On the second Sunday of May, Valencia celebrates its patroness, the Virgen de los Desamparados (Our Lady of the Forsaken), with a lethargic and low-key event. Subdued worshipers calmly line the Plaza de la Virgen, offering whispered prayers and privately reflecting on their faith as their beloved icon passes quietly by. (Are you detecting any sarcasm, here? Because I’m laying it on pretty thick.)
In truth, there is nothing quiet nor calm about the morning procession of the Virgen de los Desamparados. Or even sane for that matter. This is one of the craziest events Valencia has to offer, and it’s certainly not for everyone. You might want to keep your distance if you don’t enjoy being crushed to half-to-death in a frenzied crowd. Or getting kicked repeatedly in the face.
At 10:30 in the morning, the holy icon of Our Lady is carried out of the basilica in which she normally resides. She’s taken around the Plaza de la Virgen, and then through the doors of the nearby cathedral. But first, she has to fight through a crowd of psychotic maniacs who will go to any length to touch her.
“Come on, calling these people ‘psychotic’ is a little extreme, don’t you think?” No! I don’t think! Psychotic is a perfectly valid way to describe people who will crowdsurf in order to touch the virgin. I’m not talking, “climbing atop the shoulders of their friends.” I mean, “taking a flying leap from a wall, landing atop elderly ladies and mindlessly kicking anything that’s in the way of their flailing feet, and then breaking down in uncontrollable sobs because it’s all so holy.” That is psychotic!
(This year, I was kicked three times straight in the face, by the same person. I couldn’t defend myself, because my hands were trapped by the crushing crowd. After she finally had her feet on the ground, she started crying. Maybe it was religious ecstasy, or maybe it was because she finally realized the true depths of her psychosis.)
And then there are the parents who will hand their infant baby over to complete strangers, so it can be passed about like a hot potato, until finally someone, maybe six strangers down the line, manages to klonk Baby’s head against the statue… and then eventually return it to Mommy and Daddy, who are probably sobbing by now because Their Child Hath Been So Verily Blessed.
That said, watching the madness from a safe perch is stunning. As the virgin makes her way through the narrow passage between the basilica and the cathedral, people standing on their balconies rain flower petals down upon her. With the crying and the flowers, and the wobbly statue always close to being toppled, the whole event is scary and beautiful, and simply surreal.
Later on the same day, there’s a mascletà in the Plaza de Ayuntamiento, as well as a much calmer procession which takes the virgin around the most historic streets in the old town. Apparently, Our Lady of the Forsaken has lost whatever luck-bestowing powers she had in the morning. For this parade, people are content to simply watch her go by. (Psychotic people don’t usually make a lot of sense.)
The festivities for the Virgen de los Desamparados actually begin the day before, on Saturday evening, with fireworks in the Turia riverbed at midnight, followed by a huge dance in the Plaza de la Virgen. With hundreds of castanet-clicking couples in traditional costumes swirling about the plaza, this is a sight worth staying up for.