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Moors and Christians: Spain's biggest summer fiesta
By thinkSPAIN Team Sun, Aug 4, 2019
SUMMER is the season when Spain seems to wake up in earnest – despite the heat making its inhabitants want to go back to sleep – and streets that were quiet the rest of the year start to overflow with people, parades, music, fireworks, and just about anything noisy and colourful it can get its hands on.
This is the season when towns and villages celebrate their patron saint festivals – and, as is normally the case with a Spanish fiesta, the actual high-jinks bear little resemblance to the 'saint of the day' on the calendar whose life and times it purports to honour.
Usually a formal mass and procession will be involved somewhere, but the rest of the week or fortnight involves late-night open-air live music and discos, huge al fresco dinners the public are invited to, and a massive firework display on the last day.
The odd sports tournament might take place, and children's water park set up, to keep everyone occupied in the daytime.
Many patron saint fiestas in the south and east are scheduled to coincide with the spectacular Moors and Christians festival – arguably one of the most visual and flamboyant of the year and one that every resident or tourist should ensure they witness at least once in a lifetime.
Of course, if you live in a town that celebrates them, you may only have to open your window, but if you're anywhere else in the country, book yourself a short break this or next summer and be prepared to be wowed off your feet.
What it involves
Most readers will know about Spain's being invaded by the Moors, or north African Arab settlers, who went on to live peacefully in the country for the next seven centuries. The two communities were far from segregated – mixed marriages were common, meaning a high number of modern-day Spaniards could probably trace their family trees back to the Moors. Architecture, food, music, culture and traditions in general had a real Arab feel throughout the Middle Ages, and if you get a chance to visit one of the many Mediaeval markets held in the south and east throughout the year, you'll see this for yourself, as the stalls and stallholders are decorated and dressed up to reflect what Spain looked like at the time. In many ways, it would have been hard to tell much of the country from Morocco.
But along came the Inquisition and the Moors were expelled from Spain or forced into converting to Christianity – those who did so were called Moriscos – and the mainland suffered a huge population decline, leading to residents being brought over from the Balearic Islands to repopulate it - the coastal areas in particular.
This is what the Moors and Christians fiesta 'celebrates' – the arrival of the Moors, then their expulsion from Spain.
On the face of it, it doesn't seem like something we ought to be celebrating. It wasn't very nice to chuck out a large slice of the population based upon their religion, and the Moors would not have felt very festive when they had to flee the country by the nearest port with whatever they could stuff into a knapsack. In fact, in recent years, some towns have considered scrapping the fiesta altogether, or at least changing history to allow the Moors to win, mindful of the fact that Spain's largest expatriate community is Moroccan, and therefore, largely Muslim.
But representatives of the Muslim community said they were not concerned.
“It's a tradition,” they said. “It's just a fiesta. We don't take it personally – and we quite enjoy it, actually.”
Pomp and circumstance
In practice, the fiesta does not really resemble the bloodthirsty reality of this chapter in history at all. It would seem unlikely that, before the Christian troops went into battle against the Moors, they had time to paint their faces with glitter and funky patterns, braid their hair, don helmets and sparkling hairpieces, or spend 20 minutes lacing up their shoes. Likewise, there probably weren't too many floats hurling sweets into the crowds, nor dressage displays or candy-floss, and it would appear improbable that the Moors forced to flee did so in silk and velvet dresses, jewel-encrusted strapless tops and huge, feathered turbans and hats.
This is, in a nutshell, what you can expect to see in the parades, along with ballet-dancing troops, marching bands, camels, streamers, stilt-walkers and human castles. It's a carnival with a Mediaeval theme, although Mediaeval dress at its finest and most royal-looking.
First, though, the Moors have to arrive – and if the festival takes place in a coastal town, this is often by boat. They disembark on the beach, and a 'traitor' amongst them tips off the Christian troops, who are waiting for them on the shore, frequently on horseback. A round of cannon-fire follows, then the two opposing factions sign a truce.
Then come the parades – large towns often split the Moors and the Christians over two nights, with the Christians typically coming first and then the Moors after the disembarking – but smaller towns and villages hold them both together.
At some point, normally at the end but not always, is the 'storming of the castle' – this may be a giant papier mâché fortress set up in a town square, or it could be the town hall or Casa de Cultura (community centre) decorated with cardboard battlements. The Moors hide inside, the Christians read a speech declaring each band at war with the other, then the Christians charge into the castle to evict the Moors, or simply fire cannons from the square until the Moors obediently step outside.
Nobody gets hurt during the fiesta. Those who belong to the Christian fiesta clubs race at the castle hollering, and once inside, they and the Moor fiesta club members swap cans of drink and chat about politics and who's been voted out on The X Factor.
Both Moors and Christians are divided into troops, or filadas – known in the Valencia region as filaes – and the grand parade, or entrada, sees each troop march in turn, following their flag-carrier.
Every troop gets a turn at being the 'captains', although in large towns with 10 or 20 of them, it can take many years before yours comes around again.
