Moors(+Christians), Mystery, and Mascletas...
It’s hot, hot, hot in Elche. August is fiesta time in places and cities around Spain, especially annual fiestas.
In Elche fiesta or Elche festival, it's a humongous program calendar, where the Moors & Christians fiesta celebrations coincides with The Nit de Alba firework spectacular and the solemn, religious, Mystery Play of Elche. UNESCO declared the play as one of the Masterpieces on the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001 - it is world heritage.
The Mystery Play, or Festa d'Elx, is a chanted drama, of medieval origins, a greatly moving event; and it happens every year inElche's annual August fiesta.
Add to that the night of The Roa, floral processions, charanga parades, spectacular pyrotechnics, did I mention there'll be lots of Moors& Christians re-enactments of battles and victory; you have a stunning party venue in Elche fiesta - festive celebrations reach their zenith every August.
The Nit de Alba (Night of the Dawn) on the 13th August, is so called because of the firecrackers, fireworks, missiles of fire-bombs, and more, lighting up the whole sky as if it were daybreak. The noise was just incredible, as if we were in a war zone, dodging missiles and scuds!
But the heart of the celebrations is a the Mystery Play of Elche, one of Spain’s oldest cultural events and is truly a never-to-be-forgotten experience.
It is the only medieval play to be kept alive today, by privileges of the Pope in 1632. A medieval lyrical drama, it is divided into two acts which are staged on the 14th and 15th of August.
The music includes melodies from the Gregorian repertoire, Renaissance, Baroque and later additions. Known as the Festa (Mystery Play), it was included in UNESCO’s list of Masterpieces on the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.
Many visitors to Elche, as well as the townspeople, came to witness the play which dramatizes the death, crowning and Assumption of Virgin Mary, in the Basilica of Santa Maria. There was a queue of people waiting for seats in the cathedral two hours beforehand.
And in the performance the cathedral was packed to brimming, all available standing space was taken up and more people kept arriving. There are special devices located in the dome of the Basilica that perform the ascent and descent of the aerial stage devices during the performance of the Mystery Play.
During the performance, exquisite melodies were sung, solemn yet uplifting: ‘a cappella’, the baritones and tenors’ voices, charged with emotion filled the whole cathedral of the Basilica of Santa Maria.
The ‘choirs of heaven’ are a selected few that descend and ascend to/from the cupola, and play instruments as well as sing in harmony (while making sure they don’t fall off). It is quite a sight to behold, and many visitors are transfixed by the whole production. And when Virgin Mary is crowned on her way up to heaven, rains of confetti in the form of fake gold leaves fall from the ‘heavens’ – the audience erupts in a frenzy of applause and cheering … many were in tears. It was a spectacle to behold.
The traditional La Roa, a vigil of the Virgin’s body, marks one of the most remarkable celebrations of the fiesta. It occurs on the night of the 14th August where an all-night candle-lit procession marches silently around streets that mark the perimeter of old city walls by devotees, who were numerous enough to make sure the procession was actually a constant ring if they all held hands.
Despite the solemn and supposedly silent occasion, Elche cannot do without noise. Many people, young and old, overseas visitors to the area as well as citizens of Elche had all night music-fest with bars set up in the middle of cordoned-off streets and sound stages and giant TV screens projecting live music until dawn.
Others sit and chat and have ‘churros’ and chocolate; there were temporary churro stands in the cordoned off boulevards, bright lights and a tempting array of sweet but naughty treats. It was a night to remember.
Processions of the Moors and Christians bearing flowers and parades of the beauty queens of Elche, a giant paella to feed 3500, plus the largest Arroz con Costra in the world and even an Elche residents Arroz con Costra competition.
The chefs or cooks were kept busy preparing their form of Arroz con Costra from scratch with their secret recipe, tasting and adding a bit of more salt or saffron; it was very interesting to watch.
Little tents dotted around in the Palmeral of Elche, the Unesco declared world heritage site, that offer a tapas and drinks, we were even given freebie hot chocolate drinks in the park during the festivities.
A great one for kids is the parade of floats called the “Charanga” where each float adopts a theme and everyone associated with that float is dressed in some kind of costume, be it cartoon characters, Roman togas, doctors and nurses, cowboys and Indians, or something outrageous.
Each float has its own music blaring out and they all dance either to a set routine or just go wild… plus, and this is why it is great for the kids, in that each float rains down freebie gifts to everyone, the fight-to-get-it-first hats, fans to keep cool with, little packets of snacks, etc… also sangrias, beers and soft drinks were being gently handed out.
The Moors and Christians festivities occurred a few days beforehand. The pomp and ceremony heralded big crowds and bigger press coverage. All the precincts of Elche had flag-holders, who were playing the part of Moros or Cristianos during the re-enactment, and each hamlet had their own marching band.
All the cast were garbed in fantastic, intricately-designed costumes and Carmen-Miranda-type incredible head-dresses, … not to mention the shoes, pointy-toed for the Moors! The sequins, jewels and bling-bling would have given Elizabeth Taylor cause to fire her creative director.
Storming of the castle by the Moors by King James 1 in 1265 where finally the Christians were victorious, cannons and fire-sieges, horses and cavaliers, mock fights, all were re-enacted to great applause and cheering! The victory parade was spectacular with oceans of multi-coloured confetti rained down on the spectators, kids had big bags each to scoop up the used confetti, to be re-used at home playing at Kings and Queens, princes and princesses.
There is something for everybody at this fiesta. Camera buffs were spoilt for choice with the Moors and Christians splendour; pyromania enthusiasts had something noisy, beautiful, spectacular to witness with the Nit de Alba, daily Mascletas (huge noisy firecrackers), fireworks at night; the gastronomic-fest were amazing; the music-fest even more so. There were so many activities going on, we, living on the outskirts of Elche, felt that we were in the old town during that week, more often than not. There is always something to do in Elche, but for something special, why not try mid-August – you’ll be amazed! … we’ll come again next year, ear-plugs and dancing shoes, please!