Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Long Hard Slog


Spanish Steps - Travels With My Donkey by Tim Moore
A Review by Robert Bovington
I found this book annoying, often tedious, occasionally interesting and very occasionally funny.
So why did I find the book annoying? Well to start with, various critics have described the author as humorous - inside the book cover, 'Image' described Tim as "Without a doubt, the funniest travel writer in the world"; the 'Irish Times' even hailed him as the new Bill Bryson. What rubbish! I find Bill Bryson so interesting and amusing that I have read all his travel books two or three times and even his other, more serious, works like "Mother Tongue" and "Shakespeare" are funnier and better written than Tim Moore's book about his long expedition with a donkey. Like his journey, I found the book a long hard slog.
I found his writing style extremely verbose, sometimes undecipherable and often plain irritating - okay, the word 'click' may be military slang for a kilometre but I found the copious use of the word irksome. I found his humour often grated - too many puns and too adolescent. I certainly didn't 'laugh out loud' but, to be fair, I did chuckle to myself on a couple of occasions. I didn't mind, either, some of his 'toilet' humour, though there were too many references to donkey poo for my liking. 
So what were the good points? Well, Tim Moore follows the travel writer's 'well worn path' by describing many of the places he visits and supplementing this with quite a bit of history. He does this quite well. He also manages to get across to the reader the sheer scale of the journey - the good bits and the bad. Blistered, sometimes sun-scorched, occasionally rain-soaked, the author does a credible job of describing his 750-kilometre trek across northern Spain accompanied by a donkey. 
I can applaud Tim Moore for completing the 'Compostela de Santiago' even if his ulterior motive was to provide material for a book. However, in my view, it is nowhere near the best travel book I have read. He may have walked the path of St. James but he is not yet fit to be mentioned in the same company as Washington Irving, Gerald Brenan, Ernest Hemingway or Chris Stewart - nor Bill Bryson. 


Thursday, May 26, 2011

CÓRDOBA

by Robert Bovington

Córdoba was once the most important and richest city in the western world. It’s pretty good now as I recently discovered when I visited this beautiful city. It is one of the great cities of Spain. Along with Granada and Sevilla it is one of the classical cities of Andalucía that are famous for their spectacular architecture.

Córdoba was once the centre of the medieval Caliphate of Córdoba and capital of the western Islamic Empire. It reached its peak in the 10th century when it rivalled Baghdad and Constantinople as one of the great cities of the World. Its greatest surviving monument to the city's magnificent past is its Grand Mosque - the Mezquita.

Córdoba - Calle Torrijos

Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba

Work on the mosque actually started in 786 when it was built on the site of an old Visigothic church. However, it was enlarged three times before reaching its present size in 987 when it became the largest sacred building in the Islamic world.
 
Córdoba Mezquita © Robert Bovington
And big it most certainly is - so massive that a Gothic cathedral was built inside the mosque - and a number of chapels!


Mezquita - one of the
Cathedral ceilings
Following the Christian Reconquest of Córdoba in 1236, the mosque was consecrated as a Christian cathedral. During the 14th century, the Villaviciosa Chapel and the Capilla Real were built and then in 1523, work on the cathedral started with the building of a huge nave inside the mosque.
The interior of the mosque is spectacular - a forest of pillars and arches. 856 of the granite, jasper and marble columns remain - some were removed to make way for the Christian parts of the building. Horseshoe-shaped arches consisting of alternating red brick and white stone were placed above the lower pillars, which has given the Mezquita its distinctive character.

Of course, there is much more to this magnificent building than pillars and arches! The Mihrab is particularly magnificent with its intricately carved marble ceiling and exquisitely decorated chambers with their Byzantine mosaics. All this ornamentation is in great contrast to the worn flagstones - an indication that many Muslims prayed here.

The Villaviciosa and Capilla Real chapels are both quite splendid and are good examples of Mudéjar architecture.
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There used to be many entrances into the mosque but nowadays, the only one open to the public is the Puerta del Perdón.

Córdoba - Mezquita -
Patio de los Naranjos

No self-respecting mosque should be without a patio where prospective worshippers can perform their ritual ablutions. The Patio de los Naranjos was used for this purpose. Visitors still pass through this delightful courtyard with its orange trees and fountains on their way into the Mezquita.
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Torre del Alminar


The minaret of the mosque is no longer visible. It is enveloped in a Baroque bell tower - the Torre del Alminar.

Finally, there is the Cathedral. Charles V later regretted the decision to build it within the Mezquita and many people since have agreed that its construction has devalued the mosque's simple beauty. I disagree. In my humble opinion, the Christian elements blend harmoniously with the architecture of the mosque. 


