Opening Night in Guimarães, European Capital of Culture 2012
Fireworks? Tick. Orchestra? Tick. Massive crowds? Tick. A knight in the air? Tick. Psychedelic lights and stunning graphics projected onto buildings? Tick. Gigantic metal horse and fibreglass man puppets? Tick. What more could anyone possibly want from an opening event? An all night street party? Oh, all right then, if you insist; after all, this is the beginning of a year of culture and festivities in Guimarães.
Largo do Toural, the venue for the free public event by La Fura dels Baus, was already full of people by eight o’clock. Sure, there was an orchestra on stage and blinding stadium lights but I wondered why everyone was so keen to stand around in the cold; the main event wasn’t due to start until ten o’clock. It turned out that the Portuguese President, Cavaco Silva, was having dinner at a restaurant overlooking the square and the crowds were waiting to catch a glimpse of him.
I’ve seen him on the telly so I wandered off to see what else was going on around town. Every bakery and café was crammed with customers and the display cabinets were almost empty. Hardly surprising, I suppose, if you consider that around 60,000 people turned up for the evening. I grabbed a couple of prawn rissoles to keep me going and tried not to trip over the thick black cables that DJs and broadcast companies had strewn over the cobbled streets.
By the time I started making my way back to Largo do Toural, the flow of people was more like moving through a blocked drain and I joined in the shuffling shapes making slow progress down a narrow alley. Once at the square, I made my way to a fairly central spot and whiled away the next 45 minutes with a spot of people watching.
Excited children were chattering, laughing and shrieking, their voices piercing the general hubbub. Looking around, I saw balloons of horses, a princess and Hello Kitty bob around above the dark-haired heads. A row of drums held high made their way through the crowd into the main square. Plumes of cigarette smoke rose up like mini clouds and flashes of light from digital cameras flickered all around me as the density of the crowd increased. It felt good to be part of something unique and special and I was curious to see what would happen.
The orchestra stuck up a tune and the president, or at least someone important, appeared on a balcony and waved to the cheering masses. Then the stadium lights went off, plunging the square into darkness. The crowd fell quiet, waiting. The air of anticipation was palpable. Simultaneously, dramatic music pumped out of the speakers and coloured lights plastered the buildings on all four sides of the square in swirling geometric patterns. Good start.
Then a knight came whizzing through the air from the church steeple, waving his sword; his shadow cast in spotlight against the stone church like a medieval batman symbol. He made it across the square and into a window on the other side before a giant metal horse began its multicoloured prance above our heads. It was manoeuvred by a combination of cables from above, like a puppet master’s stick and strings, a woman inside its body and ground crew in white overalls who managed its feet.
At first, it was impressive and everyone strained to get a better view, holding their cameras up high to capture the horse as it moved. A couple of drumming bands marched banners through the crowd which were then attached to the horse. I’m sure that required great skill and coordination but I’d lost interest and was beginning to wonder whether it had been worth waiting around in the cold for.
Looking around me, I could see that other people’s attention was drifting, too. There’s only so much you can do with a giant metal puppet, after all. Then the lights changed, signalling something new. The buildings along one entire side of the square were transformed into a screen and the windows and balconies incorporated into the images that were projected onto it. This alone was worth coming for. If you watch the official video, from about three minutes in, you’ll see what I mean.
Once that had finished, a giant man was raised by crane until he walked all over us. He hovered for a while and then came closer and closer to where I was standing. People began backing away and then the ground crew appeared, ushering everyone out of the way to make space for his legs. His foot was almost as big as the man who was controlling it.
He stood up again and the horse came out to be stroked. The two puppets hovered in the centre of the square while the crowd looked up as the sky was filled with smoke and coloured sparks and lights from a much better firework display than the one on New Year’s Eve in Lisbon.
Getting out of the square once it was all over was a struggle but I eventually made it to the less tightly packed Largo da Oliveira which had already become a massive open-air dance floor. Each new group who weaved their way into the crowd whooped and punched the air as they got caught up in the music. I’ve no idea how long the party lasted but it was longer than me.
Having got off to such a rocking start as the European Capital of Culture, Guimarães has a lot more in store for the rest of the year with bands, exhibitions, sports events and dance performances to name but a few. To find out more about what’s going on in Guimarães this year, visit the official website.