Peacock feathers and burnt-out boats
"If the Christians always win the war, why do you want to be on the side of the losers?" is a question José Luis Martínez is frequently asked by strangers. "Because the Moors have the most flamboyant costumes and the best music." is his stock reply. And in his ornately embroidered deep blue robe, topped with an ostrich plumed turban, he looks the very image of a conquering caliph - even if custom requires that he always surrenders after two days.
The fiesta of the Moros y Cristianos is celebrated throughout Spain, marking the banishment of the Moors in 1492 from the Iberian Peninsula. Even though the city only took the fiesta to its heart in 1989 it is a perfect example of why Benidorm now has more fiestas than any other Spanish city - said to be fifty-eight celebrated annually.
A dictionary will tell you that a fiesta is a feast, entertainment, a party, but in the Spanish heart and culture a fiesta defines your birthright, your family, the town you were born in or the historical circumstances that influenced your upbringing.
In the 60's and 70's, when Benidorm began to grow as one of Europe's favourite holiday destinations, workers came from every corner of Spain. With them they brought their traditions, their food and their customs. Like ex-patriot societies world-wide, they established associations to keep alive the memory of their individual cultural heritages and celebrate their Saint's Days, until eventually almost every major (and often many minor) fiesta celebrated in Spain could be found enlivening the streets of Benidorm.
The fiesta of the Moors and Christians is the most extravagant - three days of feasting and merriment, the highlight of which is the parade of the filaes, massed ranks of the individual companies of Moors and Christians in their gorgeously outrageous costumes. (Each year a Moor King and a Christian King is elected and it's said that each can pay up to twenty thousand pounds for his hand embroidered, jewel encrusted costume.) Tightly packed rows of caped Christians wearing gleaming helmets and burnished breastplates sway slowly forward to the mesmeric rhythm of the musica festera, the unique music played throughout the streets on these special occasions. Behind them, formations of bearded Moors follow the same beat, as their glistening silk robes and bejewelled, peacock-feathered headgear reflect the multicoloured fantasy lights strung across the streets above the shimmering scimitars which rest on the invaders shoulders.
In a resort dedicated to tourism it would be easy to imagine that these displays were primarily for the benefit of the visitor, but this is not, and never has been, the case. Benidorm has often hidden its light under a bushel when it comes to promoting the large program of cultural events it commissions each year, but the fiestas are the domain of each individual peña (club), cultural association or even the few streets which define the many barrios of the city. And not all fiestas have the pomp and ceremony of the Moors and Christians.
Officially beginning in the second week of November, Las Fiestas Patronales celebrates Benidorm's Patron saints, El Virgen del Suffrage and Jaime Apostol. Officially it lasts five days, but is now proceeded by sporting and cultural events encompassing everything from football and underwater photography to sea fishing competitions and concerts. The religious aspects of the fiesta include the offering of flowers to the Virgen, but this is no mere presentation of a ribbon-wrapped corsage. The parade of supplicants snake through the streets of the old town carrying large bunches of fresh blossoms. In the plaza in front of the Iglesia de San Jaime, the church on the promontory of the old town, the bouquets are hurled up to nimble fingered catchers who interweave the floral tributes through an enormous screen that surrounds the main entrance to the church. A brilliant floral mural is built, which stays there for the remainder of the fiesta.
To recreate the arrival in Benidorm of the Virgen del Sufragio, La Barqueta, Benidorm's cultural association, enact the discovery of a ship on Poneinte beach on the evening of 15 March, 1740. It was set on fire for fear of plague, only to reveal later the miraculously unscathed wooden statue of the Virgen in the smouldering ashes.
Staged in period costume, the celebration of the arrival of the Virgen attracts enormous crowds and comes as a complete surprise to anyone who has never thought of Benidorm as anything other than a frivolous fortnight by the sea.
La Barqueta (named after the 'little boat' in which the Virgen was delivered to the pueblo) are highly active in presenting the history of the city to visitors and residents alike. But they are just one of the many organisations which exist to unlock the cultural and historical insights to be found in the cobbled streets and vibrant fiestas of Benidorm.