Certainly,
Mezquita Cathedral Choir
the Cathedral has many impressive features, particularly the choir with its Baroque mahogany choir stalls that were carved by Pedro Duque Correjo in the 18th century.




Anything this special ought to be afforded special protection and it is - UNESCO has declared the Mezquita a World Heritage site.

The sheer grandeur of the Mezquita reflected Córdoba's importance during the 8th to 11th centuries, when it was one of the world's largest and most cultured cities as well as being the capital of the Caliphate of Córdoba - an empire that incorporated a large chunk of the Iberian Peninsula as well as North Africa.
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La Judería

Today, Córdoba is a beautiful city and the old quarter contains many impressive monuments to its historic splendour. Close to the Mezquita, the Judería or Jewish Quarter consists of narrow alleyways, brilliantly whitewashed and splendidly decorated with flowerpots. Other important buildings include the Episcopal Palace, various churches and museums - the Museo de Bellas Artes is the main art museum in the city.
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The Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos

The Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos is a fortified palace that was built by Alfonso XI in 1328. It was the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition but today, it is a tranquil oasis with gardens and fountains.

Córdoba - Alcázar Gardens

Modern Córdoba

So, Córdoba has a wealth of historical buildings – all beautifully preserved but it is also a city where past and modernity blend. Plaza de las Tendillas, in particular, is a pleasant modern square adjacent to a shopping and commercial area that seamlessly merges into the old narrow streets of the Juderia. It is also only a few minutes walk to the Paseo de la Victoria that, in turn, is a pleasant promenade of greenery leading towards the old city walls.

Paseo de la Victoria

Córdoba - Plaza Tendillas
Robert Bovington

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

ÁVILA

by Robert Bovington

Ávila is the highest city in Spain.It is 3,715 feet above sea level and is situated on a plateau that is surrounded by even loftier mountains. It is a good place to visit but not to live because, whilst the city is rather spectacular and is a notable tourist centre, it has long cold winters and short summers. The surrounding neighbourhood is not too attractive either. It is an arid, treeless plain strewn with immense grey boulders, which, I suppose, came in useful when the walls of the city were built.

Ávila is old. It is one of the oldest of all the cities in Castilla y León. Celtic Iberians, Romans, Muslims and Christians have all left their mark on this fine city.

Las Murallas - the walls - are magnificent and encompass the whole of ancient Ávila. Building started at the end of 11th century and they are 2.5 kilometres long, 14 metres high and around 3 metres thick. They are still in pretty good nick. Alfonso VI ordered their construction after his conquest of Avila in 1090. Moorish prisoners were allegedly employed to build the wall. I don't suppose they were paid though! There are eighty-eight towers and nine gates that include the imposing Puerta del Alcázar and the Puerta de Rastro. Visitors can walk along the walls between these two points. The walls are beautifully illuminated at night.

The modern part of the city lies outside the walls. Within the old city are many fine buildings including churches and the 12th-century Gothic cathedral. Ávila Cathedral was planned as a cathedral-fortress - its apse is actually part of one of the turrets of the city walls. Construction started in 1095 shortly after the Reconquest. The earliest parts were in the Romanesque style and built like a fortress with battlements and sentry walks incorporated into the structure. Most of the cathedral was built between the 12th and 14th centuries and the building is, therefore, a mix of Romanesque and Gothic. It is credited with having introduced Spain to Gothic architecture. The Cathedral Museum has a display of religious art including an El Greco - the "Portrait of Garcibáñez de Múxica". 

Ávila photo: Robert Bovington
There are quite a few religious buildings in Ávila but, then, there have been a number of religious residents. These include the 4th-century theologian Priscillian who was the first Christian to be executed for heresy and the notorious Friar Tomás Torquemada who was Spain's first Grand Inquisitor and the zealous leader of the witch-hunts of the 15th century. Another resident was San Juan de la Santa Cruz who was a reformer of the Carmelite Order. 

Santa Teresa de Ávila

Saint Teresa of Ávila is the city's most famous resident. She was born in Gotarrendura in Ávila province on March 28, 1515. She was the daughter of a Toledo merchant and his second wife, who died when Teresa was 15, one of ten children. Following a period in the care of the Augustinian nuns, Teresa resolved to enter a religious life. In 1535, she joined the Carmelite Order.

She was a major figure of the Catholic Reformation - a prominent Spanish mystic, writer and monastic reformer. Gregory XV canonized her in 1622. Her feast day is October 15 when the city honours its most famous daughter with a celebration in her honour. It begins with an opening speech from the Town Hall balcony followed by a solemn mass in the cathedral. The celebration continues with a procession through the main city streets, and, like all good Spanish fiestas, concerts, bullfights, fireworks and partying takes place for a few more days. 

