Tag Archives: El Cid

Travels in Spain, Alcoy and the Festival of the Moors and the Christians

I do like Spanish carnivals and I have always been keen to see a Festival of Moors and Christians which take place regularly throughout the year mostly in the province of Valencia in the Levante region of Spain.

Earlier this year I was trawling the airline web sites and reconciling these to suitable events and came across the perfect combination; cheap flights to Alicante and one of the most famous of all these festivals in the nearby town of Alcoy near to Benidorm and with dates that matched perfectly,  I didn’t take a lot of persuading to book the flights.

Finding a hotel was a lot more difficult, Alcoy gets rather busy during the three day festival and the nearest that I could find at a price that suits my skinflint budget was twenty miles away in the village of Confrides near to Guadalest.

The Festival of Moors and Christians celebrates the seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 which has long been known to historians of Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and the Spanish have organised and interpreted their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become an established feature of the self-image of the Spanish people.  It has become embellished into a sort of organised Catholic national crusade but it is a confusing story because Spain has largely embraced its Muslim occupation as a proud part of its history.

In popular culture the reconquest has been raised to the status of a crusade and the expulsion of the Moors as liberation from an occupying army but this is not strictly the case and it would be wrong to interpret it in this way.  At this time Córdoba became the largest, richest and most sophisticated city in Western Europe.  Mediterranean trade and cultural exchange flourished.  Muslims imported a rich intellectual tradition from the Middle East and North Africa and Muslim and Jewish scholars played an important part in reviving and expanding classical Greek learning in Western Europe.

The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and in eastern Iberia the Moors created the landscape of the region. After irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. The terraces seen on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.

As it is essentially a celebration the people of the town and the surrounding villages split themselves equally into Moors and Christians and then organise grand parades and mock battles to tell the story of the ‘Reconquista’.

After meeting Mick and Lindsay (my sister and her husband) we began by driving from the airport directly to our hotel and when I say directly I use this term in the loosest possible sense because the mountain drive from Alicante to Confrides is anything but direct with roads that sweep and climb and rise and fall around the contours of the pepper grey mountains decorated with sprawling orchards and fruit trees.

Just a few miles out of Alicante and we noticed something pretty dramatic – suddenly, almost within the turn of a corner, the landscape changed from brown and arid to green and mountainous; the high-rise concrete hotels gave way to pretty villages and we found myself in lush valleys of oranges, almonds and lemon groves.

We were delighted with the hotel, a simple place on a bend in the road that provided excellent views along the fertile valley.  There is nothing boutique about Pensión El Pirineo just a down-to-earth place with unpretentious rooms and a promising menu so we booked a table for later and made our way to Alcoy.

The town was busy and parking was difficult but eventually we squeezed into a spot along a dusty track and made our way on foot to the Plaza Major which was anticipating the procession of the Moors.  The Christians had arrived earlier this morning so we had missed that already.  The procession was timed for five o’clock and as the event got closer the square was filled to bursting with people taking up their positions ready for the parade.

It was mad, chaotic and disorganised.  In my last job once a year I helped organise a street parade in Spalding in Lincolnshire but by the time it stopped forever the police and the health and safety fanatics had squeezed the life out of it but this was not a problem in Alcoy I can tell you as people pushed and shoved and wandered around unrestricted on the parade route.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect but it was wonderful. The Moors arrived on horseback and in marching columns some in historically accurate uniforms but others with a very loose interpretation of Moorish costumes. – rather more carnival theatre than history.

The Festival lasts for three days and is all rather intense so we were happy with our one afternoon, this year we saw the parade, maybe next year we will return for the final day siege.  As it happened we had to battle our way out of the town as people filled the streets and the bars and the festivities continued on every street corner and we felt happy to have shared a happy slice of Spanish life and culture.

We shared another slice of Spanish life later that evening back at Pensión El Pirineo where local people came and went through the bar and the restaurant and we savoured an evening of local cuisine and Murcian wine – it was delightful!

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Travels in Spain, Images of Alicante

Door Detail AlicanteShip and Storm AlicanteAlicante Sea ScultpturePrisoner Engraving AlicanteAlicante CathedralAlicante Castle SoldierAlicante Postcard

Travels in Spain, Icons

Don Quixote and Sancho PanzaRonda Bullring 1paellaFrancesco Pizzaro Trujillo Extremadura SpainConsuegra Windmills SpainEl Cid Burgos SpainEl Quinque Flamenco Show

Travels in Spain, Valencia and The Costa Blanca

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I am fairly certain that I have mentioned here before that I have a travel ambition to visit all of the seventeen Autonomous Communities of Spain.  So far I have managed fifteen but still need to add La Rioja and Navarre to my  list.  I could have chosen to go there this time but instead I went to the east coast where I have been previously.

