The Moors and Christians

Destination

Alcoy

Spain

Season

Apríl

Durations

3 Days

The Moors and Christians, Moros y Cristianos

It is said that a resident of Spanish city of Alcoy registers his new-born son into a legion before the Registry of Births; and local children don't dream of becoming an engine-driver but of Saint George during the festival

Although Alcoy is only 60 kilometres from Alicante, it took two hours by bus; and since the accommodation was hopelessly sold out, I had to change to another bus and go to a neighbouring village of Cocentaina. The Moors and Christians Festival is celebrated in several cities of the Valencian Community, but the one in Alcoy is the most famous; beautiful and pompous. If you want to stay right at the scene, you must book the hotel at least half a year in advance.

The first mention of the festival dates back to 1511, although at the beginning it was only a few games and competitions. It commemorates the battle that took place in 1276. At that time the city stood on the border of the Muslim-held territories. Small fights between the two camps were frequent, but on April 23, Arab commander Al-Azraq tried to conquer Alcoy. Legend has it that during the battle St. George on horseback appeared over the walls of the city and thanks to him, the Christians finally won. In recognition of his merit, inhabitants of Alcoy made him their patron saint and decided to hold a festival in his honor.

The first "announcement" of the upcoming event is the procession during Easter; the main days are usually around April 23, the Feast Day of Saint George; but sometimes the festival takes place in early May.

On Thursday evening, marching bands walked through the city and performed on the streets until 1 am. At the end, they played the festival anthem at the Plaza de España and after the fireworks finally went to a traditional dinner consisting of an olleta alcoyana, thick bean soup with lungs, heart, bacon and black pudding.

The most awaited, however, was Friday, Día de las entradas - the Entrance day.  This is actually a bombastic parade of all the legions involved; Christians in the morning and the Moors in the afternoon.

Alcoy woke up already at dawn; ringing of the bells at 5 am called inhabitants to a solemn Mass at Santa Maria church. After raising the flag in the castle built for this occasion, the first diana (an early parade, a wake-up call) took place, as an anticipation of what would come later. Each team was represented by ten persons.

The city looked like it was back in time. The windows and balconies were decorated with flags with the cross of Saint George or the Islamic crescent moon, depending on which group their owners belonged to. In the middle of the square, a fortified medieval mansion was erected, its turrets covered with ivy. In the streets, there were already people in costumes that sometimes strangely contrasted with the cell phones in their hands - imagine a squire in a quilted coat with a hood on his head, talking about yesterday's football with the device on his ear!

The entry of Christians began at 10.30 am. The associations, called filaes or comparsas, prepare for this moment throughout the year. This is no longer a hobby, but an obsession that is passed down from generation to generation. It is said that a resident of Spanish Alcoy registers his new-born son into a legion before the Registry of Births; and local children don't dream of becoming an engine-driver but of Saint George during the festival (he is always represented by someone under the age of eight).

During the year, comparsas organize fundraising and other activities to secure at least part of the money for preparations. Costumes are not cheap and cannot be bought in a store; all are designed by experts, tailor-made and elaborated to the smallest detail. You should see those accessories, oh! Beautiful belts, necklaces, bracelets, headbands that I would put on to work even today! Machetes, sabres, helmets and armours are the works of art; probably more decorative than functional, but if they appeared in a movie, their designer would for sure win an Oscar.

The clothing is not historically accurate, only loosely inspired by medieval fashion, and so watches and sunglasses are allowed.

The most elaborate are, of course, the officers ‘costumes; they can cost a small fortune. The role of captain rotates annually; each one hopes to win the award for the best costume which would be then exhibited at the local museum.

Each parade has about 5,000 participants from 28 comparsas, which is why they virtually march through the streets of Alcoy all day long, but I didn't mind because the processions were spectacular.

Entrance of the Christians symbolises their readiness for battle. At the sound of the majestic pasodoble, groups were coming to the Plaza de España; one more beautiful and colourful than the other. Andalusian gypsies, Basque soldiers, Valencia farmers armed with sickles and pitchforks. The most impressive was when the men walked with short steps in one serried rank, pressed closely shoulder to shoulder, with such a proud expression as if they had really conquered the city. This composition received each time a big round of applause. The array was always led by a captain, holding in his hand a sabre or something like a mace and spinning it in the air like a majorette does with a mallet; he was showing off, striking poses and giving the challenging looks. The guys enjoyed every moment and saluted the crowds; clearly this was the event of the year for them. In addition, most of them nonchalantly enjoyed a cigar, which is also part of the tradition, although no one remembers how it started.