St. Teresa has left Ávila with a legacy - not only the memory of her Carmelite reforms and her writings but a reminder of her can be found in the Convento de Santa Teresa, which was built in 1636 over her birthplace. Another monument to her name is the Monastery of La Encarnación where St. Teresa lived for thirty years.

Tomás Luis de Victoria
 
Another famous person, born in Ávila was the composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. Born in 1548, Victoria is generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of the 16th century. He was certainly the most significant Spanish composer of sacred music in the late Renaissance. The biggest influence on Victoria is said to be the aforementioned Saint Teresa, which is probably why he wrote only religious music.

With all those devout residents, it is no wonder that there are so many temples in Ávila. Quite a number have prestigious connections like the Real Monasterio de Santo Tomás that houses the tomb of Don Juan, son of the Catholic Monarchs. There is the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista that contains the baptismal font in which Saint Teresa was baptised. It is just one of many Romanesque churches in the city as well as one of a number with Saint Teresa connections. 

Ávila is not just about churches. There are a number of palaces and houses of noble ancestry as well as museums. Because the city is so rich in architecture it has become a UNESCO World Heritage site.



This article is an extract from “Spanish Impressions” by Robert Bovington
ISBN 978-1-4452-2543-2 available from www.lulu.com


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

White Towns of Andalusia (Pueblos Blancos de Andalucía)

The White Towns of Andalusia by Robert Bovington


Whilst I frequently holiday on the Costa del Sol, I rarely spend much time in Benalmádena or Fuengirola - instead, I explore the mountain villages of Cádiz and Málaga. I visit places like Grazalema, Olvera, Setenil, Benaoján and Zahara de la Sierra. They are located in one of the most beautiful and yet undiscovered parts of Spain - in the area known as the ‘White Towns of Andalusia’.
Why are they called that? Because they are white and they are in Andalucía! Yes, I know, there are pueblos blancos throughout Andalucía - I frequently travel around the provinces of Almería and Granada visiting delightful villages with whitewashed houses. Nevertheless, some person or persons have determined that the White Towns of Andalusia are the succession of towns and villages in the northern parts of the provinces of Cádiz and Málaga. So there!
They are delightful. Let's visit some of them!
Grazalema
Grazalema - Peñon Grande
One of my favourites is Grazalema. It lies within the the heart of the Parque Natural de la Sierra Grazalema, a popular location for climbers and walkers alike. The approach to the town is spectacular and is dominated by the massive Peñon Grande which rises to over 1000m above the town which itself appears to be suspended from a bare cliff face. The views from Grazalema are breathtaking - there are a number of miradors where one can view the countryside far below. The town has retained its Moorish layout and the whitewashed façades of the houses that border the winding narrow streets are bedecked with flowerpots and window boxes. There are attractive churches in Grazalema - the Iglesia de San Juan, the Iglesia de la Encarnación with its Mudéjar tower and the Iglesia de la Aurora, which is situated in the Plaza de España. Whenever I visit, there are usually a few old men sitting in the shade of the maple trees in this pretty little square.

Zahara de la Sierra
Zahara de la Sierra can be seen from miles away because it is situated in one of the most dramatic locations of all the White Towns. Its 13th-century Moorish castle stands high on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sugar-cubed houses of the village that also enjoys a hilltop setting. The village was built by the Moors in the 8th century and was an important stronghold of the Nasrids until the Christians captured it in the 15th century. There is a fine church - the Baroque Iglesia de Santa María de Mesa that was built in the 18th century. Zahara de la Sierra has been declared a National Monument.

The road between Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra is spectacular. It winds its way up to the Las Palomas Pass and there are sharp bends and sheer drops on the way. The views from the top are awe-inspiring with rugged mountains, green wooded valleys and golden fields.

Zahara de la Sierra


Serranía de Ronda
Serranía de Ronda countryside

The whole region of the White Towns is located amidst magnificent scenery. There is an extraordinary rich and diverse array of flora and fauna - so much so that virtually the whole of this area is protected to some extent. Within the La Serranía de Ronda range of mountains are three Natural Parks - Grazalema, Los Alcornocales and the Sierra de las Nieves. I cannot stress enough how beautiful this area is. When I first moved to Spain, the Alpujarras enchanted me but having encountered the Ronda Mountains and the Grazalema Natural Park in particular I was even more captivated. There is a very good reason why this area is so green - rain! Grazalema is the wettest place in Spain. Yes, less than two hours drive from the Costa del Sol there is a place that gets more rain than anywhere else on the Iberian Peninsula! Warm clouds full of moisture from the Atlantic are forced upwards by the successive mountain ranges. This cools them resulting in condensation and rainfall.

