A while back, I learned of the Tribunal de las Aquas. AKA The Water Board. No, not that kind of ‘water board’. There is no torture, and liquid never makes an actual appearance. But it is all about the water rights of the Valencian Plateau and the ‘Waterlands’ herein.
To recap, this is the oldest judicial body in Europe, dating back to Roman times in one incarnation or another. It’s actually called out in the Spanish constitution, post Franco, expressly and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural body. And in Valencia, it’s a sacred, beloved institution.
They meet every Thursday, at the Apostles gate at the side of the Cathedral, and convene at noon – precisely. Seriously, when the bells of the Cathedral ring, these guys ceremoniously file over and have a seat in their little ring. Ready to hear the important water cases that will be brought before them. The men represent the water areas controlled by the 8 main canals that draw water off the Turia River. Both from the right and left bank, the arguments are all oral, immediate and transparent. The representative from the water area in question abstains to maintain total fairness. It’s rules and laws are understood by all. And the ‘wisdom’ demonstrated by the Tribunal is sacrosanct.
I had told Jeff about it before, but he had never seen it. And since we were already in Central Valencia (Colon) at 11:30 looking at 360 degree cameras at El Corte Ingles. And since we had time and nothing better to do, we decided to go by the central Catheral, to the Apostles gate, and watch the pomp and circumstance of the institution. And we hit the excitement jackpot because they had a case. It’s not every week or even every month that they get a case. So it was packed.
We got there early and watched the court bailiff and ceremonial head, set out the chairs. Each chair has the water area’s name embossed in gold on the back of the chair. These are placed behind a metal gated fence to keep out the riff raff – us. Then precisely at noon, the bailiff will lead the members of the synods from the palace across the street dressed in robes and carrying his ‘water staff’.
After they are all seated, he will call out each area twice. In the video, you will hear him use the word ‘Denuncia‘. This is not a legal concept we have in the US. When a person has a problem with another person, or company, or institution, they can officially denounce them. This generally requires them to go to the local police station and file an official denunciation. But to file a denunciation under false pretenses is a serious crime here.
We had a problem with a car rental company a few weeks ago. They never gave us a car and they still charged us the fee. I was so angry and a friend suggested I go to the local police station and ‘denounce’ them. I was clearly confused and he explained that if I did that, I would get a piece of paper with the official record of the denunciation. I could fax that to their head office and see if that would get me my money back.
This sounded scary to me and I asked if there were any limits on it. Can anyone denounce anyone? The answer is yes, anyone can denounce anyone. But again, filing a denouncement under false pretenses is a crime. He said that when we file to renew our visa, we will have to go to the police station and get an official record and it will list any denouncements against us. I understand landlords can make them against you and you can make them against a landlord if there is a problem. Its strange.
Anyway, for the Water Tribunal, the one party – the one feeling like they have been wronged, answers the call when the bailiff calls out and asks for any ‘Denuncia’ for the particular synod. And today, the call was answered. The crowd, like Romans in the Coliseum in Rome, were ecstatic. A case!
Jeff and I had become separated. This happens often because I’m usually trying to get to the front because I’m short, and I like to see the action. He’s so tall, he can stand further back, and people hate it when he’s up front blocking their view. We had gotten there early as they were setting up so I got right up front. I looked over and Jeff was a ways away, talking to a tiny little old lady who came up to his belly button, who only spoke Spanish and Valenciano. I gave him a questioning look so he messaged me in WhatsApp.
‘You know I’m always a hit with the old ladies.’ he wrote – reference to our honeymoon cruise of newlyweds and nearly deads. He had been a big hit with the nearly deads at the Bingo games.
‘Who’s your girlfriend?’ I asked him.
‘I don’t know, but she’s determined that I understand what is going on so we’re using Google translate and she’s fascinated by it. A lot of pulling on my arm to say things and so she can see the screen.’
I look over and I could see her face through a break in the crowd and Jeff explained I was his wife. She said something to him and smiled at me.
‘She says you’re ‘guapa’.’ he said.
‘What does that mean?’ It sounded like Italian booze or that I might be crazy.
‘I don’t know – you look it up. I’m busy trying to keep up with her.’ She was pulling on his arm again.
‘Well, enjoy.’ And I turned back to the action.
We watched the case unfold. The President of the Tribunal had to abstain from this case because the party bringing the grievance was from his side of the river. The Vice President led the questioning and the verdict was handed down. One party was not happy. The old man who won was gleeful! No documents, completely oral arguments and verdicts. No court record. And the verdict is final – no appeals.
I got out of the crowd and saw the old lady had absconded with Jeff. She led us over to the Water Tribunal museum across the alley, where she kissed us both and told us we were good people – in Valenciano. Then she left. I laughed.
‘You know it surprised me not at all that you attracted the smallest old lady in this square.’
He smiled. ‘Oh I know. She lives in Valencia and I think she just comes down here to watch on Thursdays for something to do.’
‘I think if you offered to put her on your shoulders, she would have done it.’ I said, shaking my head.
So now he’s experienced the Water Tribunal and made a new, ancient, friend – and of course, he got the best one of the year so far. We agreed we’ll go back again in November on a cold drippy day, when tourists are thin on the ground, to watch it like locals. But they do put on a good show.