The Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as The Fiesta of Near Death Experiences, does it? That, however, is the official title of this annual event held on July 29th every year in the small town of Las Nieves – or As Neves, as it’s known in the native Galician. Galicia is, in many ways, a quirky part of Spain’s north west – with wonderful coastlines and many strange customs that own as much to their pre-Christian origins as to Christianity. In the province of Pontevedra, near the border with Portugal, Las Nieves more than doubles its population of just over 4,000 each year as people come to pay their respects to the ‘Saint of Death’.
The basic premise of the Fiesta of Near Death Experience is that, originally local people but now increasingly those from outside the town as well, give their thanks to the Saint after surviving a close brush with death during the previous twelve months. A procession of family and friends of the ‘celebrants’ makes its way though the streets of the town, all dressed appropriately for funerals. This might be bizarre enough for most tastes but they also have to carry their ‘escapee’ in his or her own coffin. Even more surreal is the vision of those in the parade without family or friends who struggle along carrying their own coffin.
The unconventional pilgrimage is led by the effigy of Santa Marta – in Biblical terms she is Martha, the sister of Lazarus who was brought back from the dead by Jesus. To the chanting of ‘Virgin Santa Marta, star of the north, we bring you those who saw death’, the parade winds its melancholy way. By about midday, the mournful cortège reaches the tiny granite church dedicated to the Saint, where they procede inside for a mass. As there are far too many people attending for them all to enter the church, the service is broadcast on loudspeakers to those crammed together outside.
Now so far this might not sound much like a typical Spanish fiesta – but, rest assured, even though the near dead themselves might be in serious contemplation, most of the spectators lining the streets are much more likely to be lighting firworks, eating pulpo a la gallega – Galicia’s ‘signature dish’ – and dancing along to the numerous gypsy dance bands. You’ll also find an abundance of street vendors selling religious mementoes of varying quality.
After the service, the image of Saint Marta is carried to and from the town cemetery and then the atmosphere really starts to become celebratory and loud. You’ll have plenty of opportunity of listening to people telling their interesting encounters with ‘the dark mansion called Death’ – which probably become more colourful as the day progresses.
The Fiesta of Near Death Experiences is one that fits right into the mould of Spain’s eccentric celebrations – up there with goat throwing in Zamora or jumping over babies near Burgos. If you want to attend, then Galicia is a lovely part of Spain at the end of July – with rainfall usually not too dissimilar to that of Cornwall. There are airports at A Coruña, Vigo and Santiago de Compostela – although there’s also the option of flying to Porto and taking the attractive drive up from northern Portugal.