A search has been started to identify the final resting place of Spain’s best known author, Miguel de Cervantes whose most famous work ‘Don Quixote’ has been translated into 60 languages.
In most cities, towns and villages in Spain, there is a special focal point for Christmas; that of the nativity scene, known as a ‘belén’ (Spanish for Bethlehem) which is set up in the town square or besides the church. In some villages, just the main characters in the story of the birth of Jesus are represented, whilst in larger towns, very elaborate beléns are set up which may include allegories of the town and surrounding area, as well as the main story.
The First Beléns
According to legend, St Francis, whilst on his pilgrimage to Holy places, celebrated Mass on Christmas Eve 1223 in a cave in a little Italian town called Greccio. He set up a living representation of the birth of Christ for the townspeople including a donkey and an ox. This is therefore considered to be the first ever ‘belén’. The same legend says that because it was so cold, St Francis used a doll to represent the baby Jesus. At the moment representing the birth of Jesus, the doll began to cry.
The first Belén using figures on record was created by Arnolfo di Cambio in Florence in 1289 using white marble. Part of this original scene is still preserved to this day in Rome. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, churches throughout Italy were decorated at Christmas with beautiful nativity scenes created by famous artists such as Andrea della Robbia.
Beléns in Spain
The belén was introduced to Spain by the Franciscan monks in the fifteenth century. The oldest surviving Spanish Belén dates from the sixteenth century and is called the ‘Belén de Coral’. It is housed in the Monasterio de las Delcalzas Reales in Madrid and is made of coral, bronze and silver. Carlos III had a belén created for his son, Carlos IV, which had more than 200 figures created by the Valencian artists José Estévez Bonet and José Ginés Marín and the artist from Murcia known as Salzillo. This belén is known as ‘El belén del Principe’ and many of the figures are preserved in the Royal Palace. It’s nice to think that the Royal children will be able to look at the same figures as all their forebears. Salzillo became, in effect, the father of the craft of creating Beléns in Spain; a craft which is continued to this day by skilled artists.
It is part of the tradition of Spain for the children of the family to be taken along to see the nativity scenes in much the same way as children in other parts of Europe will be taken to see Santa.
One of the best known, and most controversial, annual festivals in Spain takes place in early July in Pamplona. The week long festival is held in honour of San Fermin, said to have been the first Bishop of Pamplona who was decapitated in the third century AD. He is the patron saint of boot makers, wine traders and bakers and is co-patron, with St Francis Xavier, of the Spanish province of Navarre.
History of the Festival
So, how did a Bishop get involved in the annual bull running event made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’? The Festival dates back to the 12th Century and was a mixture of reverence to the saint, markets and bullfights. Originally, the festival was only two days long and was held in October until the constant bad weather persuaded the people of Pamplona to move the date to July in 1591.
Over the centuries more events such as music, dance, fairground attractions and parades were added to the religious aspect, causing some concern amongst the clergy, but at the heart of the festival, there was always the running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona and the bullfights.
From July 7-14, every morning at 8am, the bulls are let loose into the streets in an event called ‘el encierro‘. They run between a special holding corral and the bullring, covering a distance of 825 metres. In times gone by, it was the easiest way to get the bulls from outside the city into the bullring. As the bulls ran, young men would run in front of them to prove their bravery.
This has now become the most famous part of the whole event as television channels the world over show the bulls with hordes of young people, dressed in white with scarves showing which peña, or fan club, they belong to around their necks, running in front of them or trying to touch them. Usually between 10 and 12 bulls are released every morning. The route is lined with a double fence which stops the bulls from running into side streets. There is a gap large enough between the barriers to allow people to escape but not the bulls. Every year, however, many people are injured during the event. Some are trampled, some are knocked down and some are gored by the maddened bulls. Surprisingly, there have only been fifteen deaths since records began in 1924.
Once the bulls reach the bullring, they are separated out and the best ones are chosen for the bullfights which takes place in the evening. Tickets for the ‘corrida‘ as it is known in Spanish are much sought after.
