Villajoyosa may only be a little town, with a touch over 30,000 people. But its Moros y Cristianos fiesta 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 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 (as Villajoyosa is known in Valenciano) back in July 1538.
That attack actually came nearly 50 years after the final expulsion of the Moors 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 Moorish 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.
Take a look at a video of the 2018 fiesta here:
Procession of the Moors
The Moros y Cristianos fiesta in Villajoyosa 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.
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.
Procession of the Christians
The following day, it’s the turn of los Cristianos to put on a show. Each side – Moros and Cristianos both – are divided up into 11 companies, all with extravagantly tailored costumes. They’re led by an elegant capitan or capitana and followed by a band with drums rattling and roaring in the evening heat.
El Desembarco – the landing!
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 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 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 full-blown 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. Well worth a look – it’s on till April 2023.
© Guy Pelham
For more on La Vila, check out these posts: