Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy Sant Jordi

Today is one of my favorite days in Barcelona, la Diada de Sant Jordi, or Saint George's day. Honoring the patron saint of the Catalunya who is famous for slaying the dragon, it's celebrated with the simple gift exchange of a rose for her and a book from him.

Surprisingly, it's not a public holiday, but if you're out and about it seems like it is based on the crowds strolling the streets and looking at the flower and book stands.  And what is truly amazing is that it can rain the day before and it can rain the day after, but no one I know remembers it raining on Sant Jordi. 

So if you're in town, make sure to take in the sights and sounds of one of the more special days here. If you're not, why not buy a rose or a book for a friend to celebrate anyway.  Here is an interpretation of the legend behind the celebration. Enjoy.

Senyor Jordi I El Drac

Many centuries ago, on top of the barren and windswept stone peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains, a knight and his squire rode to the click, cluck of their horses’ hooves against the rocky eastern ridge. They had been riding to this sound for days on their way to the kingdom of Barcelona, when the wail of a weeping woman cut through the gray air, stopping them in their tracks. So horrifying was the cry that the young squire’s face turned white and his normally steady steed, Nano, bucked, neighed, and stopped with a snort and shake of the head. “What was that, Senyor Jordi?” said the boy as he stroked the smooth brown fur of his nervous horse’s neck.

“There is only one cry painful and powerful enough to reach us up here my dear, Jaume,” replied the old knight. “And that is the cry of a mother who has lost her child.”

Senyor Jordi lifted the dented visor of his helmet and squinted his large brown eyes. Peering down his long, beak-like nose, he followed the steep slope to where it eased at the trees of the Carlac Forest that stretched north and south along the mountainside. Beyond it were the gray stone and red-tiled roofs of a walled village near a dark lake. He rubbed the white stubble on his thin and worn face, closed his eyes and sighed, “Come on. We must see what we can do.”

“Are you sure, sir?” asked the squire.

“Of course, I’m sure. I have not lived the life I’ve lived to sit around and do nothing when I hear such pain.”

“Yes, I know. But something tells me we shouldn’t go down there, sir.”

“Boy, how many times have I told you that one must fight for what one wants?” He slipped down his visor and took the reins of his white stallion, Anici, signaling an end to the discussion. “Now, come on. We must see what has caused such pain and suffering.”

“Yes, sir.”

The squire gingerly followed his master down a path no wider than the horses’ shoulders. The protruding jagged rocks made it seem like they were going mostly sideways as it snaked down the treacherous face of the mountain. Jaume dared not breathe, fearing the slightest noise might literally send him off the cliff which seemed to be constantly on one side. It wasn’t until the slope began to flatten and the gravel ground turned to hard dirt that he spoke again. “Sir,” he said as they arrived at the first row of barren trees of the Carlac Forest.


“Should we not rest here for a bit?”

“Jaume, if you wish to go back, by all means, go ahead. You can attack a few windmills in Castilla-La Mancha along the way. I, on the other hand, will be marching forward!”

The squire decided that he had had enough and yanked his horse’s reins to turn him around. Nano, however, had other ideas and refused to budge. The boy glared and again tried to steer his steed. And again, Nano refused. Staring into his horse’s big brown eyes, the squire realized that the animal’s loyalty rested with his master and not him. “Okay, boy, you win,” he said kicking the horse’s side with spite to spur him along.

As they rode through the desolate wasteland, a thick fog swallowed the barren trees and shriveled bushes. The squire listened for any sound of life – a bird chirping, an insect clicking, a rodent rustling. He heard nothing but the cracks of bones and skulls as they were crushed under their horses’ heavy hooves. Whether they were animal, human or both, he did not know, but fear made him shiver.

“Sir!” His shaky voice echoed in the air.

The squire’s face again sank in disappointment as he watched his master disappear silently into the fog. Tapping Nano to follow, the young boy cursed his father for sending him with this crazy old knight. All he wanted to do was go home, rest and relax. Life had been easy before and that was how he liked it. Despair had set in when a whiff of burning wood suddenly tickled his nose. He sniffed and lifted his head. A blurry orange speck flashed in the distance. The thought of a fire warmed his frightened and weary soul. Jaume pointed excitedly. “Do you see the light, sir?”


“The light, the light! Do you see it?”

Senyor Jordi’s thin lips pursed in concentration and the thousands of lines that etched his face deepened as he stared. “I don’t see anything. Then again, my eyes aren’t what they once were,” he said turning and smiling at the squire. “Still, I trust you, boy. Let’s pay them a visit, shall we?” And for the first time since they had heard the woman’s cry atop of the mountain, Jaume didn’t complain about his master’s decision.


The orange speck led to a clearing in the middle of the forest where a small gray building with a red-tiled roof known as a masia stood. The shape of a box, made of mortar and uncut small boulders, it was built to keep out the damp cold of winter and the blazing summer sun. But even such a sturdy building could do little to prevent the unease that overcame the young squire at the decay and rot that hung in the air like a foul mist. “Sir,” he gagged.

“Almost there, boy.” Senyor Jordi slowed Anici with a gentle pull of the reins and stopped him with a proud pat on his muscular shoulder. Suppressing a cough, he sat up erect, took off his helmet and tucked it under his right arm. “Ready to see what this is all about?”

“Yes, sir.” The squire hopped off Nano and tethered him to a brittle wooden post before walking over to his master and taking his helmet. He stepped back and watched as the old knight pushed up on the horse’s neck. His stick arms shook with effort and his rusted chain mail rattled as his right leg barely cleared Anici’s rump. Jaume stepped forward to catch him.

“Back off, boy,” Senyor Jordi growled as he propped himself up with a hand on each side of the saddle. Taking a deep breath to stop shaking, he relaxed and pushed off, landing with bent knees and a clank. The old knight straightened and faced his squire. “Jaume, I have been doing this by myself since before you were born and will continue doing so. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” He turned to Anici and tenderly stoked his long, silver mane. “You never doubt me, do you?” he whispered.

The horse replied with a neigh, a spit and a shake of the head.

“Right,” Senyor Jordi barked strolling to his stallion’s side where his trusted sword Ascalon was stored. He grabbed the worn, green hilt and a sheeeeeesh sliced through the air as he unsheathed the long metal blade from its wooden scabbard. The shiny steel caught the light from the house’s small windows and a flaming orange ray shone down on the old man standing proudly in a frayed and ragged white tunic with two crossing red lines.

“Let’s go,” he said, sheathing Ascalon in the leather scabbard on his side as the ray of light faded and the dreary gray sky returned.

“Yes, sir,” replied the squire as he followed the knight up a set of crumbling stone steps. His fist pounding on the wooden door brought a scowling woman with long wisps of black hair atop a gaunt face dotted with red sores.

“Yes,” she said in a frail voice that squeaked like rusted hinges.

“I am Senyor Jordi. And this is my trusted squire, Jaume.”


“Senyor Jordi! I was once the emperor’s most trusted and valued knight until he asked me to renounce my beliefs and I disobeyed him. He tortured me to the point of death but I was too strong to die!”

“I’ve never heard of you. We live near Barcelona and are far from Nicemedeia. We have no concern for who is in favor with the emperor and who is not.” She paused and pointed to empty pens where healthy pigs once rolled in their own filth, “As you can see, we are facing a fate worse than any edict he could order.”

“Yes, Senyora. Please, tell me, what has brought such misery upon you poor people?”

“A dragon.”

“A dragon!”

“Yes. It lives in the lake from where we draw our water. At first, it only charged us a sheep and then a pig, but it soon grew bored of our animals’ taste.” She paused and her listless eyes looked to the ground, “Then it ordered us to bring him our daughters.”

“Please tell me you didn’t.”

“Of course we didn’t! We refused, but our answer only angered the beast and it rose from the lake and roared such a roar that all the birds left, never to return.”

“Does the dragon breathe fire?” asked the squire, his face pale at the thought.

“No, worse. Its breath carries with it pestilence and death and as it raged through the towns, all our crops and flowers withered and died.” She shook her head and her eyes welled with tears. “And when we refused again, it took all our livestock, leaving us only their rotten remains on which to feed.”

“That woman’s cry we heard?” said the knight.

“That was the queen. The dragon said the king should not be exempt from the suffering of his people and ordered the princess to be the next sacrifice.”

“It’s got a point,” muttered the squire.

“Jaume! No one should have to sacrifice a child to eat and drink,” his master replied before turning to the old woman, “Tell us, Senyora, where can we find this king?”

She pointed a long bony finger to the black and twisted trees blanketed in a thick fog of the Carlac Forest. “Continue straight down the mountain for about ten minutes and you’ll come to a village by the lake. His castle is on the other side.”