Benaoján is a pretty village that I first encountered when I travelled on the Algeciras to Ronda railway. Near the railway station there is a footpath to Cueva de la Pileta - a cave with primitive rock paintings of animals that, apparently, date from around 25,000 BC. Just above the village there is a mirador where spectacular views can be enjoyed - poplar, willow and oleander at the bottom of the valley; evergreen oak, peonies, thickets of kermes oak, retama and broom on the hillside; gorse, thyme and sage beneath jagged outcrops of limestone on higher ground and probably the odd vulture or two circling above. There are about 300 griffin vultures in the Serranía de Ronda, which is a tribute to the local conservationists as during the 1960's the birds were almost extinct.
Olvera
Olvera

A huge neoclassical church looms over the white houses of Olvera which is yet another town that enjoys a spectacular setting. The Iglesia de la Encarnación has two bell towers and was built on the ruins of a mosque. Next-door is the 12th-century Almohad castle that formed part the defensive network of the Nasrid kingdom. Alfonso XI conquered the town in 1327.
Arcos de la Frontera
Arcos de la Frontera is the most westerly of the White Towns and one of the biggest. From a distance, it looks spectacular with the whitewashed houses tumbling down the side of a sheer limestone cliff face. There are plenty of monuments for the student of architecture to enjoy here including Baroque churches, palaces and mansions. The Plaza del Cabildo is an attractive square that is dominated by the impressive tower of the Church of Santa María. Other buildings in this plaza are the Town Hall, the Castle and the Casa del Corregidor which was formerly the magistrate's house but which is now the parador. On the western side of the square is a mirador that affords spectacular views of the countryside below. The Church of Santa María de la Asunción is worth a visit. It was built on the site of a former mosque between the 16th and 18th centuries. It has splendid plateresque decoration on its west façade whilst the south facing side is in neoclassical style. From here, a tangle of alleyways leads to the late Gothic church of San Pedro, which also has an impressive bell-tower. There are stunning views from here too because the church seems to lean precariously over the steep cliff face. Visitors with a fear of heights would be advised to wear brown trousers!
There are lots of other attractive pueblos blancos. Villaluenga del Rosario is the highest of the White Towns and is one of the prettiest. Setenil is unusual in that there are troglodyte dwellings built into the rock. Ubrique is a largish town famous for its leatherware. The Natural Park of Grazalema Visitors Centre is located in El Bosque, which also has a botanical garden.

Gaucín



Gaucín and Casares
Moorish fortresses loom over the towns of Gaucín, Jimena de Libár and Casares. Gaucín is quite attractive although I did not find too much of historical interest there. What did impress me were the views down towards the coast - the Rock of Gibraltar and the Rif Mountains of Morocco were clearly visible. The Moorish Alcázar above Casares was built on Roman ruins. The sugar cube houses that spill down the hillside make the village extremely photogenic, which is probably why Casares is often seen on postcards of the White Towns. It certainly gets a few tourists, as it is only 11 miles from the coastal resort of Estepona.

Casares
Casarabonela
Casarabonela

Casarabonela is on the easternmost edge of the area officially classified as the White Towns of Andalusia. I have included it here because it is within easy reach of the popular coastal resorts of Fuengirola and Benalmádena. It is situated in the Sierra de las Nieves and is yet another attractive pueblo blanco that has preserved its Arabic heritage with its narrow streets and whitewashed houses festooned with flowers. Like many of the villages some of the alleyways are rather steep - on my last visit I left my aged relative sitting on a bench in the main plaza while my wife and I explored the charming alleyways. We spotted a number of attractive fuentes - some with attractive decorative tiles. An attractive church - the Iglesia de Santiago Apóstle is located in the main plaza. It has some interesting crypts and a museum of silver and religious artifacts.

Ronda
One of the most popular places in the area is Ronda. The best word to describe the town is dramatic. It enjoys a spectacular location clinging to a cliff-top 500 feet above the Tajo gorge and it has had a dramatic history. Smugglers and highwaymen have inhabited the town and it was one of the last strongholds of the Moors until the Catholic Kings reconquered the town in 1485. The main attraction in Ronda is the Puente Nuevo - the new bridge with its breathtaking views of the countryside and the gorge far below. There are numerous historical monuments that include churches, palaces and museums. The town, itself, is a living museum especially La Ciudad the old Moorish quarter which its many historic buildings and monuments like the Arab Bridge and the Arab Baths. Ronda is also the cradle of bullfighting and there is a museum dedicated to this very Spanish spectacle. It is part of the bullring complex, which is an impressive piece of architecture. Another interesting museum is the Museo del Bandolero, which is devoted to bandits, outlaws and smugglers. Highwaymen roamed the surrounding mountains in the 19th century, robbing wealthy tourists headed for Ronda on their 'Grand Tour of Europe'. Smugglers too visited the town. Nowadays, it is tourists who invade Ronda because it is one of the favoured excursions for people holidaying on the Costa del Sol. Of all the White Towns of Andalusia, it is my particular favourite.

