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Photo by Rosie Free
Sant Antoni home
People compete to have the best turned out carriage
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Photo by Rosie Free
Sant Antoni in Banyoles
Celebrating Sant Antoni in Banyoles
A young woman sits sideways on a dapple-grey horse, her arm wrapped around the man in front and her vivid red flamenco dress flowing down the sides of the animal’s flanks. Next up are two men riding Catalan donkeys and wearing red barretines (traditional Catalan caps), long false beards and sheepskin waistcoats. They are followed by a pair of skewbald horses pulling an elegant carriage complete with coachman and driver immaculately turned out in top hats and tails.
Diverse as they are, all are participants in the annual Tres Tombs de Sant Antoni Abat: the ‘three turns’ procession that takes place in honour of the patron saint of animals. The festival is celebrated in towns and cities the length and breadth of Catalunya on or around Sant Antoni’s day on January 17th.
Much of what is known about Sant Antoni—who also goes by the name Saint Anthony the Great, Anthony of Egypt, Anthony of the Desert and the Father of All Monks—comes from a biography written by Athanasius of Alexandria in 360 CE.
Antoni, who was born in Egypt in 251 CE, came from a wealthy family but gave away everything he had after hearing Jesus’s words: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me.” Antoni spent most of the rest of his life living as a hermit in the desert where, legend has it, he managed to resist various temptations sent by the devil. Scenes of these temptations were later depicted by artists such as Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dalí in paintings, both entitled ‘The Temptation of St Anthony’, while Gustave Flaubert wrote a play with the same name about the trials and tribulations faced by the saint as he sought to achieve a true form of worship through isolation.
During his long life—he died at the age of 105—Sant Antoni was credited with a number of miraculous healings and became much sought after by people looking for advice, with a community of followers growing up around him.
He was a lover of animals, healing their wounds if they were injured. It is said that one pig, on being healed by the monk, decided to show its thanks by staying with him for the rest of his life and for this reason Sant Antoni is often depicted with a pig at his side.
It is for his role as protector and healer of animals that he has been recognised in festivals held in many Catholic countries since the 12th century, in particular in Catalan-speaking areas. Traditionally, on January 17th, an image of the saint would be placed in the main square of a town next to a bonfire. Farm animals would then be paraded around three times—a magical number to guarantee their health, a good harvest and to ward off evil spirits.
The festival was held at a key moment in the agricultural cycle in what is traditionally the coldest week of the year between the end of winter and the start of spring. It was also symbolic for its representation of good (Sant Antoni) against evil (the devil).
With the passing of time, the festival lost its original significance, with the focus moving from working animals to domestic pets in some places and in others, disappearing altogether. Twelve years ago however, a group of 10 towns and cities banded together to look at ways to revive the festival. From this, the Federació Catalana dels Tres Tombs was formed, which now represents more than 70 towns.
“Thanks to this, a lot of traditions that were neglected have been recovered,” said federation spokeswoman Marta Font. “They have been restored along with the traditional jobs linked to carts and horses.”
Apart from supporting each town’s Tres Tombs procession, one of the most important activities organised by the federation is a meeting of all the member towns in the first two weeks of May, when each town shows off its best or biggest cart. This year the event will be held in Vilanova i la Geltrú, which stages one of the region’s most important Tres Tombs processions in honour of Sant Antoni who is the town’s patron saint.
Another town where the festival is celebrated in good style is in Valls. Here, on January 17th every year, the participants vie to have the best-kept animals and decorated carriages, with as many as 350 groups from all over Catalunya and Castelló taking part. These range from luxurious carriages pulled by up to eight horses to carts loaded with coal, sand, straw, bundles of pine, boxes of fish, wood and cereals among other things.
Each town adds its own touch to the festival. In the Barcelona neighbourhoods of Sant Andreu and Eixample, horse-drawn carriages are paraded through the streets and people bring their animals to be blessed at the Ronda Sant Pau. Solsona holds a gymkhana and carriage races after the procession, while in the towns of Caldes de Montbui and Sant Cugat there is a traditional Sant Antoni dance and in Castellterçol, tractor races.
At all the festivals, however, you will be transported back to a different age where animals worked the land and carts were the main form of transport.
Please note that this article was first published in Metropolitan's sister magazine, Costa Brava Resident