I have been to Valencia and Murcia before and I have always said that it isn’t my favourite part of Spain but now my sister lives there so this provided an opportunity to visit and possibly make a reassessment.  I resolved that if possible that this should be a voyage of discovery.

This part of the east coast of Spain is called the Costa Blanca now but it is still quite often referred to by its once regional name of Levante from a time when the Moors had colonial ownership of the Iberian peninsular and had a heavy presence all along this Mediterranean coastline.

It is said that the name Costa Blanca was originally conceived as a promotional name by British European Airways when it first launched its air service between London and Valencia in 1957 at the start of the package holiday boom.  I think this may explain why I have always been a bit snooty about it because I have always associated it with concrete holiday resorts and as we flew in over Benidorm, gleaming like a shiny pin-cushion I was fairly certain that nothing short of dynamite was going to change my opinion.

Alicante Castle

This opinion exposes my prejudice and ignorance because the problem that I have is that I find it difficult to get an understanding of Valencia because you need to dig deep to find the true heritage of the place.  Nothing shouts out to me like the Flamenco of Andalucía, Don Quixote of Castilla-La Mancha or the Conquistadors of Extremadura, of Gaudi in Catalonia, the Camino Way of Galicia or tales of Saint James and the Reconquista in Castilla y Leon.

The only flimsy thing that I have ever had to go on was the story of El Cid and the battle with the Moors over the city of Valencia

Benidorm Spain

Allow me to go on; it has always concerned me that there are a great many British living in this part of Spain, in Torrevieja alone there are about twelve thousand which accounts for about thirteen per cent of the entire population.  In fact the Spanish themselves are in the minority at only forty-eight per cent and soon it is estimated that in total there will be one million Brits living on the Costa Blanca.

It is not only British but also the Scandinavians and the Germans and the Dutch and even the Spanish themselves because as more immigrants arrive then more people from other regions of Spain head east for the jobs that are created. Valencia has some difficulty retaining and protecting its own identity and many local people lament the loss of heritage and language and tradition.

So I got a bigger spade and started to dig a bit deeper to try to learn something about Valencia other than the story of El Cid.

paella

I suppose I have to start with paella because although it has come to be regarded as the national dish of Spain it originated right here in Valencia.  When the Moors reached Alicante in 718 they discovered a pleasant climate perfect for growing crops that wouldn’t grow in Africa and set about turning this part of the peninsula into a centre of horticulture.

They developed a system of irrigation and exploited the wetlands that were created to grow rice.  Not just any rice however, not your supermarket economy rice, not Uncle Ben’s ‘boil in a bag’, but arroz bomba introduced from the east which has the perfect constituency to produce the dish.

These days people will add almost any ingredient to a paella but the true Valencian meal is always made of chicken, rabbit and white beans.  Most things work but I have a friend who adds liver and that doesn’t but then again I have strong culinary views on liver – avoid it at all costs – it takes offal.

valencia-oranges

The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and normally I would look for palaces and castles as a reminder of this time but in the Levante you have to look at the countryside because the Moors created the landscape of the region. After the irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. The terraces seen on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.  There are no olives or vines in Valencia just acres and acres of fruit that stretch as far as the eye can see.

In holiday brochures this might be the Costa Blanca but it has a less well-known alternative name – the Orange Blossom Coast which owes its name to the sharp, sweet smell of citrus that hangs in the Spring air.  Spain is Europe’s largest producer of oranges and two-thirds of these little balls of sunshine come from the region around Valencia.  The millions of orange trees are shiny green the year round, clothed in delicate white blossoms in spring and bright orange baubles in the autumn when each tree groans under the burden of some five hundred fruits.

We landed in Alicante in bright sunshine around about lunch time and after a short drive to the urbanisation of Quesada we immediately settled in to local life by finding a bar with some local tapas.  It was good to be in Spain once more.