Stages of the Bull Fight
The first part of the bullfight is when the bull enters the ring and the matador watches as the ‘banderilleros’ use capes to attract the bull. The matador watches the bull to see how he moves and if he favours one area of the arena over another. He also looks for any weaknesses the bull may have. The matador will make certain passes with his cape, at this point usually pink on one side and gold on the other, at the bull, decided by hundreds of years of tradition. The dazzling outfit worn by the matador is known as a ‘traje de luces’ or ‘suit of lights’
Next, the two picadors will enter the ring with their horses blindfolded and padded. They each carry a lance which they will use to attempt to stab into the large muscle of the bull’s neck. The horses are very highly trained and can turn instantly but they are on occasion injured and indeed killed. The use of the lances by the picadors will cause the bull to start losing blood which will weaken him. A judge will decide when the picadors have hit the bull enough times to cause the right level of weakness and the matador may ask for further attacks to be made.
Then the banderilleros will re-enter the ring. Their job is to attempt to plant brightly-coloured sticks with sharp barbs into the shoulders of the bull. This further weakens the bull and obviously causes even more loss of blood.
Finally, the matador will re-enter the ring carrying a small red cape (the colour doesn’t matter as bulls are colour-blind; it is just tradition that dictates the colour) and a sword. The cape is stretched out either by using a piece of wood or at times, the sword. The matador will then make several passes with the cape, getting as close to the bull as he dare. The idea is to show his control and his ability. It is at this point that the matador is most in danger and many have been gored by being careless or losing concentration at a crucial moment. Doctors are always on hand to deal instantly with any injuries. Again, there are traditional moves that are made with the cape, with certain passes being seen by the crowds as more impressive than others. Finally, the matador will try and get close enough to kill the bull with a thrust of the sword at an exact point which goes through the spine and into the aorta.
If the matador fails to make a clean kill he is not only booed by the crowd but is disgraced. The bull will be quickly killed to spare it any further suffering. The entire fight takes fifteen minutes with horns sounded at each point to warn the matador of the time he has left to complete his task. The crowd may choose to save the bull by waving handkerchiefs. The matador will wait for a decision from the President of the Bullfight who will make the final decision. If he hangs out an orange handkerchief, the bull will be allowed to live and will be retired and used for stud. This, however, virtually never happens. Bulls are never used in the ring twice
Art or Cruelty?
Every year, there are protests by animal rights campaigners against the San Fermin fiesta but it would seem that the tradition is so entrenched in Pamplona that it is unlikely that the event will end. Many thousands of people travel from all over the world to watch the bull running and the bullfights, providing a much needed boost to the local economy.These days, many Spaniards are against bull fighting but there are many more who consider bull fighting to be an art form, a spectacular dance to the death between man and beast.
The main fiesta on the Spain’s Costa Blanca in June is the Hogueras, celebrated in the week or so leading up to the Noche de San Juan on 24 June. Most of the towns in the Costa Blanca area join in the celebrations, but the biggest display by far is in the city of Alicante.
The festival owes its origins to pagan times and coincides with the summer solstice. Traditionally, old bits of furniture or other unused wood was burnt on bonfires. Nowadays, however, special creations, called “niñots,” are made depicting everything from cartoon characters to caricatures of local and national politicians, in a similar way to the Fallas celebration that takes place in March in Valencia.
Niñots in the Streets of Alicante
These are made by skilled craftsmen who spend all year coming up with the designs and building the models. They can cost thousands of Euros to make. The models are put on display in the streets of each town for a week or so prior to the 24th June. In Alicante, the models tend to be huge and very impressive. Prizes are awarded for the best ones and the winner is saved from destruction to go on display in the Hogueras museum.
Next to each model is an open air café where people who have paid towards the building of that particular Hoguera (or Foguera in the local Valencian dialect) can sit and enjoy a drink or tapas during the festivities. Quite often patrons will get up and dance enthusiastically, either to bands or to piped music. These bars are called “barracas” and some are open to the general public too.
