Barco, Bulls and Beer.. ?!
What is this, you may ask? Santa Pola, a coastal town, has quite a few festivals throughout the year. Moors and Christians re-enactment with battles and victory fiesta; medieval fiestas where you could buy mysteriouspotions and elixirs and drink mint tea. Other Santa Pola fiestas included honouring the sailors patron saint, La Virgen de Carmen. This particular fiesta is to honour the Lady of Loreto, another of Santa Pola’s patron saint. In fact, though it is a small town, it is big on celebrations on Spanish fiesta calendar, and it is Santa Pola annual fiesta in August. Moors & Christian's fiesta as part of the bigger Santa Pola annual fiesta is bound to have glittering sequinned splendour and rich costumes.
It is also the Moors and Christians second celebration this year – more beautiful costumes than ever before, stretched over a number of days end of August and early September.
This year, we were at the Bull ring for the first night of the fiesta – what were we going to be seeing? Bulls gored to the death? When we arrived, the temporary bullring was packed with thousands of spectators. Milling around, choosing the best seats… yes, it was free-of-charge to get in. It was an hour too early – it started at midnight. By the time it going, it was jam-packed, like sardines..!
What have we here? The bullring was more like a gymkhana with multiple obstructions rather than the more normal open-range type of bullring.
All around the arena were youngsters – the runners… they had running shoes, a pair of shorts and nervous bravado… some had numbered t-shirts with an obscure title… but not much else. Hmmm! Young men who were fleet-of-foot, who jump, dance, taunt the bull in the bullring, to show their bravado.
It was lot of fun,… and near misses. One or two of the bulls got behind the barrier (Oooops!!) that was the safety point of the majority of the runners… watch them jump out of the way..!!
The next morning, as part of the fiestas, was the landing of the Moors – aha, the Moorish invasion was on at Santa Pola. Way out from the breakwater of the beach in Santa Pola, the Moorish landing party surged forwards in their barco (boat)...
A mock battle fought over two or three days, the first confrontation was on the beach with muskets and cannon fire. As the Moors landed, there was a big battle on the sands, Moors against Christians….. Cordoned-off spectators lining the beachfront, held their ears as the noise from the artillery was eardrum-popping…!!
The second confrontation, was at the Castle environs. Bands of Moorish army were gathered in the castle forecourt coming up from the docks… whilst the Christians were at the castle, defending its position…the Christians surrendered from the castle, after a fraught battle, and the conquering Moor armies took over. The outcome was expected, but, it was a noisome gathering, with spectators on the grandstand applauding the fight. The roar of the muskets and cannon-fire was deafening!
The final charge of the Moor armies happened the next night. The Christians fought back with might and much firepower. Again the hand-to-hand battle was fought, noise was deafening as muskets boomed and the cannons opened fire.
There was much celebration as on the next evening, all the Moors and Christians paraded with much pomp and grandeur along the castle route accompanied by marching bands. The troupe representing either the Moors or the Christians marched hand-in-hand to the rhythm to much applause and throwing of confetti. The costumes were glamorous and spectacular. As was the make-up – all the along the route, the drums were keeping a slow, sonorous, insidious beat….
The patroness of Santa Pola, the Lady of Loreto was celebrated at the same time, interspersed with the Moors and Christians celebration. There was a children’s regatta, sailing and fishing competitions, delicious seafood stews competition, fireworks extravaganza and a dawn run… even a quail shooting trophy. And plenty more to keep the whole community occupied and having fun.
But, there was one event we especially had to see… the ‘beer bath’ at the port. What was that..? On the day of the event, we made it to the port with fifteen minutes to spare. Where was everyone? Strolled past trawlers, moored at the dock... hmmm, nothing here. Retraced our steps to find people filing down behind the fish warehouses to the seaward facing part of the harbour ... towards a designated area. As we neared it, something was already happening… many spectators were in fits of laughter. Others were dodging flying ice and water…?
