By John Ward


stnarcissusLike many local ex-pats, I came to Mexico from the US. Naturally, I noticed many differences. I tend to notice differences in unusual things. Fortunately my travels have included most of the globe and I’ve noticed that the ubiquitous fly is an excellent reflection of the local culture. For instance: whereas in the US flies are scared, careful and quick to dash away as they are not tolerated at all, in Mexico the flies are quite bold, voracious, casual and secure in their right to exist.

In Mexico the old saying: “You catch more flies with honey than garlic,” is completely invalid. Try ordering something smothered in Garlic at a restaurant and watch your table guests increase exponentially when the dish is served. Since this is such a “live and let live” culture, when you swat at flies to make them get off your food, they have a kind of bemused attitude and look at you as if to say: “Si, hola Gringo, I see you waving, how many times are you going to wave at me? By the way this is delicious Huachinango – good choice!”

I once had occasion to fly to Europe. On my way to London from Rome I stopped in Gerona, a pretty little town near Barcelona. Upon arrival I noticed that the airport had a lot of flies buzzing around. I thought there must be a feed-lot nearby and started employing an old boarding-school game of catching the flies and slamming them onto the ground to kill them.

As I was catching and slamming in Gerona, I noticed several odd looks I got from the locals. Paying little attention I made my way to the nearest hotel. When I arrived, I noticed that the hotel had an inordinate number of flies buzzing around the reception area, as well as in the small attached restaurant. As I continued my game of catching and slamming, I began to notice raised eyebrows and distasteful looks on the faces of the hotel staff and other guests. I assumed it was because I was handling flies and this was considered unsanitary.

Later, in my room, I started to read through some of the tourist brochures and came upon some historical information about Gerona. Apparently, in the year 1285 Gerona was caught in the Aragonian Crusade.  Peter the Great was fighting to preserve his throne, threatened by the French army led by Philip the Bold.

The French soldiers marched into Gerona, boldly, and headed for the collegiate of Saint Felix, in which lay the body of the city’s patron saint, St. Narcissus. They opened the sarcophagus and, miraculously, a large crowd of flies emerged. According to the graphic description of Bernat Desclot, a monk from Ripoll who recorded this event in 1288, “the flies entered the nostrils and the anuses of the horses, which drove them so crazy that they fainted and fell.” The record does not mention the orifices of the French soldier the flies entered, but the casualty list was calculated as up to 4,000 horses and 20,000 Frenchmen. Miraculously, the flies found that the French exuded the exact sort of aroma they found irresistible – go figure.

Philip the Not-so-Bold-Anymore had to retreat. A carpenter, devastated by the sight of the exposed body of the saint, volunteered to build a box to house the remains of the body. The next day, another swarm of flies emerged from this box and headed for the French army camp outside the city and bit ferociously both animals and humans of French origin. The French were beaten and left Gerona in panic.

Both Peter the Great and Philip the Damn-I-Wish-I’d-Been-Bolder died shortly after this prodigious event, roughly within a month of each other, boasting a score of nil – nil.

However, this was not the only occurrence. The next time was in 1653. After more than 500 years, the memory of the fly defenders had faded. The French went for Gerona again. In a notarized document signed by French officers, they told of blue and green flies that miraculously came out from the sepulcher of the saint and attacked the French. Once again, Gerona was saved by the holy fly cavaliers and, for lack of deodorant and adequate personal hygiene on the part of the French, Gerona remained a Spanish possession.

Flies emerging from the sarcophagus of a dead man didn’t seem all that miraculous to me and nor did the fact that they found the French soldiers irresistible, but the locals still see the flies as holy saviors and here I was catching and slamming them to the ground! I’m not sure but I may be on a “No-Fly” list in Gerona.

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