Within each troop are rows of paraders all in the same costumes – hired for the night, and nobody except the 'management' gets to see them before it's time to put them on – marching in synchrony. If it's your first time, lots of practice will be needed to get your step right. Going round corners is tricky as the line cannot bend or break – some filaes practice with swimming-pool net poles held behind their backs. These lines are known as escuadras, or 'squadrons', and may be mixed if the filà is small, but are usually all-male and all-female, with the tallest in the centre and shortest at the ends.
Although, for most of the public, the Moors and Christians is all about the parades, this is only a small part of the fiesta for the paid-up members who go on the march – for the week or two the festival lasts, their kábila, or headquarters (a tent, a rented garage or empty house) opens, and food is served three to five times a day with an open bar and live music or discos every single night. Whilst it's not compulsory, you can literally spend 20 hours a day at your kábila, having breakfast, lunch and dinner there and dancing until the early hours.
Where to find them
Nearly every town in the provinces of Valencia and Alicante hold a Moors and Christians fiesta, as well as two in the province of Castellón (La Vall d'Uixó and Peñíscola), eight in the Region of Murcia (Murcia city, Santomera, Abanilla, Archena, Caravaca de la Cruz, Cieza, Jumilla and Lorca), several in the more easterly provinces of the central region of Castilla-La Mancha – those of Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca and Toledo – and also parts of Andalucía.
In the latter, the province of Málaga has four towns which celebrate the Moors and Christians (Benalauría, Alfarnate, Benadalid and Atajate), Jaén has four (Bélmez de la Moraleda, Cortijada de Bélmez, Campillo de Arenas and Carchelejo), Cádiz has two (Benamahoma and Zahara), and most towns in the provinces of Granada and Almería also hold these festivals.
You can also catch the Moors and Christians fiestas in the city of Lleida, the capital of the Catalunya province of the same name; in the city of Cáceres in Extremadura; in Barlovento in the Canary Islands, and in Sóller and Pollença in Mallorca.
When they take place: Fiestas coming up this month...
Some start as early as February (Bocairent, Valencia province and Sax, Alicante province), March (Villafranqueza, near Alicante) or April (Llutxent, Valencia province, Banyeres and Alcoi, Alicante province – the latter of which is reputed to be the biggest and most famous in Spain), some even take place in December (Monforte del Cid, near Elche, Alicante province), but July and August tend to be the main months, and some stretch into September, too.
You can still catch several of them this year – tomorrow (Monday, August 5) it is held in Els Poblets, in the province of Alicante; a popular parade because of its 'local' feel and the fact it only goes on for about 60-90 minutes because the village is so small, although it is no less spectacular than in any larger town. Close by, Dénia's Moors and Christians take place from August 13 to 16, and also within the same 20-kilometre radius, one of the most splendid but again most 'local' is in the village of El Verger, where the main parade is held on August 15.
Also in August are the Moors and Christians fiestas and their main parades in the Alicante city district of Altozano and, elsewhere in the province, Aspe, Aguas de Busot, Benilloba, Benillup, Benimarfull, Callosa de Segura, Campo de Mirra, Cocentaina, Confrides, Elche, Xixona, and Santa Pola and Castalla (both starting on August 31).
For the province of Valencia, August fiestas are in Alaquàs, Alfarrasí, Aielo de Malferit, Bélgida, Benigànim, Castelló de Rugat, Catadau, Godella, Llaurí, Manuel, Miramar, Montaverner, Nàquera, Ontinyent, Paterna, La Pobla del Duc, Rafelguaraf, Serra, Senyera, Sumacàrcel, and Villanueva de Castellón.
Jumilla (Murcia), Alcudia de Monteagud, the Adra district of La Alquería, Benínar, Laroya, and Senés (Almería province), Benamahoma (Cádiz), Bélmez de la Moraleda, Campillo de Arenas and Carchelejo (Jaén province), and Benalauría and Benadalid (Málaga province) are also held in August.
Alfarnate (Málaga province) Válor (Granada province) Serón, in La Loma, Bédar, and Bacares (Almería), Caudete and Abengibre (Albacete), L'Olleria, Llíria, Xàtiva, Fontanares, Quart de Poblet, Catarroja, Bellreguard, Bellús, and L'Atzeneta d'Albaida (Valencia province), and Villena, Santa Pola, Mutxamel, Ibi, Crevillent, Benejama, and Altea (Alicante province) hold their Moors and Christians festivals next month.
...and in October
Zahara (Cádiz), Alcóntar (Almería), La Vall d'Uixó (Castellón province), La Pobla Larga, Sagunto, Montesa, Alzira, Albalat de la Ribera, and Albaida (Valencia province), and El Campello, Calpe, Callosa d'En Sarrià and Benidorm hold their own Moors and Christians festivals in October – a time when the weather in each of these provinces is still pleasant and sunny, and giving you plenty of time to plan your trip.
Photographs of Moors and Christians parades: Elche (1), Elda (2), El Campello (3), Alcoi (4) and Mojácar (5). First four in the province of Alicante and fifth in the province of Almería, taken by the regional tourist boards of the Comunidad Valenciana and Andalucía respectively
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