“Yes, I saw such a village from the mountain’s peak. Let’s go, boy.” Senyor Jordi snapped his boots together. “And Senyora I promise to rid you people of this dragon.”

“Please don’t try. I do not want to imagine what he’ll do when you fail.”

“Senyora, one must have faith! Besides, what can be worse than this?”

“Death,” she replied slamming the door.

Turning away from the house, the old knight looked at his powerful stallion gnawing on the dirt ground. This was his third Anici. Each one had been the son of the one before and, while they all shared a strength and courage stronger than most men he had known, each had its own distinct personality. The first was stubborn and hardheaded, but the strongest and most courageous. This one carried with it a quiet confidence and strength. “So this is how it is to end - us against the dragon?” he said with a glint in his eye.

“Sir, you don’t have to do this,” replied the squire.

“You’re right. I don’t. Then again, I’ve never had to do most things in life, have I?”

“So why have you done the things you’ve done, sir?”

“Well, I suppose at first it was to please my father. Like him, I joined the military, but I became a soldier where he was more of a political animal.” The knight’s armor rattled as he started down the steps with his squire following closely behind.

“And not just any soldier, but one of the emperor’s finest, right?”

“I don’t know about all that, Jaume. Let’s just say a soldier who succeeded to stay alive.”

“And then you returned to Nicemedeia.”

“I’ve told you this story before, haven’t I?” They stopped at their awaiting horses. Senyor Jordi went to Anici’s side and returned Ascalon to the wooden scabbard dangling from the saddle. Lifting his boot into the stirrup, he turned to the young boy, “Jaume, give an old man a hand, would you?”

“Yes, sir.” The squire eagerly ran over and gave his master a boost up and over the horse that stood so still it could have been a statue.

“Must conserve one’s energy,” winked the old knight as he settled into the worn saddle and took his batter shield.

Jaume looked up through pleading eyes. “Sir, about this dragon… Is it wise? At least let me try.”

“That is very brave of you boy. But you are not ready, and this is my battle.”

“Yes, sir. But, a dragon?”

“Yes, I know what we’re facing.” He patted Anici’s shoulders and took the reins. “Now, no more talk. Mount up and let’s go. There is a princess to save!” he shouted, thrusting his arm in the air. His powerful stallion lifted up its front legs and kicked in excitement at the news. The squire’s nervous stomach, meanwhile, knotted in a familiar disappointment as he slunk towards his snorting horse.


The dense fog soon began to thin, revealing the few mangled tree stumps at the forest’s edge and the start of a gradual dirt slope. The brown wall of the village was not too far off in the distance. Looking at his master sitting on his white horse with his head up and his back straight, the squire remembered the day his father brought the beaten and bloodied man to their home. As the story went, after fighting in the emperor’s many wars for twenty years, Senyor Jordi returned to Nicemedeia a changed man. But instead of retiring into politics like most decorated soldiers, he chose to speak out against the emperor and his edicts and give away all his wealth in the process. The squire once asked his father, “Why?” and his old man responded, “Living through war changes a person.”

His father was the only one who offered this rational. Most subscribed to the theories that Senyor Jordi had converted to some barbaric, foreign religion and eventually even his old friend the emperor turned on him, ordering him to be lashed on a wheel of swords outside the city’s walls. When Jaume asked the knight the reason behind his change, he replied, “Everyone can change. It’s just a matter of choosing to or choosing not to, and I chose to,” and switched the topic.

“Jaume, look at this place.” Senyor Jordi’s gravelly voice stopped the squire from thinking about the past as the full horror of the village through which they now rode came down like a fiery sermon. People pushing wheelbarrows stacked with dead bodies dumped their morbid contents against the gray stone of the buildings like trash. In the main square starving men, women and children gathered and begged for food from the chubby priest standing outside the temple’s walls. For the first time in his young life, Jaume understood desperation.

“Now, do you see why we must try and do something,” said the knight.

“It is truly horrible, sir. But why us? Can’t someone else do it?”

“Why not us?”

“Because we can’t!”

“Perhaps not, if we try. But for sure, if we don’t.”

“But Senyor Jordi, you will die.”

“And so will you one day, Jaume. How you can look around and feel all this misery and destruction and not be moved to do something other than complain is beyond me.” He gently spurred his nervous, spitting horse. “But, I for one, cannot, and will not, sit idly by.”

“But to battle with a dragon, sir? Is there not something else we can do?”

“I hope so. I haven’t been in combat in ten years.”

A man’s desperate pleas cut their conversation short. Senyor Jordi grabbed his wooden shield, banged on it, and slid down his dented visor. “The time is upon us,” he said kicking Anici from a trot into a canter.

The wind smacking against his face and the sound of Nano’s hooves hitting the ground made the young squire forget where they were heading. He rode so fast with all his concentration focused on staying on his horse that the world ceased to exist as he flew out of the back gate of the walled village. Nano hit the ground in perfect stride and Jaume imagined a different present where he rode towards his neighbor’s daughter, the beautiful Elisenda, who awaited him with open arms. The sight of the round lake with water so black and still that it looked like tar brought back his fear of the future. The squire pulled on the reins to slow down and watched his master approach a rag-tag group of villagers on the banks.

“What’s going on here?” beckoned Senyor Jordi.

“They want to sacrifice my daughter,” cried a voice.

“It’s the only way! It’s the only way!” screamed the group as a fat man with a thick brown beard and a gold embroidered velvet tunic pushed his way through to the front.

His lips quivering as he spoke, he said, “I am the king.”

“Bring me your daughter,” commanded Senyor Jordi and the villagers parted to reveal a woman chained to a stake by the lake’s rocky bank. A stunning beauty with long golden locks and sparkling hazel eyes, the pearl and lace girdle of the wedding dress she wore boosted her ample bosom and hugged her round curves. Senyor Jordi, noticing his squire’s slack jaw, pulled alongside and said, “You’d fight a dragon for that, wouldn’t you, boy?”

Jaume turned red and offered no reply.

The knight returned his gaze to the princess and lifted up his visor. “What’s this I hear about you being sacrificed?”

Her trembling voice tried to be firm. “Please, I understand you are a knight and it is your nature to be chivalrous and valiant, but leave us be.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The dragon promised to return the lake and our land if my father sacrificed me.”

“That is nonsense. There will be no more death!”

A hiss erupted from the depths of the lake that shook the ground. Rising up to the surface, it grew louder and crashed through with a deafening splash, sending water cascading down like a rain of arrows. In the gray sky, a beast with the black wings of a bat and the head of a snake stretched its arms and legs that were nothing but loosely connected bones and roared.

The villagers had little desire to face its wrath again and fled while the king hid behind a large rock, leaving only the chained princess, the knight and his squire in its dark shadow. “This girl is not to be sacrificed and you are to give the lake back to the village,” Senyor Jordi shouted as he closed his visor and drew his sword.

Ascalon glistened and the beast hissed. This time it was more like a laugh than a roar of anger. Flapping its wings to thunderous claps, it soared higher into the air where it became just a dot in the sky.  An ear-piercing squeal rang out from the heavens as it dove down like a spear launched from a catapult. “Hold,” ordered the knight with his shield up and his sword steady on his hip, his trembling squire at his side.

The dragon spread its wings to slow its descent. Like the bat from whose form they took, they moved and fluttered in every direction and angle, giving them a hypnotic quality that held the knight and his squire in a trance. The beast cast an ever darkening shadow over them as it grew closer and stretched a skeletal arm across its chest. It unleashed a back hand smack. The blow rattled Jaume’s helmet and sent him crashing to the ground. Pain numbed his muscles and he could only watch as the laughing dragon flew higher and higher, disappearing from sight. Again, it screamed down. The knight did not hold this time, but turned and spurred Anici into a desperate sprint that left a cloud of dust as he raced towards the cover of the forest.

The dragon’s icy breath upon his neck, Senyor Jordi said a prayer for courage and strength and yanked the reins of his galloping horse. The beast furiously flailed its wings in futile attempt to stop its forward momentum. Anici’s hooves slid and skidded, its legs almost buckling from the sharpness of a turn that barely evaded the onrushing dragon.

The crash of breaking trunks and branches filled the air and Senyor Jordi watched as the beast slammed into the trees of the forest, flipping over, landing on its back.“You’re breath is really quite rank,” he teased, as he steadied his proud, neighing horse.

The dragon rolled onto its belly and began to rise. Slowly spreading its massive wings like a black cape, the towering beast stood on its hind legs and pointed at the knight; its flickering eyes dared him to make his next move. Senyor Jordi traced the red lines that crossed his tunic, cocked the mighty Ascalon back, and charged. The horse’s pounding hooves sounded like the drums of war and the dragon hissed in excitement as it flung its head back to strike. Leaping high in the air, Anici hurtled itself towards the attacking beast, passing just under its clamping jaws. Senyor Jordi sensed the moment to deal the victorious blow, lunged and thrust the long blade deep into the red scales of dragon’s neck, the surrounding trees exploding from a deafening scream as man, beast and horse collided.