Ronda - Puente Nuevo
Robert Bovington


Monday, May 23, 2011

Bayárcal

by Robert Bovington

Bayárcal is the highest village in the Almeriense Alpujarras at over 4000 feet.

The village is surrounded by an oak forest and nearby are groves of chestnut, pine and cherry. In October, the local villagers can be seen collecting chestnuts.


Bayarcal - a village in the Sierra Nevada photo: Ivan Michalko
The scenery around this area is spectacular and I quite often drive little circular routes around this area. One suggestion is to start at Cherín and follow the A337 through Picena to Laroles. At a junction take the road to Bayárcal then Paterna del Río and on to Laujar de Andarax. Thence travel along the A348 back to Cherín.

An excellent deviation if you have time is to visit Puerto de Ragua, which, at 2000 metres above sea level, is the only road that links the south and north faces of the Sierra Nevada. Puerto de Ragua is a pleasant place to walk or have a picnic. Snow covers this area from November until April. To drive there continue north from Laroles instead of taking the road to Bayárcal.

Puerto de Ragua
more blogs by Robert Bovington...


"Photographs of Spain"
"postcards from Spain"
"you couldn't make it up!"
"a grumpy old man in Spain"
"bits and bobs"
"Spanish Expressions"
"Spanish Art"
"Books About Spain"

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Puerta Verde de Roquetas de Mar

For a delightful stroll use the Puerta Verde de Roquetas de Mar. La Puerta Verde is a short route between Roquetas and Aguadulce that enables beach users, walkers and cyclists to enjoy use of the Cañada Real de la Costa without encountering motorized traffic.


It runs from the eastern end of the Paseo Marítimo in Roquetas to Urbanización Torrequebrada in Aguadulce.

The route runs parallel to the protected ‘Monumento Natural Arrecife Barrera de Posidonia oceánica’, a barrier reef where a particular seagrass grows. The plant is endemic to the Mediterranean and unique to the Andalusian coast.



Robert Bovington




The Indalo Man

by Robert Bovington

Go into any gift or souvenir shop in the city of Almería or the tourist resorts of Roquetas de Mar and Mojácar and you will find key rings, thimbles, teaspoons and even jewellery - all bearing the Indalo symbol. Furthermore, on the road to Almería airport a giant statue of the Indalo stands prominently on a roundabout towering over the 'Welcome to Almería' sign.
So what is so special about this stick figure man that the Almeriense, the people of Almería, call the Indalo? Well, in 1868, cave paintings were discovered in a cave in the north of the province of Almería. These paintings were about 6,000 years old and one of them, a man with his arms held out to his sides and holding a rainbow above his head, has come to be the symbol of Almería.
The Indalo allegedly brings good luck, health and love to those who own one. It is customary in this region of Spain to paint the Indalo symbol on the front of houses and businesses to protect them from evil. The interesting thing to note, however, is that this practice of warding off evil spirits by having the Indalo symbol above the door has been going on for centuries, so the locals must have known about the symbol before the cave discovery.
In olden days fishermen used to pin the symbol on their doors before going out to sea as a protection against storms and as a guarantee of obtaining a good catch. Perhaps they still do!
The cave in question, la Cueva de los Letreros, was declared a National Monument in 1924. It is one of a number of caves situated in the Sierra de María in the north of the province of Almería.
Los Letreros lies between the towns of Vélez Blanco and Vélez Rubio.
Vélez Blanco is particularly worth a visit. It is a typical pueblo blanco with its whitewashed houses nestling at the foot of a rocky outcrop upon which stands a majestic castle.


Federico García Lorca


by Robert Bovington


"A poet never gets shot" - Federico García Lorca


Federico García Lorca was born in the village of Fuente Vaqueros, Granada in 1898. He is considered by many people to be the greatest Spanish poet and playwright of the 20th century - well, in Spain and particularly Andalucía he is highly regarded anyway! 

I personally was not aware of the poet and his works until I accompanied a Spanish friend on a visit to the Natural Park of the Cabo de Gata in the province of Almería. Not far from the village of Rodaquilar, there is an old farm building called "Cortijo del Fraile". It was here that a chilling real life murder took place - an event on which Lorca based his play 'Blood Wedding'.




