cool.

It’s often the case that bedrooms are put in the darkest, coolest part of the apartment, sometimes with just a box-window to allow for a breeze but no sunlight.

Spaniards’ obsession with blinds and shutters

Spain is pretty much the only country in Europe whose inhabitants still use blinds (persianas), even during the colder winter months.

In this case, rather than it just being down to keeping homes cool during the sweltering summer months, their usage is intrinsic to Spain’s Moorish past and the fact that they provide a degree of privacy from nosy neighbours. By contrast, northern Europeans with Calvinist roots such as the Dutch keep the curtains open to let in natural light and because historically speaking, keeping the inside of homes visible from the street represents not having anything to hide. But in Spain, the intimacy of one’s home is sacrosanct, especially when the neighbour in the apartment building opposite is less then ten metres away.

Keeping the blinds or shutters down also has the advantage of making it easier to have an afternoon nap (the siesta, of course) or to sleep in late after a long night out on the town. 

In any case, it seems hard to believe for some foreigners that many Spaniards are happy to live in the dark whilst spending time at home, regardless of whether they’re sleeping or not. 

A byproduct of this? Dark, gloomy homes.

why are spanish homes so dark

Spaniards aren’t fans of airing their dirty laundry, at least metaphorically speaking. Blinds have historically provided the privacy they’ve wanted from their homes. Photo: Quino Al/Unsplash

The long, dark corridors

Spanish apartments have plenty of quirks that seem odd to outsiders, from the light switches being outside of the room, the aforementioned shutters, the bottles of butane and last but not least, the never-ending corridors. 

Most Spanish homes built in the 19th and 20th century include these long pasillos running from the entrance to the end of the flat. They were meant to provide a separation between the main living spaces and the service rooms (kitchen, bathroom etc), easy access to all and better airing and light capabilities. But when the doors to the rooms are closed as often happens, these corridors become the opposite of what was intended: dark and airless.

Navigating these windowless corridors at night is akin to waking around blindfolded.

dark corridor spain

Light at the end of the tunnel? Dark corridors are a common feature of Spanish homes. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

Are Spaniards rethinking their dark homes?

Times are changing, and modern designs are experimenting with more spacious, light-filled, open-plan apartments, especially as the Covid-19 lockdown forced many Spaniards to reconsider their abodes. 

It’s also increasingly common to see property ads stressing that the property is diáfano, which means that natural light enters the home from all sides.

However, the vast majority of Spanish homes are still gloomy for the most part, often intentionally.

A combination of traditional building styles, the crowded nature of apartment block living, the use of shutters, the desire to keep homes private, and the long windowless corridors mean Spanish flats can seem dark if you’re new to the country, and with good reason.

Ultimately, it is worth remembering that Spanish society is one that largely lives its life outdoors. Living in smaller apartments, Spaniards generally spend less time at home and more time out and about in the street.

Native to a hot and sunny country as they are, Spaniards’ homes are a place of rest, relaxation and, crucially, sleep.

Spanish people have enough sunlight and heat in their lives; they like to live, therefore, in homes designed to keep cool and dark.

READ ALSO: Why are Spanish homes so cold?

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