Tapas Alicante

Travels in Spain – Off the Beaten Track (1)

If you are travelling to Spain and want to avoid the coast and the obvious tourist traps then let me make some suggestions…

Almagro in Castlla-La Mancha

almagro

“We are in the Spanish south.  The castanets click from coast to coast, the cicada hum through the night, the air is heavy with jasmine and orange blossom… the girls have black eyes and undulating carriages.”  –  Jan Morris,  ‘Spain’

Almagro is an old town that was once much more important than it is today, two hundred and fifty years ago it was for a short time the provincial capital of La Mancha (1750-61) but religious decline set in during the reign of Charles III and it fared badly and suffered damage in the Napoleonic and the Carlist wars.  Eventually it was eclipsed by its neighbours, Ciudad Real and Bolaños de Calatrava and it became the quiet town that it is today on, not being unkind, a secondary, less important, tourist trail.

At a hundred metres long and forty metres wide the Plaza Major is one of the finest in all of Spain, flanked on both sides by arcades of cream Tuscan columns, weathered by the years, supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of botella verde and fully glazed in a central European style that makes this place truly unique in all of Spain.  These galleries were originally open and used as grandstands for public events, religious festivals and even bullfights that were held here until 1785, when they were finally banned by King Carlos III.

Antequera in Andalucia

“For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain, in a country that I had longed my whole life to visit. In the quiet back streets of I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination.”  –  George Orwell

Antequera has always been an important place due its geographical position as it falls on a natural crossroads east/west between Seville and Granada and north/south between Malaga and Cordoba and the Moors built their most impregnable castle at this place to protect their possessions in Iberia.

Plaza San Sebastian is at the very bottom of the city at a busy roundabout junction where every major road in the city seems to converge, a bubbling pink marble water fountain, a modern monument that marks the junction of two Roman roads, a proud church, several grand buildings and overshadowed by the looming presence of the Alcazaba, a steep cobble-stoned hill climb away.  The steps are steep but lead to the castle gate and inside is the Plaza de Santa Maria dominated by the biggest church in town.

Girona in Catalonia

Girona Catalonia Spain

“I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than most countries.  How easy it is to make friends in Spain!” – George Orwell

This is a fine place – better than Barcelona!  The old town is packed onto a hillside alongside the river, which is spanned by a series of bridges that lead to the shopping area. One bridge leads to  Carrer de la Força, which, it’s hard to believe was once part of the Via Augusta, the road that led across Spain from Rome, and from the tenth to the end of the fifteenth century was the main street of one of Europe’s most important Jewish quarters.

The visitor will climb all the time but make frequent and sometimes pointless diversions into side streets and blind alleys, up steep steps and along difficult cobbled passageways, always grateful for shade in this labyrinth of enchanting lanes.

Eventually everyone will arrive in the square in front of Santa Maria Cathedral whose Baroque façade conceals an austere Gothic interior that was built around a previous Romanesque church, of which the cloisters and a single tower remain.  After the climb find the energy to climb the steps from the square to the Cathedral and go inside to visit the interior of the building and see the World’s widest Gothic nave and the second widest overall after St. Peter’s in Rome

Siguenza in Castilla-La Mancha

Plaza Mayor Siguenza Spain

“…Sigüenza, ninety miles from Madrid, remains a quiet spot in an empty landscape.  It sits among narrow valleys celebrated by Camilo José Celar in his ‘Journey to the Acarria’”  –  Christopher Howse – ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

Sigüenza has always occupied an important strategic geographical position in a narrow valley on the main road and railway line between Madrid and Aragon and Catalonia.  This is not a surprise, the Romans, the Moors and the Catholic Monarchs of the Reconquista had all previously fortified this place.

For a small town the cathedral is an immense building and one of the most important late Romanesque buildings in Spain which was built to symbolise the power of Bishop Don Bernardo who began construction in the twelfth century.  It has three naves and a main chapel with an ambulatory and a dome and around the outer walls are a series of commemorative chapels which reads like a who’s who of the local campaigns of the Reconquista.

Inside is the jewel of the Cathedral, the Chapel of St. Catherine which houses the sepulchre of Martín Vázquez de Arce where in what is regarded as one of the finest examples of Spanish funerary art is his alabaster statue decorated with the cross of Santiago as he lies serenely on his side while casually reading a giant book. The authors of the Spanish Generation of 1898 (a group of patriotic artists and philosophers) drew national attention to the statue by naming him ‘el doncel de Sigüenza’ – the boy of Sigüenza.

