Light me Up!
What is the most colourful, dazzling, traditional fiesta in Alicante, Spain? It's probably Bonfires of Saint John or Hogueras de San Juan fiesta, Alicante, Spain which is a noisy, jubilant, dramatic spectacle in June. It is certainly the largest fiesta in Alicante. This festival or Spanish fiesta dates back to pre-Christian times and marks the arrival of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.
In Alicante, it is marks Midsummer and the festivals or fiestas of Midsummer's Eve (in Christianity, it is San Juan or St. John's Eve) have roots in ancient celebrations. Once a pagan celebration, Alicante Hogueras (Bonfires of St John) fiesta were lit to protect against evil spirits.
What are the Hogueras in Alicante? These Hogueras are an art show in itself, it's magnificence can't be denied. Alicante Bonfires (Hogueras) is not only an dramatic, well-thought about artistic creation, it is an interpretation and critique of the society. Rather than being a smallish, amateur affair; these Alicante Hogueras (or Bonfires) are gigantic, sometimes monstrous edifices, to be burned down in the smallish squares or large plazas when all the festivities close and it's time for the Burning. No Spanish fiesta that we've been to had the gravitas, the splendour, colourful parades, mascletas fireworks at midday, procession of the 'giants', sound-stages, gastronomic delights, and much, much more.
This festival is also celebrated in other parts of Spain. Large bonfires are created with timber pallets, old furniture, anything that will burn, as a welcome to summer and partying up big time.
Share hot chocolate, picnic food which they bring to the beach, while teens and children jump over the fires… paella contest, the “burning” (called the “La Crema”) the culmination of the festival, which if you have been before, is an awesome experience.
Today's festival, has been celebrated in its present form since 1928. From the 20th till 24th June, in Alicante, there are about 90 bonfire commissions called barracas and racos of the Hogueras.
Throughout the year, they will fund raise for this event. Huge tents and marquees are set out in the street with tables, chairs, a bar, an orchestra and a dance floor: this whole area is cordoned-off and pedestrianised.
The difference between the terms is that barracas are restricted to the people who contribute to the event, whereas racos are open to the entire district and admission is free. Giant hogueras depicting events of the year; society, political economic views with sardonic humour are associated with the barracas and racos.
They were amazing – made of paper, cardboard, and mud (really?), plus these days polyurethane... over a skeleton of timber struts, then smoothed-out to have the same finish as a ceramic Venetian mask, and built in large-scale, from 25 to over 100 feet tall.
We decided to attend three nights of festivities. On 22nd June, we got to Alicante by 7:45 in the evening – it was hot, especially down in the underground carpark by the marina.
As we walked towards the main area of the festival, we could see huge caricatures and monuments, the Hogueras, normally in squares or crossroads with a huge marquee along side it.
We took lots of photos, always in a hurry to find more. This is a good way of exercising I think... we must have walked miles and miles to find more Hogueras figures, and only seen the tip-of-the-iceberg.
We almost forgot what we came to Alicante for – the parade of beauty-queens with floral offerings. There are as many pageant queens as there are commissions, and as many again of the juvenile queens, plus two to four ladies-in-waiting. So wherever you are in Alicante, following the hogueras trail, you’re bound to see the parade snaking its way down to the port and the Town Hall.
The colour and spectacle was unbelievable.
The next day, parked, we hit the town at 12:00 noon. This… if you’ve never been in Alicante for this festival… has to be seen to be believed.
There were thousands of locals, visitors from other regions, holiday-makers… boys and girls, babies and the stroller brigade. The hot sun, open-top buses rented out for the occasion, girls in short skirts throwing ‘freebies’ to the visitors from the open-air, top-decker buses - panama hats, t-shirts, fans, frisbees,….
Makes me think we were in Rio de Janiero, or Disneyland, or Cuba: the music blaring, people happy in bare minimum, dancing, having the time of their lives….we noticed a stand giving away free cups of Anis Tenis... o-k, that's a top shelf drink.
We tried it… yumm, I could get to like it a lot. A bit like ouzo or raki…. but better? We were on time to see of parade of little people with big masks on, and the giants, mannequins 20-foot tall operated by a single person, samba-ing along,together with a samba ensemble and opposing strolling minstrels playing medieval tunes, trying to outdo each other.
At the other end of the street were more bands playing… And then, the highlight - a fireworks display at 1.00pm.
Never having been a daytime fireworks display, we didn’t know what to expect; but the police had cordoned off great big areas of road around a central roundabout.
Thousands were waiting for the display, as it was shoulder to shoulder right up to the barrier. Rocket shots were fired into the air… and a barrage of gunfire it sounded like, plus big booms of cannon fire. Smoke and lightning flash seared the blue sky.
