26 Apr 2009

Moros y Cristianos... a bit of Alicante madness!

I wanted to write about this rather peculiar and unique Spanish holiday last week, while I was participating in it, but too much work and getting over the fiesta itself kind of put a damper on my writing time!
Flag bearers of various Comparsas and the town of San Vicente starting off the parade.

Although celebrated in some other areas of the country, Moros y Cristianos is an event almost unique to the province of Alicante (previous link for wikipedia, more details at the Spanish wikipedia). It's a festival that commemorates the reconquest of Spain during the Middle Ages, a process that took seven centuries after the initial Arab invasion in 711. It officially ended in January 1492 when the "Reyes Católicos" Isabel and Ferdinand conquered Granada, the final Moorish kingdom in the Peninsula. As an anecdote, the treasure obtained by this victory, and the elation of the victory in itself, was the necessary boost for Isabel to give a certain Cristobal Colón the green light for an expedition to find a route to the Indies by sailing west... ;o) but I disgress!

What this festival/event recreates is the capture of Spanish territory (usually the town in which it's held) by the Moors, and then the reconquest by Christian troops (usually under the guidance of a Saint, most notably St George) a few centuries later. This is represented by a series of parades in which the "armies" of Moors drive out the Christians, that evening there is a "battle" and then the next day the Christian "armies" drive out the Moors. People (from kids to their grandparents) in the town belong to a "Comparsa" (an "army" or "battalion"?), either Moorish or Christian (Moors are usually more popular due to the more elaborate costumes), and pay a tidy sum of money to cover the expense of their costumes, and the maintenance of their headquarters where they get together to plan the event, organise dinners and during the holiday itself get together to feast and party (and drink like sponges!) after the parades. The comparsas have mostly historically significant names (from different moorish kingdoms or tribes, different Spanish kingdoms or Christian armies). They each have their typical costume/uniform, but sometimes they wear more elaborate ones, particularly if that year they have the honour of being the first or last group in the parade. The first group gets the "Capitanía", or captainship / kingship, the leader of the armies. Last group gets the "Alferecía", I guess the King's General? There's one of each for both Moors and Christians, and the roles get rotated between the different groups over the years (and within the group someone is designate capitán or alférez or embassador). These four comparsas usually have much bigger representation on the parade that year, with the "boato" composed of dancers and extra musicians (every group is accompanied by marching bands) and sometimes acrobats (depends on their budgets). Traditionally a more religious event (with an important role played by the local patron Saint), over the past several decades it has become much more festive and the traditions (such as allowing women to participate) become a bit more lax (in many towns, not all, see Alcoy).

Lasting several days, the big event is over 2-3. Day 1 hosts the parade with the Christians starting first followed by the Moors who are "chasing" them out of town. That evening there is an "embassy" where the Moorish Captain (or King, depends on town) sends his Ambassador to the Christian Captain/King and promises leniency to the population if they surrender (lots of proclamations in old Spanish, sounds very poetic!). As this never happens a "battle" ensues. The Christian troops are chased by the Moors, each shooting in the air an old firearm (arcabuz, dunno the translation, think renaissance-type musket) loaded with gunpowder, and damn those things are NOISY!!! The Captains continue the affair with a swordfight, ending with the Moors taking over the Castle. Then the next day the same events take place in the opposite order: first Moors being chased out by Christians, with in the evening (or next day) again the battle for the castle. At some point there will also be a flower offering by the different groups to the patron Saint.

In two towns in the Province the event has been declared of "International Touristic Interest": Alcoy (the most famous -and spectacular- with an important tradition passed down from father to son, held for over 150yrs during the feast of St George -San Jordi- on April 23rd) and La Villajoysa (in July, they actually set up a "desembarco" or "landing" of the Moorish troops!). I've never been to the holiday in La Vila, but I have been up to Alcoy twice and yes it is magnificent (but rather crowded)! But although the parades are always open to anyone willing to stand for several hours along the parade route (in some places you can find chairs), these fiestas are very much a local event, and if you want to get a real "feel" for them (and have a damn good party that night) then usually you need to know someone involved. So although Alcoy is supposedly the "place to be" for Moros y Cristianos, I prefer going to San Vicente del Raspeig (has celebrated "Moros" for almost 30yrs), the town smack next to Alicante (separated by the highway) where I have several friends who belong to Moorish Comparsas. And as I don't feel like scanning my old photos from Alcoy, all the ones you'll see here are from SanVi this year.

One of the main benefits of going to San Vicente for "Moros" (other than I have a place to crash for the night) is that it always takes place on a weekend! The Patron Saint honoured during the event is San Vicente Ferrer, whose feast day is the Monday a week after Easter (Alcoy is always around Apr. 23, San Jordi, they get all that week a holiday). And believe me, when participating fully in the madness that is "Moros" you need a day (or two, or three) to recover! In my case... I just saw the parades Sat & Sun (this year they decided to have each group parade just once, Cristians on Sat, Moors on Sun) as well as the "Embassy" Sat night, and only went out that night... well all day Monday I was still feeling like a zombie! Must have had something to do with the fact that I only slept 3h the day before (went to bed at 9am Sun, got up at noon). ;o) But the "ambiance" makes for some of the best parties I've ever been to!!! The music just keeps you dancing until the DJ gets tired and kicks you out by turning the music off and the lights on (between 5 and 7 am depending on the Comparsa where you're at).

The pictures in this post are some I took last year during Moros 2008. Those on the right are Christian comparsas, those on the left Moorish. Over the next day or two I'll put up some photos from 2009 to illustrate all this for you, and if I can find some video or musical material online as well. Hope it makes all my bla-bla-bla come alive! ;o)
Woah! Browsing the web in search of a "poster" from this year's holiday (which I haven't found), I've come across a blog dedicated to Moros y Cristianos! If you want to try out your Spanish, go check on Fiestas de Moros y Cristianos, they've gone into great detail about Alcoy's holiday this year, with plenty of pictures from there and other towns, and I've found one of Arcabuceros!!! So go see what that weapon looks like and if anyone knows the name in English please tell me! And hey! they've got a post on the final battle in San Vicente which I missed (daytime session, I had classes to teach, sigh!). Some good daylight shots of the "fighting" (enjoy, mine are all at night so dark and fuzzy!)


  1. Thanks for letting us be a part of the celebration. You may need more than 3 hours sleep next year! This sort of reminds me of Mardi Gras mixed with those Revolutionary War reenactments. A little battle, costumes, parties, and fun!

    Sounds good to me.

  2. Hmm... Revolutionary War reenactments, I think that's one of those things I didn't get to experience back when we lived in the DC area, although I hear Va and Md are the places to be for those! (or is it for Civil War reenactments?)

    And would soooooo love the chance at a Mardi Gras celebration! Carnival in Belgium was fun (if rather staid) and it can also be colourful in Spain... but nothing like the pics I see coming out of New Orleans or Rio!!! ;o)

  3. This looks like such fun! I really missed. Wish i was in the same time zone lol


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