Villajoyosa is only a little town, with a touch over 30,000 people. But it has two claims to fame. Firstly chocolate – it’s Spain’s undisputed capital of chocolate.
The other is its Moros y Cristianos fiesta. It’s unlike any other in Spain – and let’s face it, there’s quite a lot of competition in that department.
All over this part of eastern Spain, Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians) fiestas celebrate the Christian victory over the Muslim conquerors from North Africa, who invaded the peninsula in 711 and ruled for the best part of 800 years.
But what makes Villajoyosa’s fiesta unique is the desembarco (beach landing) by a flotilla of little ships full of costumed Moors, attacking a replica fortress built on the sands. It’s a re-creation of a Moorish assault on La Vila Joiosa (Villajoyosa in the local Valenciano language) back in 1538.
That attack came nearly 50 years after the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain. But corsairs from North Africa still returned to raid the coastal towns in search of slaves and plunder.
This time, they lost out, thanks – so the legend says – to the miraculous intervention of Santa Marta, who conjured up a storm and the resulting flood overwhelmed the Moorish fleet. The suitably grateful locals (los vileros) made her their patron saint in return, so La Vila’s fiesta is held in her honour in the last week of July.
El Desfile de Los Moros, Villajoyosa
Fiesta week kicks off with spectacular processions through the town – the Desfile de los Moros (Procession of the Moors) takes nearly four noisily colourful hours to pass along the main street.
The costumes are simply gorgeous, each group trying to outdo the others in their finery. You might think not many people would want to be Moros – they did get defeated, after all – but the fact is that the Moors do get to wear the best outfits, so they’re not short of volunteers. Stately camels, prancing horses and extravagant floats that just manage to scrape under the overhead street lights are all part of the spectacle.
The following day, it’s the turn of los Cristianos to put on a show. Extravagantly dressed festeros come from all over the region to join the fun, each marching group led by an elegant capitan/a, and followed by a band with drums rattling and roaring in the evening heat.
The Friday night is sleepless. Air bomb fireworks exploding thunderously above the seafront every few minutes throughout the night keep the whole town awake. Before dawn, the Moros (who frankly don’t take the Muslim ban on alcohol very seriously) head noisily for the fishing port and board their fleet of 20 replica sailing ships.
As the crowds gather to watch on La Vila’s main beach, the Cristianos run down to defend the castle. Powerful spotlights pierce the pre-dawn darkness and pick out the Moorish fleet bobbing about offshore. They’re greeted by the roar of replica cannons, and a continuous spattering of bangs and crashes from replica firearms discharged enthusiastically by the Christian defenders.
As the skies brighten around six in the morning, the Rey Moro (Moorish king) rides up to the castle on the sands and demands that the town surrenders. The Rey Cristiano invites him – at great length – to take a hike.
Sadly, there’s no pitched battle though. The would-be Moorish invaders jump from their ships into the sea and swim for the beach. And the show’s over for another year.
Some might argue that Moros y Cristianos fiestas aren’t exactly politically correct these days. But here in La Vila, they’ve been celebrating the town’s deliverance from the invader with a fiesta for around 250 years now, and it’s firmly embedded in the town’s culture.
It’s a week of noise and music, heat and colour, a unique spectacle recognised by the Spanish government as being of Interés Turístico International. In other words, it’s really quite something. Catch it if you can.
© Guy Pelham 2018