The fireworks not only illuminated the upper atmosphere but shook the ground as well – like an earthquake and sounding like bomb-blasts rocking the foundations of Alicante streets! Perhaps they turned off the seismic monitors for the area during this time...? Reminder to oneself: next time, bring earplugs.
That night, we were at Santa Pola beach, where the festival is celebrated in style and no-one stays at home...
Everyone! was down there.... with fire-juggling, bonfires, children and some energetic parents and hopeful pensioners jumping over the bonfires at the beach then hopping in for a swim afterwards …
A concert-size stand was built for the night, with enough sound equipment to shame Glastonbury or Woodstock... live bands played the expected Spanish/latino tracks, including a tribute 'Blues Brothers' band that did a decent job.
The 24th June we were going to get into Alicante early to catch the midnight fireworks show… hmmm! Never thinking that on such a night, it might do to get there really early. The crowds were already there, and we were still searching for a car park because the police had cordoned off even more of the city. Something special was going to be happening. Thankfully, we found a car park, quite close to the action, a few blocks away from the central market.
Midnight….we were waiting for the biggie, which was to be let off on the summit of Mount Benacantil, the mountain where the Castillo de Santa Barbara is perched.
Rockets blast off to start the proceedings… a hushed two or maybe three moments and then – the absolutely stunning ‘Palmera de la Virgen’ (palm tree) firework.
Usually, large fireworks normally last about 5 seconds at best... this firework cascaded down like a meteorite shower you see in the movies.... and it went on and on and on. Hundreds of streaks of phosphorus trails burnt into the night sky.... the expected conclusion when the trails burned out took forever to arrive... I thought they would rain down on the crowd!
From where we were standing, after loud gasps and ooohs and aaahhs, and photo-taking from cameras amongst thousands of people… they were suddenly dispersing as if on a mission: a few hundreds going east, a few hundreds going west, and north and south… what was happening?
We followed a crowd of people who seemed to know where they were going… to a nearby hogueras monument. Another band was already playing and the barracas marquee was very close to the action, still serving food with people eating, drinking, chatting having front row seats. No-one had any plans to move them – hmmm! They were very close to the bonfire (hogueras), which was about to be lit up...
Firecrackers snaked around the hogueras figures, not to blow them up, but to guarantee the fire-start, including a long fuse wire leading to the person starting the fire. Lighter fluid was then splashed all over the hogueras… a slight flicker of flame from the cigarette lighter and then he/she quickly ran off in the opposite direction, followed by a whoosh!... away it went....the fire took off ...
The firemen were already in preparation for the hogueras, shooting jets of water to test out their equipment. Ten minutes later the burning carcass had illuminated the whole sky, as if it was daytime. Firemen shot out jets of water above the burning mass to arrest flaming embers in flight, and to keep any stray flames from wandering. The crowds cheered every time bits of the hoguera broke off and came tumbling down, consumed by fire. It was kinda mesmering…
At last when they were sure it was going to be completely incinerated and the bonfire a success, the firemen turned the jets of water onto the general public.. who were actually waiting for it… Ah-ha! There were photos depicting the crowd chanting… pick me, pick me…
We witnessed a few other bonfires around Alicante town centre. At 2:30am, on the 25th. June, many people even children were still awake, still partying, still with bonfires in mind. The last bonfire we witnessed took a while to get going, as we milled around waiting for the police to cordon off the street and fire brigade to be present. The apartments on either side of the hogueras bonfire were about 10 feet away. The ever-present band was playing, and the participants were doing the limbo - how low can you go…
The charges were wired up, and firecracker-string snaked around to two lamp-posts and out in the middle of the road. A loud boom! And a hail of fireworks marked the start of another bonfire. I was standing at the barrier taking photos…. when out of the corner of my eye, the firemen took aim and jet-blasted loads of young kids with water. Suddenly it was my turn to be blasted… eek! Seeing as there was nowhere to hide, I shielded my camera as best I could and bore the brunt of the torrents of water.
Everyone was soaked in my vicinity, except Murray who was standing just outside the soaking range... He valiantly took three big steps left… to safety, leaving poor me to catch the next blast of water.
Middle-aged residents, visitors in crutches, teeny-boppers… [It brings me to mind another soaking that I got last year, during La Raima Grape festival]
I wrung out my skirt many times (while I was still wearing it, by the way), and as well my hair which was soaking wet… when I at last hobbled from the scene very gingerly – everybody was in fits of laughter. Now I know what to wear next time – a swimsuit??! At least it was +23C despite being close to 3 o'clock in the morning.
There were many moments of pure joy and excitement… the sun, sangria, anis tenis, firework spectacular, concerts, pageants… there is also a medieval market in Alicante old town, a few days after, as part of the Hogueras celebration. To be sure, we’ll be there next year!