Burning of the Hogueras
Then on the big night, all the Hogueras are set on fire, accompanied by fireworks from the castle overlooking the city of Alicante and along the port area and the cheering of the crowds who usually end up with a soaking from the fire brigade who are on hand to make sure that everything stays more or less under control. The children especially enjoy that part of the proceedings!
There are usually events such as giant paella making competitions, verbenas (open air dances) and competitions for the children during Hogueras week. A special beauty queen, called the “Belleza de Foc” (Beauty of the Fire) is chosen and she is expected to take a leading role in the fiesta plus continue with various civic duties through the year. Usually, the “Belleza” wears a traditional costume with a huge skirt and a lace “mantilla” or head-dress which are specially made and cost a fortune. There is also a junior “Belleza” and both are accompanied by two princesses.
The festival is very popular with tourists and locals alike, with huge crowds in the streets and a week long party atmosphere. Not to be missed if you are going to be on the Costa Blanca in June.
Santiago, or St James in English, was one of Jesus’s disciples and travelled to Spain to preach the Christian belief. He returned to Jerusalem and was promptly beheaded by King Herod. His followers managed to return his body to Spain although the exact site of his burial was lost over time. According to legend, his tomb was found in the ninth century by a hermit who saw strange lights and heard noises in a wood near where it was thought that St James had been buried. The hermit reported these strange phenomena to the Bishop who set out to investigate. A body was found, accompanied by two others which were believed to be the bodies of the two people who had been sent with Santiago’s body to guard over it and who, when they in time died, had been buried next to him.
Legend of Santiago
King Alfonso II ordered a church to be built on the site which has now evolved into the magnificent building which is the Basilica of Santiago de Compostela. What really set St James up as patron saint of Spain was the legend of the Battle of Clavijo between the Spanish and the Moors, who had invaded most of Spain in the eighth century. Only the most northern provinces had not been subdued.Legend has it that the Spanish troops were being forced back by the soldiers of Abd ar Rahman II when a knight on a white horse appeared miraculously to encourage them and lead them on to victory. The knight was said to be Santiago who from then on was given the appellation of ‘Matamoros’ or ‘Moorslayer’. Interestingly, historians in recent times have dismissed the idea of the Battle of Clavijo. Reference to it is only found in documents dating from much later, in the twelfth century.
Whatever the truth, Santiago became the patron saint of Spain and many people have travelled the ‘Camino de Santiago’, a pilgrimage road that leads from France though northern Spain to the great cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the saint’s body lies in a magnificent tomb. The people who travel the road number in the hundreds every year and are not necessarily religious.
Santiago is a big feature of many festivals in Galicia especially at Easter but he has his own special day on July 25. This is by far the biggest and most important of the feast days. Firstly, the day is a public holiday in Galicia and Pais Vasco (Basque Country) so that everyone can enjoy the fun. Special church services are held in the magnificent cathedral with a very large incense burner (Botafumeiro) swinging across the altar pouring out scented smoke that fill the building.
There are also art exhibitions, plays and street events such as folk dancing. Music is very much part of Galician tradition with bagpipes an important instrument. A huge concert is held on the night of the fiesta featuring big names in the pop world, with the obligatory fireworks display as the finale.
Santiago even has his own cake,the origins of which are believed to date back to medieval times, made with almonds and featuring a cross of the Order of Santiago on the top. Known as ‘tarta de Santiago‘, the cake is eaten all year round but is particularly popular on his feast day.
Don Quixote is famous for confusing windmills with giants in one of the most well known novels in Spanish literature set in the province of Castilla La Mancha. However, he could have just as much fun with the windmills that are dotted along the Costa Blanca and Costa Cálida in southern Spain.
Windmills in Torre Pacheco
Many town councils have spent time and money restoring the windmills of the region, most of which date to around the nineteenth century. Torre Pacheco in particular has restored four of the fourteen windmills within its jurisdiction and plans to restore the rest over time. In fact, the Tourist Information Office in the town centre has produced a brochure for a ‘Windmill Tour’ that can be followed around the town and its surroundings. Every April, a special ‘Windmill Fiesta’ takes place where the mills are set working and events are organized explaining how the windmills were an important part of the agricultural process in the area.
