The Night of Sant Joan- Tarragona, Spain

by Jack Clare

Fires illuminate the square, crowds scurrying to avoid a tremendous shower of sparks. Huge explosions echo around the City, combining in the air with an overpowering sulphuric odour.  Meanwhile, demonic forms dance in-between the flames like crazed satanic worshipers. A world of nightmares turned reality; these are the devils of Tarragona. This is the night of Sant Joan.

Diables de Tarragona.
Diables de Tarragona. Photo by Jack Clare

The normally idyllic setting of Tarragona, in southern Catalonia hosts this stunningly theatrical spectacle once a year to celebrate the Summer solstice. Located just an hour south of Barcelona along the Mediterranean coast, Tarragona is the perfect blend of cultural heritage and golden beaches. The City was at one time the largest Roman settlement outside of Italy, and this influence is still evident throughout. The roof terrace of the house of Pilate, which stands adjacent to the Roman Circus, provides spectacular panoramic views over the city and coastline. This house was once said to be the home of the Emperor Augustus, and overlooks the Roman Amphitheatre, which is positioned less than 100m from the sea. The beauty and significance of Tarragona’s Roman architecture have been recognised by UNESCO, who have designated the ruins a World Heritage Site. With consistently hot dry summers, there is also plenty of opportunity to spend time in the sun. Platja Miracle and Platja Arrabassada are the two nearest beaches to the City centre, both beautiful and well maintained, with the latter holding a blue flag award for cleanliness.

Timing your visit to Tarragona to coincide with the night of Sant Joan will add that something special to your trip, and ensure it is one that will stay with you forever. Bonfires were traditionally used in celebrations of the summer solstice to protect against the evil spirits that prowled the land when the sun descended lower in the sky. The ‘Diables de Tarragona’ or ‘devils of Tarragona’ however, did not originate from celebrations of the longest day. Instead they are thought to have been part of an extensive cast designated with the task of entertaining the nobility during the middle ages. Only as recently as the 1980’s have the devils been re-introduced back into Catalan festivities, to great local enthusiasm.

Mountains of Petards are used by the devils to produce their deafening performance. In the modern day, these are firecrackers used for celebrations. In centuries past, Petards were used to demolish walls or barriers when breaching fortifications. Throughout the day mini versions crack and bang through the streets as the local children get into the spirit of the festival. However, this is little preparation for the sensory barrage you will experience later in the evening.

The event begins as it will end--with the lighting of an enormous bonfire. These bonfires are hugely significant to the night of Sant Joan, and hold great meaning to the Catalan people. Tarragona’s festivities begin with the arrival of ‘la flama del Canigo’ or ‘the flame of Canigou’. This is a fire that is kept burning year round at the peak of mount Canigou in the Pyrenees; the spot considered the spiritual home of the Catalan people. Once a light from the sacred flame has been taken, runners carry it down the mountainside and it is gradually distributed throughout thousands of communities in preparation. By the time the flame has reached Tarragona, it has travelled around 450km and passed through the hands of hundreds of volunteers. The bonfire is ignited in the Serallo area of the city that surrounds the port, and signifies luck, purification, protection and regeneration. This is a real symbol of the Catalan culture, and draws thousands of local spectators.

As darkness fully descends, the focus of the festivities turns to Plaça de la Font, the main square in the old town and the social hub of Tarragona. Crowds gather for the start of the parade of devils, and a nervous anticipation grows as people speculate as to where will be safe to stand and where will receive the full force of the devils’ pyromania. As the first sparks appear a great cheer of appreciation erupts from the thousands of spectators, while those who have ventured too close make a hasty retreat. Separate groups of devils dance their way through the narrow winding streets of Tarragona’s old town, illuminating the medieval walkways as their hellish forms cast eerie shadows all around. The procession is urged on by the incessant beating of drums, which become more intense as their journey nears an end. When the groups of devils emerge into a square they linger to ensure the open space is filled by their cacophony of flares and petards, their dances wild as the drums reach fever pitch. The parade eventually returns to Plaça de la Font, where another bonfire springs into flame to signal the end of the procession and the beginning of summer.

As the fire blazes live music commences in front of the town hall at the end of the square; while bars continue serving into the night, ensuring the revelers are well fuelled. The shortest night of the year is made even shorter by the party atmosphere that pervades in Tarragona. The night of Sant Joan is not just a unique cultural event, it is an opportunity to experience the passion of Catalan society in all its fiery intensity.