This is one of his best-known works along with 'Gypsy Songs', 'Poet in New York', 'Yerma' and 'The House of Bernarda Alba'. 

In nearby Granada, Lorca is revered. This was not always the case - or at least not openly because his books were prohibited and mention of his name forbidden during the Franco years. He had antagonised the Catholic Church, the Monarchy, the Military and landowners with his writings where he had focussed on social injustice and human suffering. He had particularly condemned the Catholic Reconquest of Arab Granada. In his view a great civilisation was lost and poetry, architecture, astronomy and delicacy replaced by the poor, narrow-mindedness of the new city inhabitants. In some ways I have to agree. Whenever I gaze upon the sheer splendour of places like the Alhambra in Granada, the Mezquita in Córdoba or even the irrigation systems in the Alpujarras, I wonder what has gone wrong with the Muslim people. Nowadays, they only seem fit for running corner shops or planting bombs! 

Anyway, because of his views, Lorca was a prime target for the Franco death squads. The fact that he was also a homosexual probably didn't help either! So he was killed. In 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, Fascist soldiers shot him! 

Over seventy years later, his home city of Granada has started to honour him. Granada's airport is called 'Aeropuerto Federico García Lorca'; postcards of the poet and his drawings are displayed alongside those of the Alhambra in the city's shops and kiosks and the tourist industry has jumped on the bandwagon by offering 'Lorca route' itineraries. Visits can be made to a number of sites in the area related to Lorca's life including Víznar near Granada, the site of his murder. 

It was a short life but a fruitful one. His works are a testimony to his literary prowess even if his gravestone isn't - he was buried in an unmarked grave!

Spanish Fiestas

by Robert Bovington

One of the pleasures of travelling around Spain is to visit a village or town and find the flags flying, a band playing and the inhabitants enjoying a party atmosphere because the township is commemorating some saint or other with a fiesta. In fact, as you read this, it is highly probable that some place in Spain is partying. Everywhere, from the tiniest barrio to the biggest city, the people enjoy fiestas - lots of them!

Usually the local Saint provides the reason to celebrate. However, any excuse for a party will do whether it is to commemorate some local hero, to celebrate a good harvest, or to recreate a Moors versus Christians battle! 


Semana Santa

There are the celebrations that occur throughout the country, and elsewhere for that matter, like Semana Santa (Holy Week), when hooded penitents carry religious floats through the streets in an extremely dramatic style. These celebrations take place all over Spain but the Andalucian cities of Sevilla, Córdoba, Granada, Málaga and Almería have the most spectacular celebrations.

a Semana Santa procession in Astorga, Spain - public domain
Navidad

There is Christmas, of course, which is a big event in Spain and which officially starts on December 8th - the public holiday of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Spanish Christmas, or Navidad, stretches all the way to Kings Day on January 6. Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) is very quiet by Spanish standards as families spend the night indoors. They consume great quantities of food, however, and the adults exchange gifts. Children have to wait until Kings Day - or at least they used to. These days, they are spoilt and so they receive gifts on Christmas Eve as well.

Christmas decorations in a Spanish shopping mall © Robert Bovington


On the 6th January, the Spanish commemorate Día de Reyes, Kings Day, which celebrates the day on which the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem bringing gifts for baby Jesus. Every town and city in Spain enjoys parades during the evening of the 5th January.
Other important fiestas

Other important fiestas celebrated throughout Spain include Corpus Christi, All Saints Day, the Feast of St John, New Year's Eve, the Day of the Innocents and Carnaval.

Corpus Christi is another religious celebration, and is a solemn affair especially in Toledo where a dramatic procession takes place. However, in Ponteareas in the province of Pontevedra, brightly coloured flower petals carpet the streets where the procession makes its way. In La Orotava in Tenerife, the townsfolk go further by making carpets of flowers and creating works of art from the coloured volcanic sands.

The Spanish commemorate 'Todos los Santos' on October 31. On this 'All Saints' day, the Spanish visit cemeteries and put flowers on the graves of relatives and friends.

On the night of San Juan, 23 June, the people of Spain commemorate the Summer Solstice by lighting bonfires and fireworks. The celebrations are of pagan origin. One of the rituals is to leap over the fires, which allegedly brings good luck for the rest of the year.


Noche Vieja or New Years Eve is celebrated in Spain with the ceremony of the grapes - the New Year is welcomed in by eating one grape on each chime of the clock, which is meant to bring good luck.



Sandwiched between Christmas and New Year is the 'Día de los Inocentes'. On 28 December, the Spanish have the opportunity of playing tricks on people because this particular day is the equivalent to April Fool's Day.

