Juego de Tronos. /ˈxue.ɣo de ˈtɾo.nos/ Proper n. Language: Spanish. Meaning: Game of Thrones, a violently bloody and outrageously popular semi-porno TV series based in the Middle Ages. If I even had to define this for you, you’re living under a rock.
The young country that it is, the U.S. pulls its cultural heritage from a much smaller window of time. Its celebrations focus on events in considerably recent history.
We drink Coors on the 4th of July to showcase that we don’t need the British, or their premium ales. We eat turkey and pie in late November as a way to give thanks for hacking it on our own, and to feign that we could coexist with the natives. And on the East Coast, at least, you can see some reenactments of colonial America: Women dressed in frocks, harvesting wheat, help explain to us the trials of our forefathers.
Europe, on the other hand, has been around a while. So at the end of August a friend in Barcelona invited me to the tiny medieval village of Besalú, 1.5 hours north of Barcelona, for their yearly heritage celebration. And how does a medieval village celebrate its past?
Horses. Knights. Armor. Jesters. Blood and carnage. And it airs in real-time, not Sunday nights on HBO.
This was Game of Thrones in Besalú.
Once a year, this tiny Catalan village throws a spectacle, the Besalú medieval festival. It’s mostly locals and Catalans who attend; in fact, I think I may have been the only guiri (foreigner), much like in old times.
The events began at 11 a.m. sharp, where the crowds cascaded across the impressively old Pont Vell bridge to a sandy arena, following a parade of jesters, stilt-walkers, jugglers, and drummers. Knights on horses then entered the arena to dramatic theme music, and the Besalú medieval festival was off to enthusiastic shouts and applause.
There were stands for royalty to sit, though of course the late King Joffrey wasn’t with us. But us peasants had to sit on the rocky ground, naturally.
After each knight and his team were introduced (all in Catalan. . . . I was 50% lost), the games began. And I know, I know, I wasn’t born in the Middle Ages, but to me it seemed downright authentic.
There were all sorts of challenges for the teams to win points: spearing hoops with poles; spearing each other with poles; diving for flags while on horseback; slicing watermelons in two with iron swords. In between each round, other members of the team would come out and sword fight. Thundering music was enlisted for dramatic effect.
In the end (spoiler alert), the villagers won against the conquerers. It’s sort of like how Game of Thrones would have been if Prince Oberyn had actually won the dual, and not gotten his head literally POPPED open at the very end by Clegane. They left that part out at Besalú, probably because they didn’t have the staff to clean up the ensuing vomit.
At the end of the hour-long show, we walked into the town center for such activities as drinking beer (a timeless activity, be it 2014 or the Middle Ages), a bird show, and best of all, a “make your own medieval bread” workshop. An old baker wearing a brilliant blue robe told us the correct quantities to knead together to make a perfect loaf—or what would have been considered perfect in the 12th century. We used a special type of yeast in existence in that era, and shall we say, bread has improved in flavor since then. Due to my obsession with starch, I obviously still ate the whole loaf.
We ate a late lunch on the riverfront, a simple but brilliant Catalan version of a hotdog—spicy sausage (butifarra) on toast, spread with tomato and olive oil. It was a pristine setting, one of those rare moments when life South of the Wall proves peaceful and harmonious. And it was all made more brilliant by toddlers running around yielding cardboard swords and donning yellow capes. Kind of like watching Tyrion in training. (Too much?)
Once the games were over, the bread risen, and the butifarra digested, it was time to say goodbye to King’s Landing. We jumped in our 2014 version of a horse, and drove back to reality—also known as Barcelona, not too shabby of a place to return to.
*Unlike Game of Thrones, no prostitutes made an appearance at the 2014 Besalú medieval festival (to my knowledge). Neither, lamentably, did Jon Snow.
Practical Information for the Besalú Medieval Festival:
- Game of Thrones, Besalú airs on the last weekend in August.
- Subscriptions cost 3 euros/person (cheaper than HBO!), which gains you entry for the whole weekend.
- King’s Landing (Besalú—keep up, people) is so small that it’s hard to reach by public transport from Barcelona. You can piece together a metro-train-bus odyssey, but we went by modern 4-wheel horsepower, which took 1.5 hours. Roads have gotten substantially more costly since the Middle Ages, however, and tolls one way will run you 10 euros. (Better than potential beheadings at the river crossings, though, amirite?)
- Despite the late King Joffrey’s vicious rule, King’s Landing is now a very family-friendly place. Little ones can enjoy archery lessons, donkey rides, bird shows—hell, they can probably even swig a beer. I mean, Arya Stark has thrown one back, and she’s what, nine?!?
Have you ever been to a Medieval Festival? Are you as distraught as me that Game of Thrones season 5 doesn’t air until Spring?