The earliest reference to windmills dates back as far as the early 1300’s, when their main use was for the grinding of flour. The first documentary evidence that shows the existence of windmills in the Torre Pacheco area dates from the late 18th century. These documents make reference to a Mr. Felix who was given a lease of a flour windmill.
By the late 19th century, windmills were also being built for raising water to irrigate the land for the growing of crops, although this was mainly in the Cartagena area of Murcia province. Several of these windmills, sadly now in ruins, can be seen as you travel along the AP7 motorway towards Cartagena, south from Alicante.
Windmills in San Pedro del Pinatar
Another town with well-preserved windmills is San Pedro del Pinatar which has two, one either end of the walkway that heads out into the Mar Menor near the mud baths. The town is a very popular holiday resort and during the summer, the walkway between the windmills is filled with happy families ‘promenading’ in traditional Spanish fashion of an evening.
The city of Torrevieja also has a restored windmill, situated just on the outskirts of the main town centre which was unfortunately recently vandalized. However, the town hall and the family who have been responsible for the upkeep of the windmill for many years worked hard together to restore it once again, although the sails themselves have not been replaced.
These windmills are an integral part of the history of agriculture in the region, as well as being beautiful to look at, so saddle up Rosinante, sharpen your lance and head out to have a look!
Flamenco dancing is seen as one of the most typical images of Spain. The music, the swirling dresses, the stamping feet all add to the magic of this beautiful dance form.
With the economic crisis, however, more and more dancers are having to leave their native Spain to find work. There are at least 44 Flamenco festivals held round the world in places as diverse as Poland, Turkey, Japan and Canada.
Composer Miguel Marín says “There is a market for flamenco around the world — what we need now is for supply to adapt to the demand. In the majority of countries they pay from around 10 percent to 50 percent less than in Spain; nevertheless in Japan they pay more than at home.”
Although they know that they will get paid less, performers still move abroad because they know they will get far more opportunities to dance. Britain and the USA are currently the biggest markets for Flamenco festivals.
Flamenco, which covers the dance style, the singing and the guitar playing that go with it, originated in southern Spain, in Andalucia, and was originally associated with the Romani (or Gypsy) people. It was first mentioned in literature in 1774. No-one is quite sure how the name came out. Literally translated in modern Spanish it would come out as ‘flamingo’ but it’s believed that originally the name grew from ‘flama’ which is flame or fire and describes the dramatic style beautifully. The proud bearing of the women dancers with their graceful arm movements and rapidly stamping feet of the more traditional style has developed, like other dance forms, into more free flowing moves such as those performed by perhaps the best known male dancer, Joaquín Cortés.
So popular has the dance become that you will most probably be able to go along to a class in your local city to learn the most basic style, known as ‘Sevillanas’ or attend a performance by some of the world’s best known performers at festivals in cities like London, New York, Tokyo, Moscow and many more.
The turbulent times of the Spanish Civil War produced many great works, including the poems of Miguel Hernández.
Miguel Hernández is possibly one of Spain’s best known poets of modern times, especially due to his activities and tragic death during the Spanish Civil War. He came from the city of Orihuela, in the province of Alicante, an old and beautiful city. However, his family was poor and he had little education until the priest of his local church took him under his wing and taught him to read and enjoy both the classic Spanish authors such as Miguel Cervantes, who wrote the most iconic Spanish novel of all time Don Quixote, and the more modern writers working in Spain at that time.
He wanted to establish a literary career so at the tender age of 21 headed for the capital Madrid to seek his fortune. Sadly, his money ran out quickly and he was forced to return home but he was not discouraged and tried several times over the next two years to get himself and his work noticed in Madrid. He was jubilant when his first book was published when he was 23 and his first play came out the next year.