Carnaval



During the week before Lent, carnivals are enjoyed all over Spain. The best places to experience the colourful spectacle of 'Carnaval' are Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Sitges and Cádiz. Santa Cruz de Tenerife is the place to see 'queens'! The Carnival Queen is elected from the prettiest of the teenage girls in the city but there is also a procession of 'drag queens'! The Sitges Carnival is another colourful spectacle and the most important in Catalonia. It consists of folk dancing and eating xatonades, the local speciality of salad and omelettes.

Cádiz is probably the best place to experience 'Carnaval'. Everyone wears a costume, which is usually related to some political event. In some places the carnival is celebrated in bizarre ways - in Bielsa, in the province of Huesca, some of the population wear rams' horns on their heads, black their faces and wear teeth made of potatoes! It is meant to represent some pagan fertility rite. Whilst in Madrid and Benidorm a strange ceremony takes place - the funeral of the sardine!

San Fermin

Some of the most famous fiestas are the San Fermin festival, the Fallas of Valencia, the Moors and Christians fiestas and Madrid's San Isidro festival.

In the novel "The Sun Also Rises", Ernest Hemingway described the San Fermin festival. It is one of Spain's most celebrated fiestas. It is also one of the most dangerous. Thousands of either brave or stupid people run with the bulls through the cobbled streets of Pamplona. On the last night of the week long fiesta, those who are not in hospital or in a coffin sing Basque songs in the main square.



Other famous festivals


One of the biggest and most spectacular street festivals takes place in Valencia in March each year - Las Fallas. Huge papier-mâché effigies are burnt to the ground.
 


The Moors and Christians fiestas take place all over Spain. Ceremonies and mock battles are staged to commemorate the Reconquest.



The largest bullfight festival is in Madrid around May 15 each year. The Madrileños celebrate the festival of San Isidro, the patron saint of peasants and of the city. Of course, there are also fireworks and food as well as concerts and cultural pursuits.

On October 12 the Spanish celebrate Día de la Hispanidad, which is sometimes called Columbus Day. It is to commiserate - sorry - commemorate Columbus discovering America.

Feria de Abril de Sevilla

There are many other notable festivals. The Feria de Abril is Sevilla's stylish festival where the townsfolk dress in elegant costumes. If they are not on horseback or in horse-drawn carriages, the citizens and visitors can be found in the hundreds of marquees eating tapas, drinking manzanilla or dancing sevillanas. All the big cities have spectacular fiestas including Barcelona whose biggest festival, the Festes de la Merce, occurs every September. Zaragoza's big day is the Día del Pilar. Ronda hosts the Corrida Goyesca, an annual festival of music, dancing and bullfights.



Pilgrimages

On the last Sunday in April, the people of Andújar, in the province of Jaén, take part in the Romería de Andújar - a mass pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgen de la Cabeza. An even bigger pilgrimage is the Romería del Rocío, which takes place every May/June. Up to one million people travel on foot or by horse and carriage to the shrine of the Virgin at the village of El Rocío in Huelva province.



The most famous pilgrimage is the Camino de Santiago - the Way of Saint James. This road traverses some of Spain's most spectacular landscapes and ends at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia province. People from all over Europe make the annual pilgrimage. On July 25, St James's Day, is the Fiesta de Santiago and fireworks light the night sky of the holy city on the eve of this festival.

Still on a religious note, The misteri d'Elx, a passion play, is staged on the 14th and 15th August in the World Heritage city of Elche.



Floral crosses decorate the streets of Granada and Córdoba in May. Neighbourhoods compete to create the most colourful crosses. Córdoba continues its floral celebrations with its annual Fiesta de los Patios. The inhabitants of old Córdoba open their patios to the public and display their floral arrangements.

There are many celebrations relevant to sea-faring folk - like Día de la Virgen on July 16. Fishermen at Almuñécar on the Costa Tropical carry a statue of the Virgen de Carmen on their boats.

At Sanlucar de Barrameda in the province of Cádiz, horse races take place on the beach every August to celebrate the Exaltacion al Rio Guadalquivir.

St George's Day

One of the most charming Spanish, or should I say Catalonian, traditions takes place on April 23, St George's Day. On that day, men give women roses and the ladies give their man a book. The custom is to celebrate Catalonia's patron saint and to commemorate 'World Book Day' - on 23 April 1616 both Shakespeare and Cervantes died. April 23 was also Shakespeare's birthday so no wonder the day is important in literary circles!

Strange Festivals

Some of Spain's celebrations can be crazy, macabre or downright messy! In the village of Buñol, in the land of Valenciana, the World's biggest tomato fight takes place. Thousands of revellers hurl ripe tomatoes at each other. At Haro, the capital of the Rioja Alta wine region, a wine battle takes place every 29 June - People dressed in white clothes squirt each other with wine.