Siguenza Spain

In the Plaza Major café tables are arranged in the shadow of the South Tower which reaches high into the blue sky and has small-fortress like windows at regular intervals and the description fortress-like is rather appropriate because they bear the marks of shell damage inflicted on the building in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

Besalu Catalonia Spain

Travels in Spain – Statues

Francesco Pizzaro Trujillo Extremadura SpainBurgos Weary PilgrimDon Quixote Alcala de HenaresEl Cid Burgos SpainAntequera King FedinandPhilip IV and the Palacio Real

Travels in Spain – Andalucía, Malaga

Malaga Postcard

It was our final day in Andalucía.  The sun was shining.  We debated changing our plans.  We decided to stick to the agreed itinerary and drive to Málaga.  After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and headed south to the city which happens to be the birthplace of the artist Pablo Picasso, the actor Antonio Banderas and the golfer Miguel Ángel Jiménez.

It took about an hour to drive to the city and when we arrived I was horrified to discover just how big it is and difficult to navigate.  Málaga is the sixth largest city in Spain and the biggest most southerly city in all of Europe (apologies to Valletta which is slightly further south but only half the size).  Eventually we found a parking space in an underground car park and emerged from subterranean level blinking into bright sunlight somewhere close to the old town.

The journey had been stressful.  We needed a drink.  We found a pavement bar close to the centre and found a vacant table where we could examine the city map and get our bearings.

Malaga Andalucia Spain

It was Saturday and Málaga was busy.  There was a cruise ship in the harbour and tourists were wandering around like a plague of locusts, local people were out shopping (Kim reliably informs me that this is what people do on a Saturday morning) and the area was well provided for by roaming street entertainers.  We stayed for a while and after paying the staggeringly high bill then wandered off in the direction of the cathedral but we didn’t go inside because having just spent so much on a beer we were put off by the cost of admission so instead we made our way to the harbour and after that the beach.

Malaga Beach

It has to be said that this is a very good beach indeed and we walked for a couple of miles along a promenade which ran adjacent to a crescent arc of lush caramel sand and gentle blue water that softly caressed the inviting shoreline.  As we walked we assessed the beach restaurants where fresh fish and bubbling paella was being prepared on flaming barbeques and made a decision where we might eat.

Unfortunately we left this a bit late and by the time we had decided our first, second and third choices were all full up with no prospect of available tables for at least an hour or more.  So we walked some more and then some more again and when we guessed that the time might be right we returned to our first choice and luckily there was a table free and we enjoyed a meal of fresh red snapper and a house salad.  It tasted divine.

Malaga Cathedral

After lunch we walked back to the city centre and while Kim went to the shops I returned to the cathedral.  There was a service in place now which meant there was no longer an admission fee and because that is the sort of good luck that I really appreciate I took advantage of my good fortune, wandered inside and mingled with the worshippers until it was all over and then spent an agreeable thirty minutes exploring the church and the side chapels before stepping back into the sun-splashed streets.

Aging Hippies Costa Del Sol

I confess that I hadn’t been absolutely sure that I would like Malaga, it once had a reputation for boozy Brits and cheap holidays but this is a city that has thoroughly reinvented itself. Gone is its seedy reputation as a playground for misbehaving tourists and instead the capital of the Costa Del Sol has been revived as a cultural destination only narrowly missing out to Donostia-San Sebastián as the 2016 European Capital of Culture.  As I stepped out of the Cathedral I knew that I liked it here.

Malaga is a business hub and a tourist city now but it has a long and varied history.  The Romans built a city here and we walked alongside the ancient theatre, the Moors were here of course before the Reconquista and then the Christians built a castle on the site of an abandoned Alcazaba.

Malaga Bullring

Málaga was one of the locations where Muslim rule persisted the longest, having been part of the Emirate of Granada. While most other parts of the peninsula had already been won back the Moors still occupied Málaga. It was finally retaken by Christian forces in August 1487, only five years before the fall of Granada.  The Muslim inhabitants resisted assaults and artillery bombardments before hunger forced them to surrender – virtually the entire population was sold into slavery – that is Christian charity for you!

We paid the modest admission price and then climbed steadily towards the top.  The lower areas of the castle are functional and militaristic but at the top there is a Palace almost as good as that at the Alhambra with shaded gardens where sunshine was trying to break in like a thief, fine Moorish architecture and a sense that this was once a place not just of military muscle but also of intellectual appreciation of the finer things in mediaeval life.

When we arrived six hours earlier we wondered how we would fill the day as we waited for our flight home but as it happened the day was slipping away rapidly now as we left the castle and returned to the car park along a busy street that was filling up with local people out for a wander around the Saturday night streets.

We stopped at a bar for a final drink and watched the evening entertainment and then reluctantly paid up, left, returned to the car and drove to the airport for our late night flight back to UK.

We had enjoyed our few days in Andalucía but with so much more to see we agreed that we would surely have to return.

Malaga Street Entertainers