The Moros y Cristianos fiesta in Villajoyosa is famous across Spain. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else.
Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians) fiestas are celebrated all over this part of eastern Spain. They commemorate Christian victories 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 special 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 an assault by Berber corsairs from North Africa on La Vila Joiosa (as Villajoyosa is known in Valenciano) back in July 1538.
That attack actually came nearly 50 years after the Moors were expelled from Spain. But corsairs from North Africa kept coming back to raid the coastal towns in search of slaves and plunder.
This time though, they were defeated. 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 grateful locals (los vileros) made her their patron saint in return.
In reality, the attackers were defeated by militias sent from all over this part of Spain. But Santa Marta got all the credit and La Vila’s fiesta is held in her honour in the last week of July.
The fiesta is simply spectacular and the costumes are wonderful – take a look at some highlights in the video below.
Procession of the Christians
Don’t miss the amazingly colourful processions through the town. Check out the programme of events for 2023 here.
This year – 2023 – the Christians kick things off on the Tuesday night (the Moros and Cristianos take it in turns to go first from year to year).
They march, strut, and dance along Carrer Colón through the centre of town to the Plaça de la Generalitat. Each company is led by an elegant capitan or capitana and followed by a band with drums rattling and roaring in the evening heat.
Procession of the Moors
The following night (Wednesday 26th this year) it’ll be the the turn of los Moros – their procession usually takes around four noisily colourful hours to pass through the centre of La Vila.
Moorish warriors, Fiesta de Moros y Cristianos Villajoyosa
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.
El Desembarco – the landing!
The night of the Desembarco is sleepless. Just as well really, as you have to be up and about really early to watch it all. Air bomb fireworks explode thunderously above the seafront every few minutes throughout the night just to make sure you don’t doze off.
Around 3am on Friday, 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 replica sailing ships.
As the crowds gather to watch on La Vila’s main beach, at around 5am, 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 and with much flowery language – 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.
Take a look at this video of El Desembarco:
Some 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 with a fiesta for around 250 years now. 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.
When times were hard, La Vila couldn’t always afford a full-blown fiesta. In the first half of the 20th century, it was only held four times. Epidemics, economic crises and the Civil War got in the way.
But La Vila did get lucky in 1900. The townsfolk won ‘El Gordo’, the famously huge Christmas lottery, and decided to spent 25,000 pesetas prize money on a proper fiesta for the next couple of years.
There are plenty more fascinating facts in an excellent exhibition at La Vila museum, on the history and traditions of the fiesta over the centuries.
© Guy Pelham
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