Every 23 June, at San Pedro Manrique in Soria province, men walk barefoot over burning embers. They do this whilst carrying people on their backs!

There are always fireworks at Spanish fiesta time but some, like the Valencian Fallas, really set the place alight. Like Los Escobazos held every December in Jarandilla in the province of Cáceres. The villagers light bonfires in the streets and then set fire to brooms, which they use to whack friends and relatives.

Dampening things down a bit, the villagers of Agaete in Gran Canaria beg for rain in a ceremony that takes place on the night of July 4.

At Verges in Gerona province, a Dance of Death takes place on Maundy Thursday. Men dressed as skeletons perform a macabre dance. Another dance occurs in Anguiano in the province of La Rioja - this time on stilts! The extra tall dancers wear yellow skirts and fancy waistcoats and hurtle down the stepped alley from the church to the main square. This is to celebrate the Danza de los Zancos fiesta.

In Castillo de Murcia in Burgos, babies, dressed in their Sunday best, are laid on mattresses in the street and a colourfully dressed man jumps over them - apparently to free them from illness!

There are many more quirky fiestas in Spain and seeing their men folk forming human towers, having flour fights or dressing themselves up as soldiers, scarecrows or animals, you would be forgiven for thinking that women might want to add some sanity to proceedings and run things themselves! On St Agatha's Day, 5 February, they do - well, in Zamarramala in Segovia province anyway! The inhabitants celebrate the patron saint of married women by electing two women as mayoresses to run the village for the day. There is also a ceremony where a stuffed figure representing a man is set ablaze.

Food and Wine Celebrations

Great quantities of food are consumed at fiestas and in Valencia, giant pans of paella feed the revellers. Celebration of food and wine are also the reasons for some fiestas. There is the Tapas Fair in Sevilla, sherry tasting at Jerez de la Frontera´s Fiestas de Otoño and a seafood festival at O Grove in the province of Pontevedra. In the Asturias they celebrate the famous stew of the region, fabada Asturiana and another stew party is held at Vendrell on the Costa Dorada. Many towns and villages celebrate the olive harvest and an Olive Feast takes place at Mora in the province of Toledo. Eels are eaten at La Fiesta de la Angula in San Juan de la Arena in the Asturias and in that region, there are beans and cider fairs in the Asturian coastal villages. Even the exotic spice of saffron is celebrated - the Saffron Rose Festival is held in Toledo every October and, on a less delicate note, there are the annual pig slaughters, which take place all over Spain - usually on St Martin´s Day, November 11 - La Matanza signals the start of the wintertime drying of hams and sausages. It is especially celebrated in the mountain villages of Andalucía.

There are popular drink festivals too. At Catalonia's Cava fiesta, visitors can drink the famous sparkling wine. At the Fiestas de Otoño, the autumn festival in Jerez, sherry can be sampled. Revellers can taste cider at Asturian fiestas and quaff the excellent Rioja wine at the Fiesta de San Mateo in Logroño.

Film, music and dance


There are numerous festivals of film, music, dance and theatre. Granada hosts an International Music and Dance Festival. The streets around the Alhambra are filled with musicians and flamenco dancers and the sounds of guitars and the click of castanets fill the air. Other famous festivals include the International Music Festival of Barcelona, the Madrid Autumn Festival and the San Sebastian International Film Festival. That city in the Basque country also hosts the annual San Sebastian Jazz Festival.

Mérida in the province of Badajoz has a rich Roman heritage and what better place to watch plays and operas than in a Roman theatre. The Festival of Classical Theatre is held there every July and August.

Guitar and flamenco aficionados should make their way to Córdoba in July for the Festival de Córdoba, an International guitar festival that takes place in the gardens of the Alcazar, whilst Spain´s best flamenco singers and dancers appear at the Jerez Flamenco Festival. The town is also the venue of the Feria del Caballo, a horse fair held every year in May.

Saints

There are thousands more fiestas in Spain including many religious festivals that celebrate a town's patron saint - not just solemn religious parades but singing, dancing, eating, drinking, bullfights and fireworks!

Everyday of the Spanish Calendar is a Saint Day; there are actually more than 365 Saints! Many Spanish people are named after the day they were born so many people born on March 19 are called José. Some people are named after the patron saint of the town in which they were born so there are lots of women called Pilar in Zaragoza. Every Saint is celebrated at some time during the year somewhere in Spain - even San Blas the patron saint of sore throats!

Spain would be much poorer in every sense if there were no fiestas. They are a symbol of the Spanish people - colourful, vibrant, usually extremely noisy and great fun!

fiesta in Ugíjar, Alpujarras © Robert Bovington
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