A few weeks ago Phil and I started seeing posters around town with the word Antroxu and a guy in a rainbow unicorn costume on it (see below) and we figured it was some kid-focused carnival. We didn’t think twice about it until some friends from our meetup group started discussing the regional happenings for Carnaval. Carnaval is essentially the same thing as Mardi Gras, both of which are the celebration period before the Catholic fasting season of Lent which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday.
Our friends shared a link of Asturian happenings for Carnaval and we realized that Antroxu was Carnaval. Antroxu is Asturian (not Spanish) for Carnaval (Xixón is Asturian for Gijón). Let me tell you, Antroxu is big in Asturias, with many towns hosting grand celebrations with costumes, bands, parades, and music. The official holiday (a for real, you don’t have to go to work holiday) of Antroxu is the day before Ash Wednesday, the same day that is typically referred to as “Fat Tuesday” in the U.S. However, the celebration, as the poster indicates, lasts for several days.
The unofficial start of Antroxu is on February 24th with Les Comadres. Les Comadres is a huge ladies night and is an Asturian tradition that is not celebrated in Spain at large. The origins date back to Roman festivities that celebrated married women during the month of March and was the only time of year that women had the same rights as men. Women of all ages go out for a night of traditional foods and sidra with [lady]family and friends. The night might even include entertainment by a male stripper! During the Spanish dictatorship, Comadres was frowned upon, so women hosted celebrations in their private homes. Since the early 80’s, Comadres has once again been celebrated in siderias and restaurants throughout the region. Our profesora Lupe informed us that she has a group of six women that she celebrates with every year. How fun!
We decided we would celebrate Antroxu by attending the annual parades in both Gijón and the nearby town of Avilés. The Avilés celebration takes place the Saturday before Lent and is famous for their large foam cannons (huge cannons that shoot soap suds) that they use to fill the streets with “la foma”. We even saw a video from a prior year’s celebration of folks kayaking down the streets in the foam!
We met up with our friend, Utkarsh, at the bus station and followed the costumes toward the action. Two large stages had been erected in one of the town’s main plazas and metal barricades set up on the pedestrian-only street marking the parade route. We grabbed a table at a cafe along the parade route and settled in. Just after we ordered a second beer, however, the waitress informed us that we would need to move as in five minutes, la foma would be covering the streets. We watched as her and her co-worker hurriedly stacked the outdoor tables and chairs and we hurriedly chugged the beers we’d just ordered. Excitedly we put on the plastic ponchos we’d purchased for the occasion.
We stood along the street in front of the cafe and saw them wheel out a foam cannon and cheered as it started spraying. Little children and teenagers led the charge into the stream of foam. After about thirty seconds, however, the foam stopped. Confused, we waited ten minutes and again, the cannon had a short burst of foam and stopped. After this happened 2-3 times we decided to walk around the corner of the plaza to see what was happening. We saw another cannon doing the same, sporadic bursts. This was about half an hour after the parade was to have started and we wondered, “Is this it”?
Then we decided to grab a beer at one of the restaurants that had tables set up in front of the stages on the plaza. We figured whatever was going to be happening on the stages, we now had a front row spot to check it out. Eventually, an hour or so later, we saw a few floats go past. The foam was getting fuller in the streets as well but by that time, I’d lost my desire to play in it. It was dark and cold and the idea of being wet and cold did not appeal to me.
We enjoyed our beers and a couple of pizzas as we took in the costumes of the passers by from our vantage point in the plaza. At 10pm, we realized that nothing would be happening on the stages until 12:30 and decided to call it an early night, figuring we had Monday in Gijón to make up for it. As we made our way to the bus station, we saw loads of teens and twenty somethings with bags upon bags of ice and bottles of hard liquor heading toward the plaza. Utkarsh explained that they were preparing for a Botellón, which is a gathering of young folks drinking in the streets.