Some were sitting on camels, some on carts pulled by oxen; others showed off their riding skills. They galloped towards us and stopped abruptly; the horse neighed and reared on its hind legs, then hopped gracefully with the rider on his back. Saint George was embodied by a small, long haired girl on horseback.

There were also the representatives of the next generation walking along - smaller and bigger children, some with hair dyed grey and cigar imitations between their lips. They already knew how to do it, they made faces at the spectators and one little boy twisted a mace as if he was born with it. For the first time, a female legion attended the "military parade" and was greeted by a tumultuous applause.

At Plaza de España, the Christian captain got the keys to the city from Governor and then walked around, showered with tons of confetti from above, like all the others before him. The roads turned “snow-white”; at the end, children were throwing "paper snowballs" at each other like somewhere in the mountains.

The Christian entradas lasted three hours, but I stayed till the end although it rained and my teeth rattled like castanets. Then, in one of the stands I had paella and chupito (a shot) of Biri Biri orange liqueur, typical festival drink to warm up. On offer, there was also café licor (coffee liqueur), plis-play (coffee liqueur with cola), mentira (coffee liqueur with lemon granita), Alcoy smile - sonrisa alcoyana (whiskey with lemon granita) and herbero, sweet liquor of anise and macerated herbs from the Mariola Mountains.

The Moors arrived at 5 pm and confirmed what I read. Their costumes were even more colourful and shiny, decorated with glittering gold. There were also more spectators; the tribunes were filled to the last spot, although it was quite cold. The different groups that made up Moorish army marched around the square accompanied by their bands: stern-faced Berbers waving curved sabres; African dancers enthusiastically dancing, belly dancers seductively shaking their hips. I liked the Arabs in red turbans; bedecked with gold coins that clinked every time they moved… The men in the wide yellow trousers had chic leather bags with tassels that would certainly be a success even at Dior.

This parade lasted three hours too. Well, tradition is a serious matter in Alcoy...

Saturday began with a children's procession, because the little ones have to learn since childhood.

However, April 23 is mostly Saint George’s day (San Jorge in Spanish) and at 11 am, there was a ceremonial Procession of the Relic held in his honour. First the church prelates came out of the church dedicated to the patron, then the captains of the Christians and the Moors with a small group of their warriors; the crowds of believers, and finally, Sant Jordiet  (as they call him) dressed as a Roman soldier. I admit that I don't know why the saint is played by a small child, for an adult man must have appeared to the Alcoyans...

Jorge, or rather Jorgina, enjoyed his role and smiling waved to people who came to see him. The most beautiful and emotional moment occurred in the San Lorenzo Street. They had given us carnations before, and when Sant Jordiet came in, we threw the flowers in front of him, so he walked on the beautiful colourful carpet. He was followed by a reliquary, carried on a golden stretcher glittering in the sun. All the participants were accompanied by massive applause, and as they walked through the crowds lining the streets, they were showered by tons and tons of confetti from the balconies...

The procession ended with a Mass at the Church of Santa Maria, and then everyone could rest before the next program.

In the evening, the city came alive. The smell of sausages flowed through the air, pieces of meat were roasting on the grills, and mobile bars played hits that made everyone dancing. Especially those who already downed at least a half-litre of the Alcoy smile... brrr, it looked tasty, but when I saw that glass was full of ice, it made me shiver. People danced everywhere, on the streets and on the balconies and they were served by dancing barmen and waiters. One old man clenched his teeth into the knife, put the hands behind his back, and proudly stomped with the head turned aside.

Every now and again I heard firecrackers in the distance. Pyrotechnics were sold at every corner of the town and bought by both young and old. I know why the Spaniards are so noisy - they must have damaged eardrums from all these festivities!  :)

Probably even the infants have their own petards. It wasn't unusual to see parents giving bang snaps to their offsprings in strollers instead of a dummy or a rattle; and bang! Those babies knew very well what to do with a bag of “candies”; they didn't put them in their mouth but threw them as far as the underdeveloped motoric allowed them and enjoyed the detonation.

