The first thing I do when I am getting ready to visit a new country is to research what festivals they have. There are so many festivals that I’d like to go to worldwide, and I’m sure there are many more that I just don’t even know about yet. It was quickly obvious that the cream of the crop festival in Argentina is Vendimia, the harvest festival in Mendoza. As is often my luck with timing, I had just missed it by a month last year when I first arrived in Mendoza. Now that I was living here I was determined to soak in everything ‘harvest’ this year, most definitely including the festival itself.
It actually goes on for days and there are all sorts of events. On my dad’s last day in Mendoza we had seen them setting up for an event that we’d later find out was the blessing of the grapes, and when you have an Argentine pope, that blessing includes a letter from Rome. It has not gone unnoticed that wine here is akin to something sacred. I do so love it. My mom had a bit more luck with her last day in Argentina, starting with a gift of a bottle of wine and fresh grapes when we arrived at the Mendoza airport. It was the day of the parade, when floats from all over the state of Mendoza would strut through the streets of the city.
We made our way towards one of the main streets and there was that “last day of school” feeling in the air. Tourists and locals alike fought for space curbside, drums pounded away…perhaps my only disappointment was the lack of wine. Ok, so it was 11:00am, but surely people would be drinking wine today. For now we readied our cameras and joined the crowd, cheering and craning our necks to see the start of the march.
Surprisingly, it actually was a march, as in, a demonstration. Expecting music and laughter and shrieks of delight, but instead it felt like we had walked into a movie theater to see a comedy and it turned out to be a horror movie instead. People were marching, waving banners, chanting in unison, but the tone was very much of some pissed off, demanding, albeit passionate people. But of course Argentines do like their demonstrations. There is always something to protest or a tragic historical event to continuing fighting for. In this case, they were expressing their disgust for the likes of Monsanto and big business, fighting for clean water (Sin agua, no hay vino…without water, there is no wine!), fighting for fair wages for those working the harvest.
I thought it was cool that they set aside time and space for this. It hit you the face with the reality of what it takes to even get to the point of a harvest and really they are fighting for things that ideally would encourage endless years of the best harvest. I can get on board with that. Maybe it isn’t the most cheerful way to start a parade, but to me it was opportunists taking advantage of the masses gathered to get a point across and much more relevant than the beauty pageant that followed.
That’s right, just as much as Argentines love to demonstrate, they also love to admire a good looking woman. And there are plenty of those here. “Que hermosa! Sin palabras!” to any beauty walking down the street. No complaints from me on that one. This festival was just as much about the bounty of gifts from the earth as it was the cornucopia of beautiful women from around Mendoza. Each region had a float and on the float stood the queen of that region and her court. The queen herself had a microphone to promote her region, express her pride in her country and their wine, thank everyone for being there, and try to drum up votes to be chosen as the overall queen of Vendimia. I’m not exactly sure of the history of this or what the connection is between pretty girls in ball gowns and the harvest, but it was rather handy to have someone handing out all of those grapes and it might as well be these attractive individuals. (Although I’d like to demonstrate for equality in this…I think they could do with some princes and a king as well.)
Instead of the fireworks of candy that explode from floats in a parade in the US, they celebrated by sharing the actual fruits of the harvest. Each float had barrels and barrels of grapes that the lovely ladies handed out. Bags of raisins were tossed into the crowd. There were apples and peppers being shared. I saw at least one float handing out melons and others with squash. Nothing like a melon flying at your head! I jest, this was not the case, the locals were well prepared. Every other person had some version of a bucket on a stick to shove through the grabbing hands, in hopes of being gifted some of this produce. I think some staff from our hotel fought their way to a fair amount judging by the fruit at breakfast the next day.
Between floats there were gauchos riding their horses, some of them carrying babies that looked to be only months old. There were people dancing in carnival-esque type costumes, pouring with sweat while shaking their bodies under the hot sun for hours. Quite a send-off for my mom!
Later that night, I managed to snag a ticket to the main event. This event takes places outside in a Greek-styled amphitheatre in the main park. A taxi took me up a long, winding hill that appeared to be made of people the crowds were so thick with the Argentine equivalent of tailgating. Mate, booze, choripan, guitars, kids running wild. I was in the last seat of the last row of the stadium just in time for what would be hours of beauty pageant followed by music, dancing, story-telling, singing, and fireworks.
I could’ve done without the pageant, but found it comical and a bit sweet, the things to which they awarded a queen. There was a queen of the land, of the water, the queen of mate, and so on and so forth, until finally there was the queen of Vendimia. The craziest part and most entertaining was when they lined up the candidates and had them each chug a bottle of wine to earn the ultimate crown. Only kidding…each girl was given a glass of malbec to salute the crowd and I’m not sure they even took a sip…can’t have purple teeth when you’re going for Queen of the Queens. The rest of the show honored the history of Argentina, their beautiful nature, the wine-making process, the immigrants, the heavens, the everything. It was beautiful and there was so much pride and drama and gratitude. At times it was a sea of Argentina flags waving manically, other times it was like a galaxy of stars as everyone held candles in reverence for the occasion.
It was exactly the kind of atmosphere I needed to soak in and celebrate my time in Argentina with all of my guests that had come to visit and to reflect on what would come for me with the change of the seasons. Salud!