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Mediaeval markets: A fun and fête-ful season to beat the winter blues
By thinkSPAIN Team Sat, Jan 11, 2020
EVEN with the festive season running a whole 12 days, not ending until the kids go back to school and adults back to the grindstone on the nearest working day to January 7, life can still feel a bit flat at this time of year. But as you've probably come to expect if you live in Spain, there's always something fun on the horizon to beat the January blues.
To cheer everyone up during the 'Crimbo Limbo', the festival of San Antón comes hot on the heels of the Three Kings – daft but cute animal blessings are normally programmed for the closest Sunday to the patron saint's day, January 17, although some hold them the week before – and it is also around this time that Mediaeval market season kicks off.
Starting with the traditional fayres in honour of San Antón from around January 10 – known in the regions of Valencia and Catalunya as porrats – and continuing right throughout the dregs of winter and into spring, these fabulous fêtes are just the antidote we need to the weight gain, credit card bills, cold climate and dark evenings.
What 'Mediaeval' means in Spain
You probably have your own visions of the good bits of life in the Middle Ages – communal ale bowls, massive feasts, jousting competitions, outdoor dancing and lyre music – but metal-clad knights on horseback, fair maidens in pointy cone hats and nuns in wimples are more a northern concept.
Some of these images are true for Spain, but its panorama was very different to a typical European country back then – starting from the eighth century and finishing altogether at the end of the 15th, Spain was largely occupied by the Moors, or Arabs from north Africa.
In fact, the 'occupation' – largely peaceful and harmonious – meant Moors were almost in the majority at certain times, and mixed marriages, often with the Arab aristocracy which ruled huge swathes of the country, ensured their presence expanded over the 800 years they were in situ.
As a result, the dominant religion in many parts of Spain was Islam, and the architecture much closer to what you'd find in Morocco than in south-western Europe.
Some of the best examples of Moorish architecture are now among the continent's most popular tourist attractions, such as the huge, spectacular Alhambra Palace in Granada, and the Great Mosque in Córdoba, both in the southern region of Andalucía.
Recreating history on the high street
Elements of Moorish Spain are revived in the winter-spring Mediaeval markets – jousting, sure, and lyre music, but also music on the laúd, a popular instrument similar to the lyre from Spain in the Middle Ages – and stallholders dressed in costume from the time.
Unlike during the spectacular Moors and Christians fiestas held in the east and south – usually in summer, but sometimes as early as March – these period outfits lack the pomp and circumstance, the glitter and face-paint, feathers and sequins recreated for these flamboyant parades; they are more likely to be tunics and turbans in modest materials and discreet colours, much like the ordinary person on the street would have worn at the time whilst going about his or her daily life and work.
Birds of prey, wandering minstrels, street theatre and primitive, daredevil competitions (staged by experts to avoid accidents) like fire-eating, plus juggling displays, donkeys, stall signs written in calligraphy (using the Latin alphabet, but in the Arab writing style) add to the atmosphere; the streets between stalls will often be lined with straw to make the surface softer for working livestock, as was typical of the time.
Effectively, you'll take a step back several centuries when you mingle with the crowds negotiating the network of stands.
Other Arab-style features include tea tents designed like traditional Moroccan and Algerian lounges – embroidered satin cushions for seats, low-slung silver-topped tables, hot mint tea with abundant sugar served up in decorative glasses (you can often take these home, as they are included in the price of the tea) poured from ornate silver teapots, and almond biscuits just like those eaten in north African and Middle Eastern countries.
As if you hadn't spent enough at Christmas...
Fortunately, the huge spread of stalls at Mediaeval markets and their fascinating, must-have wares are not typically highly-priced, meaning you can probably still treat yourself, despite the festive overdraft.
The vast majority is hand-crafted, or at least, looks as though it was. On the food side, fig and date cakes, lots of stuff with almonds, cheeses and sausages from all over Spain, medicinal herbs and teas are some of the main 'ingredients' at Mediaeval markets.
And you'll also find everything from satin and lace (cushion covers, tablecloths, sofa throws, scarves) to leather (belts, handbags, decorative items), coloured glass (lamps and mirrors galore), jewellery, and, basically, a flood of brightly-coloured, unique-looking ornamental and practical pieces you just have to have for your home.
Pottery, wood art, textiles, candles, semi-precious stones – everything other than industrial, mass-produced materials and goods – are on display, demonstrations on how to make them are held throughout the day, and sometimes workshops for kids, adults or both so you can find out how to create them yourself.
Even if you'd rather not dip your fingers in your purse at this time of year, there'll be others later in the winter and spring – and, in any case, it's often enjoyable enough just to tour round the stalls and admire the beautiful displays, just for art's sake, or to give you inspiration.
Porrats and how they differ from Mediaeval markets
If you're in the Valencia region (the provinces of Valencia, Castellón and Alicante) or Catalunya, this and next weekend is porrat season – a traditional market with multiple stalls selling candied fruit in every colour of the rainbow, nuts, herbs and dried fruit, as shown in picture four (at the annual porrat in Benissa, Alicante province).
They come out of the woodwork at around the time of the San Antón festival, although it is not clear in what way, if any, they are related to the saint – and nowadays, they tend to be combined with Mediaeval or craft markets, homemade crêpe stalls, and other shows and activities, such as dressage displays.
Some, like the porrat in Oliva (southern Valencia province) include a massive public paella-cooking session – here, giant cauldrons are set up over lunchtime in the Raval district of the old town, and residents and visitors bring their own cutlery and queue up for a plateful (see third and fifth pictures). You can fill your face before and after stall-browsing in Oliva this and next weekend.
Where to find them
Up to and including this Sunday, you'll find porrats and Mediaeval markets elsewhere in the province of Valencia – in Canals, Beniopa (next to Gandia), one of the largest and famous for its home-made crêpes (shown in second picture), and Valencia city.
Next weekend, Valencia, Benirredrà (near Gandia), and Alfafar hold Mediaeval markets and porrats, coinciding with San Antón's day.
Outside the province of Valencia, you'll find one all day in Vilanova del Camí (Barcelona province) on Sunday, and next weekend, in Ricote (Murcia), Torrejón de la Calzada (Madrid), and Quintanar del Rey (Cuenca province).
As the weeks go on, more and more are staged throughout the country – not a Mediaeval one, but a turn-of-the-20th-century-themed market in Trebujena (Cádiz province) from January 31 to February 2 is always popular with locals and tourists.
Back in the province of Valencia, a traditional Mediaeval-style market is held on February 1 in Ràfol de Salem, near Ontinyent, and a traditional Borgia-themed market between January 24 and 26 in Llombai, about halfway between Valencia city and the Alicante province border.
Over the weekend of February 21 to 23, you can find Mediaeval markets in Sarriguren (Navarra), Almería – on the Rambla Federico García Lorca – and Alhaurín de la Torre (Málaga province), the latter two of which coincide with Carnival season and are also themed partly on this.
Moving on to the end of February, from 28 to March 1, Almería hosts a 'Fantasy Market' on the same street as the previous weekend, complete with gourmet food trucks, to celebrate the Carnival and the regional bank holiday weekend.
If you haven't found a town near you mentioned, keep an eye open on your local tourist information office website – or visit it in person – to ensure you don't miss out on this fabulous historical, colourful, lively tradition which helps break up the winter and put smiles back on faces during the otherwise rather grey hiatus between the Christmas period and the warmer, sunnier weather.
Photograph 1: Calasparra (Murcia) town hall
Photograph 2: Wikimedia Commons
Photographs 3 and 5: Turisteandoporgandia.com
Photograph 4: Benissa (Alicante province) town hall
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