To many people outside Spain, Valladolid is probably best known for its La Liga football team; within Spain it's famous for being home to Miguel Cervantes, who completed Don Quixote while living here in the early 1600s and also where Christopher Columbus saw out his last days. But to Guinness World Records, this north-central Spanish city is synonymous with just one thing: record breaking.
Every year, vast numbers of its citizens gather to earn themselves a Guinness World Records mass-participation certificate. In recent years, we've seen the locals stage a giant water-pistol fight (2,671 people in 2007), lick a lot of lollipops (12,831 in 2008), dress en masse as Cupids (199 in 2009), twirl flags (35,000 in 2010) and fan themselves (15,000 in 2011). In my nine years' experience as a records adjudicator, i reckon this is as random a selection of ideas as you could get.
So it was with a certain sense of excitement that we received an email from events organizer Juan Oscar Aaranz Rejon regarding this year's attempt. Oscar is the Coordinator of Valladolid's 100 or so peñas - a peña is a social group of friends and acquaintances who share a common interest, be it music, history, fundraising or, in one bizarre group I met, Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons, complete with kilts and ginger wigs! Oscar's new idea was as random as we'd come to expect: to beat the existing record for the most beach balls kept in the air at once - a target of 654 set earlier this year by Amherst Junior School in Ohio, USA.
As challenges go, this wasn't too high a figure to exceed, but we had just one interesting observation: Valladolid is quite a few hundred miles inland and certainly has no real beaches to speak of. (Well, there's a bit of a beach along the banks of the Pisuerga River, which flows through the city, but not nearly big enough for Valladolid's typical record-breaking ambitions!)
Luckily, on hand was sponsor Nivea, who brought the seaside spirit to Valladolid in the shape of 20,000 beach balls. The beach ball is the perfect symbol of happiness, associating as it does with summer, vacations, blue seas, frolicking in the surf and generally having a good time - so the perfect choice for the fun-loving people of Valladolid. And thankfully for the locals, a set of compressed air pumps were supplied with the seemingly endless amount of flat-packed beach balls, allowing the team of at least 40 volunteers a chance to save their energy for the actual attempt.
Four hours later, with the balloons and the locals in place, it was time for a warm-up. DJs, dancers and the local rugby team were on hand to get the thronging crowd to fever pitch, and a few practise runs were staged. It looked amazing from my vantage point on the stage at one end of the tree-lined street. Stretching off into the distance was a sea of blue beach balls - a surreal sight. A local notary firm was hired to help assess the count - which they did using uniquely numbered wristbands - and their representative confirmed the figure quietly in my ear. It was more than enough to beat the existing record, so all that was left was to formally attempt the 10 seconds required to satisfy the guidelines.
The action got underway at the sound of a klaxon. I could see that more people had emerged to take part but, because they weren't wearing the requisite wristbands, I wasn't able to factor them into the final account. For the next 10 seconds, the air turned blue as thousands of beach balls were sent aloft. Once again, the view was breath-taking - it looked as if everyone was splashing in the sea, with rippling waves of plastic blues balls. And then no sooner had it started, it was all over. The final count? A staggering 14,993 people!
Senior figures from Nivea accepted the certificate on behalf of the people of Valladolid, who all received free skin-care samples in addition to their record-breaking beach balls. The party atmosphere continued into the night - and, I'm sure the rest of the week.