It was not even 10 o’clock in the morning at the top of San Felices. The sun peaked out of the cloud cover, and people emerged from the shadows to line up in the narrow patches of light before they disappeared, then reappeared, then vanished again. Most were soaked head to toe. Wine stains streaked their arms and legs. It dripped from their hair. It dried in purple patches on their foreheads. Down the mountain, a scant band started playing drums
The drummer banged out the first eight bars to “Seven Nation Army” on repeat while the crowd chanted and jumped, spraying wine into the air.
This is the ‘Batalla del Vino’ in Haro.
Chaos is only one word to describe this event.
Grown men hauled drums of wine up to the top of the mountain only to scoop out glass after glass and throw it into the faces of passersby. Mothers told children holding botas of wine to ‘get them, get them’ if they saw anyone with a spot of white left on their clothes. A tall, rail-thin man moved stealthily through the crowd, pretending to enjoy the music. He had a rainboot propped up on his shoulder with wine sloshing over the sides. He was a circling shark.
A jet from the left hit me in the arm.
I turned to retaliate with a shot from my squirt gun, but as soon as I did, someone yelled, “Rubia!” A wave of wine splashed over my head and washed over my body, re-soaking my clothes. I tried to whisk it off my face because it was getting in my eyes and it stung, but my hands were dripping wet and I had nowhere to wipe them. There was no mercy.
Foreigners, or ‘guiris’, are especially targeted. It’s like the locals will let you partake in their fun, but they want to remind you whose territory it is. And they’re unquestionably in charge. No amount of wine you bring, no vessel you carry to distribute it can compete with their experience. One man we hitched a ride with said it was his 47th year.
Finally, the sun fully emerged and the chanting intensified. The crowd coagulated into a pulsing mob that was jumping and clapping to the music.
As they shouted songs in unison, a fine mist of wine came off their lips and faces. Someone launched a stream of wine from a bota across the crowd. Another person opened his mouth to catch it.
Still, people were weaving into the group and emptying gallons of wine onto heads and shoulders. There was no ‘winner’ in this battle. There are no sides. No teams. Everyone is in it together, alternating between embracing one another and dousing each other in red wine.
As mid-morning arrived, supplies started to run short and the ground turned to mush. This signalled the unrehearsed end of the battle. Small groups split off and navigated the now wine-slick trails back down the mountain to the parking lot below. There, locals who hung back with their tractors and vans had built fires with trimmings from the wine branches.
A delicious smell of wood smoke was a reminder that we all smelt musty and sweet, like the bottom of an old wine cork. Everyone gathered around the fires to dry out and warm up.
Eat, drink, and dar vueltas
The man who had graciously agreed to take us up to San Felices that morning saw us and waved us over to his ‘camp.’ His name was Santi, and we met him the night before at the bar of the side-of-the-highway hotel where we were staying. He was the only other person there, and I was impressed when he ordered a café con leche and screwdriver back-to-back. It was 11 o’clock.
The bartender spoke quietly to him for a few minutes, then came back wiping her hands on a towel. She explained that he was driving his tractor to the event in the morning. He can make room for two more, she said. Just be down here at 10 past 7.
Not even 12 hours later, there we were with Santi and his family and friends. He shoved an opened, unlabeled bottle of wine into Chris’ hands. They had a table full of bread and chorizo, morcilla, and caracoles (snails). Eat something, he told us in Spanish. He didn’t speak a lick of English. I was going to be Minnesota nice and try to refuse the offer, but it was no use. A woman ripped off a hunk of bread and shoved it in my hands. Don’t you like chorizo? she asked.
So we ate with them, and drank with them. And when the food was eaten and the sun was high, they doused the fire with wine and we packed up the tractor to drive back down the mountain. People trailed along the roadside in groups of three to four, like purple refugees. Some gave up and splayed out on the ground of the vineyards lining the street. Others begged for rides and squirted us with the dregs from their botas when we cruised past.
And like all summer traditions I know, the morning ended with a parade in town.
So that was my experience, are you ready for your own?
What to wear:
- White shirt
- White shorts or pants
- A Red scarf (or pañuelo – you can buy the official ones at any dollar store in town.)
- Close-toed shoes that you don’t mind getting destroyed
What to bring:
- A good sense of humor
- Lots of cheap wine – we brought two 2-liter jugs and a bottle for our bota to drink
- Some type of ‘weapon’
We brought squirt guns and I felt kind of silly at first because it seemed like only the tourists had them. The locals have bug sprayers filled and barrels filled with wine. They’re not messing around. But, once we were in the middle of it, there were plenty of people with guns just like ours. As a bonus, we got to give them away as gift to some little kids at the end of the parade.
Where is it?
Haro, technically. But the actual fight is about 8k outside of Haro on a mountain called San Felices.
How do you get there?
You can get there by walking, or by taking a bus that runs from the bridge between the swimming pool and soccer field. You won’t miss it. There are crowds of people lining up there all morning starting a little before 8am.
What time does it start?
- 8-9 a.m.
People meet in the town and start the hike up to San Felices at 7 a.m., but the lady at our hotel told us this is a joke of the festival. People usually don’t start the ascent from the town square until about 8 a.m.
We hitched a ride on a tractor at 7:15 and arrived on the mountain between 8 and 8:30. There is a parking lot where all the locals hang out before the event, and I regret that we didn’t stick around there for a little longer. I was doused and completely purple within five minutes of entering ‘the battle,’ and IT WAS COLD. The only way to keep warm is to run around, shiver, and shoot people.
However, I also caution you against getting there too late. Some stragglers wandered in after 10 a.m. and had to ask people to pour wine on them. That’s not as much fun.
Where to stay?
Try to book early if you want to stay in town, or be ready to pay more. All the Airbnbs,hostels and hotels we looked at were super expensive for the days of the festival. Remember that it’s a small town, so your options are limited to start. There is also an option to camp with Stoke Travel near Haro, which seems fun and convenient, but pricey for two-nights of camping.
But if you can’t get a place in Haro, you can choose something in a city nearby like:
This is where we stayed. It’s the next town up the road – 10 minutes by car, 40 minutes walking. The place was called La Puerta de la Rioja. It’s out of the way, and it seemed like no one else was staying there, but I have to recommend it because the people went out of their way to make our experience amazing.
- Briones, Miranda de Ebro
We met some people who were staying in these towns and driving into Haro with a rental car.
What to expect?
Come knowing that you’re going to get completely covered in wine. You’re probably not going to leave with a couple of splashes here and there. That being said, put anything you need to keep dry in plastic bags.
Will wine stain blonde hair red?
Permanently? No. I was worried about this going into it, and thought about wearing a hat or a shower cap, but decided to suck it up and take the risk. Thank god. I probably saved face, and the wine washed right out of my hair … though the smell didn’t for a couple of days.