Bigger kids had bigger “weapons”, of course: sparklers, ground spinners and roman candles; sorry if my terminology is not correct. I didn't have the courage to approach, especially when I saw them to install something in a plastic cup and then run away, while the firecrackers banged and smoked for a few seconds.

I had the feeling that my eardrums would burst, but curiously, adult Spaniards don't even perceive it, which only confirms my theory that they've been deaf long since childhood J. One woman was strolling down the street with her son, and he constantly threw petards around him. Each time it banged, I jumped a half metre high and wanted to kill him, whereas she continued walking elegantly as if nothing happened, even though she was by his side! It was driving me mad!

The evening procession went in the opposite direction, the relic was returning to the Saint George Church. It was much more impressive, as the participants carried candles and their lights were warmly twinkling in the darkness like fireflies. On the last part, in front of the entrance gate, they moved quickly as if they were unable to decide where to go, eventually parted and formed a glittering corridor for the relic returning home.

One more Mass, then kissing the holy relic, fireworks; and the official part was finished, hooray to the bars and party until the morning! This is Spanish fiesta....

However, on Sunday everybody was in his place, the night didn't leave traces. This was the decisive day, the day of re-enactment of the historical battle.

At 10.30 am, a guard appeared on the balcony of the castle in Plaza de España. The lieutenant walked nervously back and forth, occasionally shielding his eyes and looking into the distance. After a while, we heard horses stamping; enemies came to the square and their leader in a black turban opened the importantly looking parchment with a message. The Christian captain also appeared on the balcony.

The Moor, threatening and menacing, asked locals to give up faith and mansion and disappear beyond recall; he was a great actor, he acted as at the audition for a Hollywood movie. The Christians told him to go to hell because they would never give up; which the audience rewarded with enthusiastic applause. The angry messenger furiously tore the parchment to pieces and declared war on the Alcoyans.

Suddenly the firemen emerged on the square and began to water it as if it was a vegetable field; later I realized that it was for safety reasons, to keep the sparks from igniting the fire.

Meanwhile, the soldiers prepared for battle; then they encircled the square and headed forward. They had arquebuses (antique-style muskets) and fired ear deafening salvos! I was happy I caught an amazing spot right behind the railing, suitable to take pictures. I already had experience with these firearms, so after the first shot I immediately pulled the earplugs and thrust them almost into my Eustachian tube.

It was good for nothing; the shooters surrounded the square from both sides, the salvos were ear-splitting, one followed quickly after the other; it was like an acoustic train, shots circulated around the whole area; then the soldiers quickly recharged their guns; and bang again! Now I understood why there was so much space; apparently not all Spaniards like these gunshot pleasures, because the centre emptied and those who stayed looked disgusted, poking their index fingers up to their middle ear and suffering. .

After the tenth shot, I hid at the back, but it didn't help. The noise was horrible, thundering, unbearable! After every shot, my whole body jerked terribly; once something fell in my eye and it hurt until the tears washed it away... The air smelled of gunpowder, which reminded me of dental fillings; you know, that metal stink when they drill a tooth... I managed to stay ten more minutes, then I got a headache and had to leave; it was enough, I have no nerves for this! Some shooters already disappeared in the side lanes, but there were still many of them, preparing near the castle…

I ran away, and when I was on the bridge leading to the modern part, I pulled out the earplugs and looked back. There was a rumble and thunder from the old town, as if there was an earthquake; columns of smoke were rising to the sky, Alcoy was wrapped in clouds of gunpowder.

The Moors won and gained control of the castle, of course; and when I returned, a green flag with a crescent moon was already fluttering at the fort...

At 5 pm, the furious battle was repeated, there was shooting until a miracle happened. St. George on horseback appeared at the top of the castle. At the ringing of the bells, he fired a few arrows and scared the Moors. They were ultimately defeated and the Christians re-conquered the castle. The war was over. The flag with a red cross returned on the tower again...

By the way, I read that one year the Moors celebrated their victory with plenty of food and wine; especially wine. So when the Christians came to fight for the castle, Muslims didn't want to give up easily. They locked themselves in and refused to hand on the keys. Angry Christians were forced to call the police who evicted tipsy Moors to keep everything in harmony with history...

When colourful flowers of fireworks appeared in the night sky, tears glittered in the eyes of many Alcoyans. This was the end of a beloved festival; the sad moment ... The only consolation was that the preparations for the next year would start next day!

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