The pain and ringing in Jaume’s head had dulled to the point where the young squire contemplated getting up. Dazed like he had just lost a joust, he rolled onto his stomach, pushed up onto his knees, and staggered to his feet. Looking around, he swayed and saw blurry doubles of a thin man walking towards him with his visor up and a shining smile across his face. “Senyor Jordi, you’re alive!” cried the squire who knew at that moment that he would never doubt or question his master again.

“Of course, boy. I’m not going to lose to a reptile, no matter how big it is.” Tapping his head to re-enforce the lesson, he said, “The number one rule of a soldier, pick one’s battles wisely. Dragons are a predictable lot. Fly up, swoop down and bite.”

“Is it dead?”

“No. In fact, dust yourself off and come with me. I want to show you something.” He brought the young boy in close and hugged him like a son as they strolled towards the lake’s rocky edge. Where the dragon’s crimson had been spilled, the horses munched on the first shoots of green grass that the land had seen in years. Listing to the rustle of a breeze, the squire swore he heard the faint chirp of a bird as he watched an elated princess run up to Senyor Jordi and kiss him over and over again.

“I can’t thank you enough,” she said.

His wrinkled white face blushed red and he replied, “That’s alright. I’m a knight. I had to do something.”

“And you are the bravest one at that!”

“According to my squire - a stupid one. Right, Jaume?”

“Hum,” he coughed. “I’ve never called you stupid.”

“So,” said the king, his tone conveying a restored sense of power and authority, “What do we do with the dragon?”

“Princess,” said the knight. “Would you do an old man a favor and take off your girdle?”

“You want me to do what?”

“Please, I want to show you something.” Senyor Jordi walked to the young girl’s back and clumsily undid the first knot of string. Watching his master undress the princess, Jaume became entranced by her beauty and a dribble of drool formed in the corner of his mouth. The king’s firm hand on his shoulder reminded him that he was not alone.

“You see.” Senyor Jordi slipped the girdle over the head and around the neck of a beast which no longer seemed so big and menacing, but more like an animal at the emperor’s zoo, “Completely meek and compliant.”

“Are we supposed to keep it as a pet?” asked the king.

“No, follow me,” replied the knight as he led the defeated dragon up the smooth slope by a long rope with the king, princess and squire at his side. Cries of horror and the slam of doors greeted them at the brown wall of the village. “Be not afraid people, for the beast has been vanquished.”

The crack of doors and windows opening was followed by the buzz of conversation as the skeletal villagers trickled out from behind the wall to see if the crazy old knight was right. “Why isn’t it dead? Why isn’t it dead?” they demanded to know.

Senyor Jordi said, “I will slay it on one condition.”

“What? What? What?”

“That you renounce the life you had before the dragon,” he replied. “A life where a few individuals are strong, but the village is weak. A life where a dragon can come, take your lake and make you sacrifice your own children just to live on the rotten remains of all that you once had. For if you don’t do this, this will not be the last dragon to visit your land!”

Senyor Jordi’s speech had the king squirming and the people chanting, “We swear! We swear! We swear!”

He raised the sparkling Ascalon into the sky one last time. As it sliced through the gray air, it caught a faint ray of the sun and flashed like an exploding star before coming down across the dragon’s neck to a joyous cheer from the crowd.

“A blood thirsty lot,” muttered Jaume. His comment did not go unnoticed by the princess whose hazel eyes glared to show that she was not amused.

“Thank you, thank you,” said the king looking twenty years younger. “You are a true saint! My brother is the Count of Barcelona and I will tell him to erect buildings and anoint a holiday in your honor!”

“Please don’t," replied the knight. "If anything give your daughter a rose and your son a book. More than anything, just try to heed my words. As you can see, I am an old man who won’t be around to save you the next time.” He stroked Anici’s shoulders and turned to Jaume, “Come on, boy. Let’s go.”

“Where to now, sir?”

“Why don’t we pay our old friend Don Quixote a visit and see how many dragons he’s slain, shall we?” Senyor Jordi said as he and his squire rode towards a forest of budding flowers and singing birds to the muffled click, cluck of their horses’ hooves against the soft, grassy ground.

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