On Monday, Utkarsh joined us for lunch at one of our favorite spots in Gijón, Bistro 21. Utkarsh had met us there for lunch once before and fell in love with their pistachio tiramisu (it is truly amazing) and called to ensure they would have the desert on the day we went. They did along with some other delicious dishes including a goat cheese pastry with tomato jam, salad of chicken and avocado, and pork with pear chutney for the first course offering and Greek musaka and cod with a saffron aioli for the second.
After lunch we took a long walk before returning to our place to relax a bit and get ready for the parade. Our friend Diana, and her daughter, Diana, met us at 7pm and we headed out. We weren’t sure what to expect after having been a bit disappointed by the events in Avilés.
As we neared the parade route, we heard loud and lively snare drum beats. The parade in Gijón doesn’t have large floats but consists of several (twelve this year) groups of charangas. A Charanga is a group of drummers and dancers who perform a routine based on a theme of their choosing. The charangas work together to develop the theme and routine throughout the year in anticipation of the performance. Families often perform in the same charangas year after year and is a tradition passed down through generations. Awards are given based on performance with the top finishers receiving prize money.
In addition to the charangas, there were also other groups without drums and dancing who walked along the parade route with small carrozas (floats). These carroza groups also had a chosen theme and are awarded prizes based on presentation and performance.
The charangas all gave wonderful performances. We danced and drank beer on the sidewalk while enjoying each performance and happily awaiting the next. The vibe in the streets was a joyous and celebratory one. As the last performers passed by, everyone along the parade route filled in the street and followed the parade, dancing and laughing all the way.
The following afternoon, we joined some friends for a typical menu de Antroxu that consisted of traditional Asturian foods; pote (Asturian strew of smokey meats, beans, and greens) and picadillo (ground chorizo often served with friend potatoes and eggs and sometimes fired corn cakes). We of course paired the meal with sidra (Asturian hard cider).
As we were walking our friends home after lunch, we passed all of the charanga groups who were gathered in Plaza de Jovellanos. They appeared to be practicing and waiting around for something. We bid adieu, or more precisely, we bid hasta luego, to our friends and decided to stick around and find out what was happening. After a while, the charangas began taking off, one by one, making their way up the calle toward Plaza Begoña as they performed. We were witnessing parade round two it seemed and I was all about it! Each charanga made their way toward the stage that had been erected in the plaza and then dissipated into the crowd.
We made our way toward the stage and saw her, La Sardina. Entierro de La Sardina (the Burial of the Sardine) takes place on Antroxu, the day before Ash Wednesday. While Wikipedia provides this explanation for the ceremony, we were told by several native Spaniards that it is a joke referring to Lent. They explained that because during Lent, Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays but fish, the sardine is being buried to suggest that if all the fish are buried, then they can eat all the meat they please.
In addition to large sardine lying in state, there were mourners dressed in black on the stage as well as many older women in the crowd, dressed all in black, often with veils on. As I snapped a few photos of La Sardina, they began announcing the carrozas and charangas winners. Our friend Luis was in one of the charangas, named Perdíos de los Nervios (madly nervous) which won fourth place. Their theme was fortune tellers and their costumes were really cool with each non drummer wearing a desk with a crystal ball and a computer with webcam (for modern day fortune telling).
I am so glad we decided to participate in the Antroxu festivities. Being in a new country and having new cultural experiences has been very exciting. It has certainly led us out of our comfort zone at times and encouraged us to do things we may not normally do. When we return to the U.S. one of the lessons I will take with me from our experience is to get out and attend local events and celebrations. Typically, going to the town apple festival or the city’s Thanksgiving parade would not appeal to us: too many people, too many kids, too much going on. But why not? If we go once and hate it, we won’t go back but I shouldn’t assume it’s going to be a bad time if I have never experienced it. Attending those little (or big) local celebrations are experiencing culture too. My culture, the culture of my neighbors, the culture of my community and fellow Americans. You don’t have to live in an exotic location or foreign land to learn about people, who on the surface anyway, may be different than you are.