Miguel Hernández and Friends
In 1934, during already turbulent times, he returned to Madrid and became friendly with now famous writers such as Pablo Neruda, Garcia Lorca and Luis Cernuda. Miguel Hernández helped Neruda in the publishing of a journal called Caballo Verde de Poesia (Poetry’s Green Knight) which became a popular and influential source for writers and readers. Around 1936, he became more interested in the Republican cause, no doubt due to the influence of his writer friends at that time, publishing El Rayo Que No Cesa (Unceasing Lightning). He had been in love with Josefina Manresa since they were children and they decided to get married in 1937. Sadly, the son they had, Manuel Román died just a year after his birth, an event that had a deep and lasting impact on Hernández and his work.
Spanish Civil War
By now, the Spanish Civil War, which started in 1936, was reaching its worst moments and Miguel Hernández joined the Republican army, those who were fighting against the forces of General Franco. The poetry that he wrote around this time focuses on the horror of war, with poems such as “Viento del Pueblo” (1937) and “El Hombre Acecha” (1938) being particular examples.
In 1939, the Republican resistance began to collapse and Hernández tried to escape to Portugal. However, he was captured by the Guardia Civil, an elite Para-military police force, and taken to Madrid where he was thrown into prison. Being imprisoned did not stop him from writing, though. He still had friends in high places and was thus able to return briefly to his home town of Orihuela before being arrested again. Tragically, the conditions in the prisons led to him contracting the lung disease tuberculosis and being moved from prison to prison over the next three years only made his health worse.
However, it was during this time of great hardship that he produced what poetry experts consider to be his best work such as “Todo Era Azul” (Everything is Blue) and “Eterna Sombra” (Eternal Shadow) from which comes this poignant verse:
Soy una abierta ventana que escucha,
por donde ver tenebrosa la vida.
Pero hay un rayo de sol en la lucha
que siempre deja la sombra vencida.
(I am an open window that listens
From where life can be seen as frightening
But there is a ray of sunlight in the battle
That always defeats the shadow)
Death of Miguel Hernández
He was still in prison, away from his family and friends, when he died on March 28, 1942 at just 31 years of age. Just before his death, he was able to write one more short poem, said to be written on the wall beside his bed in prison, “Farewell, brothers, comrades, friends: Give my goodbyes to the sun and the wheat fields.”
The Miguel Hernández website is dedicated to the poet, and his old home in Orihuela has been transformed into a museum where items he used can be seen and the small garden he sat in can also be visited.
The Easter processions of ‘Semana Santa’ are part of the most important fiesta in the Spanish religious calendar. In virtually every town and village, huge floats called ‘pasos’ with statues depicting scenes from the life and death of Jesus are carried in solemn processions this week. Each ‘paso’ is carried by a particular group, called a ‘cofradia.’
The statues that are carried are beautifully made and are treasured and protected by the cofradias throughout the year before being dressed, covered in flowers and mounted on the pasos for the big event of the year. The processions take place throughout Holy Week (Semana Santa), starting on Palm Sunday and finishing on Easter Sunday.
Spain’s most famous sculptor of these figures was Francisco Salzillo (1707 – 1783), considered by some to have been one of the great Spanish sculptors of the 18th century and by others to be nothing more than a folk artist. He was born in the city of Murcia in southern Spain, where there is now a museum dedicated to his life and work. He always worked in polychromed wood and his first statue, of St. Ines de Montepulciano, was completed when he was just twenty. The work had been begun by his father, an Italian who had moved to Murcia to work alongside Nicolás de Bussy, but was completed by the young Francisco.
Among his most famous works are a ‘Last Supper,’ created in 1763 and depicting Jesus and his twelve apostles seated around a table and ‘The Agony in the Garden’ created in 1754 which shows an angel showing Jesus a chalice whilst three apostles sleep under a palm tree. The ‘Last Supper’ has undergone restoration recently and appears at the Easter procession on Good Friday in Murcia City. Francisco Salzillo also created a magnificent ‘Belén’ or Nativity Scene for Jesualdo Riquelme y Fontes, a Murcian Marquis, consisting of 556 pieces, many of them created from life models of workers in and around the city of Murcia at the time.
Salzillo Museum in Murcia
During the Spanish Civil War (1936- 1939) many of Salzillo’s works were destroyed but enough remain to show the mastery of the sculptor and to make the museum dedicated to his life and work well worth a visit.