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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Oh, Jesse Where Art Thou? — A True Tight Spot

March 20, 2024

VALENCIA, SPAIN— It was a tight spot. Not in the figurative sense in which one is faced with a challenging situation that needs immediate attention. Though this was a very challenging situation that needed immediate action, but it was also a literal tight spot.

The word “literally” is thrown around by many these days, usually incorrectly, but a space to stand— or move— couldn’t get any tighter than the one in which I found myself. My travel group and I were face to face, chest to chest, smashed up against each other in a crowd of 80,000 Spaniards during the busiest day Valencia will see all year, and no one was moving, not even a literal inch. There was nowhere to go. It was truly a tight spot.

Let me back up a bit. I am in the middle of hosting 25 Americans through Spain. We started in Madrid over a week ago and since we touched ground we have spent time in Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Gibraltar, Malaga, Valencia, and about to head to Barcelona. We’ve been hitting it hard because— as I strive to do on all the trips I host— I want to cover all the bases and check all the boxes. To do that we need to cover, not only the country’s food, but the art, architecture, culture, history, personalities, terrain, transportation, and traditions.

We have taken a sunset cruise on the Mediterranean, attended Flamenco dancing lessons before a professional Flamenco performance, had a paella-making workshop and then ate the results, marveled at world class art at the Prado Museum, zip lined across the river in Toledo, dined in caves, explored other caves, mingled with the monkeys of Gibraltar, tried our hand at virtual bullfighting, ate in the homes of Spanish housewives in the Spanish countryside, walked under cork trees with the Iberico Pigs of Jabugo who feed on their acorns, visited royal palaces, and magnificent cathedrals, and have eaten world-class, local cuisine in the style of each region we have visited.

We have travelled by fast train, bus, boat, jet, the aforementioned zip line, small two-person city cars that talk, and by foot. It’s during one of the by-foot treks that we ended up in the tightest spots of all tight spots.

For years the Fallas of Valencia had been on my bucket list of things to do before I die. And since it is always held in the middle of March, I always hoped that we could be there on my wife’s birthday, which is the 16th. This was our third year to attend, but our first on her birthday. None of my guests had ever been to the Fallas, and I think most didn’t know what it was.

The Fallas is held in Valencia and is a celebration of St. Joseph that includes several days of daytime fireworks at city hall (I know what you’re thinking, trust me it’s incredible), nighttime fireworks displays that put Disney to shame, many side celebrations, and the constructing of over 800 falla (paper mache statues of varying sizes created by each neighborhood). The statues are intricate, colorful, and fun. Some are several stories tall. Think of the elaborate floats by the Mardi Gras float master, Blane Kern of Mardi Gras World and then multiply them in size, scale, and quantity. As a matter of fact, Kern came to Valencia to study falla how the falla are made. One night a year all 800+ of the falla are burned across the city to signal the coming of spring. They start getting ready for next year’s Fallas, immediately.

The crowds at the Fallas are a cross between the shoulder-to-shoulder tightness of Times Square at New Year’s Eve and the frivolity of Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But the energy and attitude are much friendlier, less intoxicated, and the events are more family oriented. More than 80,000 people pack into the town square for an amazing display of daytime fireworks. I always host my groups in a 10th floor penthouse with several outdoor balconies high above the madding crowd. I have it stocked with a full bar and a catered lunch staffed with bartenders and servers so my guests can watch the festivities without the discomfort of the shoulder-to-shoulder, jam-packed crowd. When we are high above the celebration it’s exhilarating. Though one must get to the location of the penthouse before one can be high above the crowd. On this day we were following our local guide who took a wrong turn and that’s when the trouble began.

The past two years we have had no trouble weaving through the crowd to get to the entrance of our building. This year our city guide— who had done a good job up to that point— chose the wrong street. It was the street that leads directly up to the prime spot of the fireworks setup where the ground shakes and the explosions can be felt to one’s core. We weaved through the crowd that began to get tighter and tighter. People had claimed their spot hours earlier and weren’t going to move. We were halfway to the door when I realized that route wasn’t going to work.

We were surrounded by thousands of Spaniards and the guide, who was 10 feet ahead of me kept trying to push through. We reached a bottleneck to where no one could move to make way for us even if they had wanted to (and they didn’t want to). I understood their stance, but we weren’t trying to get in front of them, we just wanted to get by them and get out of everyone’s way. The crowd was so tight I couldn’t lift my arms or move frontwards or backwards. It was so tight and so face-to-face packed, it was scary. “We have to turn around,” I yelled to the guide.

If it was just me bound by the throng of people everything might have been OK, but I had 25 guests and my claustrophobically inclined wife directly behind me in the same bind, and yes it was a bind of the problematical sort AND a bind in the restrained-type variety. As a travel host you are as happy as your least-happy guest. At this point I had 25 unhappy guests who must have been wondering why we were even going through this much trouble for daytime fireworks. I had almost resigned myself that the rented penthouse, food, and bar were going to remain empty, and we were going to be standing, packed, cheek-to-cheek for the next two hours.

My guests were stranded at different points in the packed crowd. We couldn’t communicate. We couldn’t move forward— not even a step— and we couldn’t go back the way we came as the crowd had moved in on us. It was frustrating but it was also a little scary.

Just about the time a livid and screaming man and I were about to come to blows over the pushing and shoving around us, our full-time tour guide and my trusted boots-on-the-ground man, Jesse jumped the barricades, sweet talked a couple of policemen, convinced them to temporarily take down one of the barricades, which allowed our group of Americans to inch sideways and out of the crowd. I’m not sure what white lie he told them, but it worked. We finally got out into an open space and, with a police escort, were led to the entrance door by way of another street.

Jesse Marinus saved the day!

Once on the 10th floor, my guests learned exactly why we went to all the trouble. A unique and memorable time was had by all while witnessing a one-of-a-kind event.

One of the best laugh lines in the Coen Brothers classic “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?” (filmed in Mississippi, by the way) was George Clooney’s “We’re in a tight spot.” In that movie he played a Mississippi boy leading a couple of escaped convicts to a pile of stashed cash. I was leading a group of mostly Mississippians to a unique one-of-a-kind of bucket-list event. In the end, Clooney never got the cash, but my group and I reached our destination and had a blast.


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