Oh yes. The ‘beer bath’ was in full swing. Three large tubs, each half the size of a small rubbish skip were filled with small bottles of beer and half a tonne of shaved ice chucked in on top…. (three more tubs sat close to the warehouse so there was a lot if it). The beer was perfectly chilled for drinking, although the purpose was to throw it– drinking the beer was more of a fringe benefit! At this stage, you take a step back - they're wasting beer? Er, well, yes they are - they're probably only 20 Euro cents each - beer is ridiculously cheap in Spain.
The spectators were necking the freebie beers, in between having someone pour it down their front or back (watch out… behind you), and some were getting them for other spectators and visitors when… Aarrrrgghhh! One the dock workers lets rip with high pressure hose - cold sea water.
The hose snaking round behind the spectators was a big hint but no-one got it until it was too late. It was a hot day, and many participants relished in having water splashed on them. In fact, they were dressed for it. I was also not quick enough to escape the dousing…I had to wring my skirt out, whilst I was still wearing it…! It was very salty seawater!!! And, the visitors that were all dressed properly – were soaked to the skin.
All good fun… obviously the ones in the know, i.e. the girls that had been the previous years, all had bikinis and were carrying towels. And the young men were in shorts only. A visitor from the Netherlands said what a good laugh… and he’ll be back next year!
There was another multi-coloured procession later on in the week. With floats, dancing girls, giant heads and fifty-foot mannequins…. The girls on floats were also throwing gifts; packs of munchies, sweets, … confetti. There were fire-eaters and clowns with fireworks. We watched as troupes of participants danced with the music, each vying to out-do the other in terms of costumes and dance routines.
On one of the other days, we drove in and parked the car a bit closer to the centre since it was 11:45am, and wandered along Calle Elche which was devoid of traffic thanks to the local council blocking off the access roads. A number of people ambled about, and the usual pre-event activity of concessions stands being moved into place. We decided to forego the El Palmeral experience and concentrate on getting a good spot to see the procession, so wandered down to the main square where a lot more people were milling around. Enroute down Calle Elche, various snippets of band music or laughing or voices singing in unison echoed down side streets, plus assorted Moor- or Christian- attired locals assembling for the procession.
At the far end of the main square, opposite the Castillo, a local bar had changed its appearance to support the ‘Moors’, with an inflatable character dressed in a robe on the roof holding a shot glass presumably to hold a nip of brandy, which sat alongside an array of speakers booming out the latest pop tracks: youngsters attired in Moorish clothing filtered in and out of the bar, half-full glass in hand, and a lot of dancing in the street. Not quite what the Moors got up to back in the day, but the latter-day take on it looks like a lot of fun.
Groups were heading up towards the Palmeral Park for the start of the processions, dressed as both Moor and Christian. And then it struck me: there was every age imaginable… from a toddler in a pushchair, to a 3 year old, to 10 year olds, to teenagers, to those in there early 20’s ,and 30’s++, all the way up to octogenarians. None of this teenager-with-attitude sort of thing, or indifferent older generations – everyone has some skin in the game, everyone is involved, and more importantly: everyone wants to be involved.
Policia Local personnel hovered in the background as a just-in-case support facility, rather than an over-bearing security sentinel. There were no safety barriers or cordoned off areas… a really happy place to be.
From a distance, a crescendo of noise and blips of colour start to move down Calle Elche. As it gets closer, you see the red cross emblem on the white tunic, the Christians are in the front… a group of four rows of suitably-attired multi-aged participants and a 30 strong band providing the music behind them. Then a melange of Moors, cultural groups, dancers, more Christians then Moors etc etc for a whole hour. Some groups also include lunatic-fringe fireworks, adding to the spectacle.
You know it’s a local affair when a grandmother rushes into the middle of the procession and gives a youngster a big hug and kiss, then retreats to the side and continues to clap and yell support. One image that sticks in my mind is a row of younger very attractive Spanish ladies dressed up in Moorish clothing, most of them hanging on to a can of Amstel beer… priceless! And here's the full gallery: