Las Hogueras de San Juan
The summer solstice has been celebrated with purifying fires throughout Europe in many cultures throughout history, it's pagan origins later disguised by the Church as the feast of Saint John the Baptist. In the city of Alicante this holiday started (re-)gaining importance in the late 19th century but officially became a big holiday as of 1928 and named "Hogueras de San Juan" (or Fogueres de Sant Joan in Valenciano)
An hoguera is a fire... so you can pretty much guess the theme there! In some places the night was celebrated by burning old furniture, but here pretty soon the artistic side took over and what gets burnt on the night of June 24th is no longer remotely related to old furniture (except perhaps in some construction materials). Neighbours get together to form a "barraca" and throughout the year gather funds from the participants and start organising the fiesta. Principal among their tasks will be to elect a "Bellea" (young woman to represent the barraca, then one is elected amongst all the barracas as the Bellea del Foc -Fire Beauty- to represent them all during the official ceremonies) and to decide what will be the subject of their Hoguera. "Subject?" you ask... Yup, like I said, no more burning furniture! What started out a century ago as a simple Ninot (figure, doll in Valenciano) is now a full-flegded scultpure in wood, paper and other construction materials composed of many figurines all in place according to the theme selected. Each barraca sets up two Hogueras, a smaller one for the children, and the larger principal one. These big ones are the ones of interest, particularly if you keep abreast of what's going on on the national and international stages (politically, socially, sports...). How to describe them? Well, imagine a satirical newspaper cartoon brought to life! It serves as a critique of society, the government, whatever the designers and artists want. Some years there's also an overall theme (last year it was the Sea and Alicante, pictured is the Hoguera in front of City Hall last year). It takes several months to design them and build all the pieces, and then they get set up in the streets all over town (over 90 of them, let's say it makes traffic somewhat complicated for a week or so) on June 20th. The official comission will then go around visiting them and award prizes in different categories (they're grouped by budget available, so smaller ones don't have to compete with the richer neighbourhoods).
And then the Cremà (burning) on the night of June 24th. All these works of art get burned to ashes in an explosion of firecrackers and fireworks, with the public looking on... and insulting the local firemen (who make sure the fire is contained and doesn't burn down a building) at the top of their lungs. Why be so rude? The firemen take it with a grain of salt, they know what the public really wants is to get their attention and get doused with the fire hoses (is a welcome relief from the heat!) in the traditional Banyà (or bath).
So it's five nights of fiesta, and five days and nights of non-stop firecrackers going off all over town with the smell of gunpowder mixing in with the sea air to generate a rather unique perfume for the city.
And I'm going to try and share as much of it as I can with you here! (as much as my work will allow, I've already missed a couple of events I had intended on witnessing) Last year was the first time I really dived into the ambiance as I had a dozen friends visiting from Belgium (needless to say we didn't sleep much). The previous 8 years I'd been living in Belgium so missed it, and the years I actually lived here I was in Uni... and Hogueras has the rotten luck of being smack in the middle of finals! June 24th is a holiday, but some professors were rotten enough to place exams on the 25th! So I'd only been down to party "lightly" a couple of times and only once for the burning. Last year... last year was a BLAST! It won't be as intense this time since only my local friends will be here and most of the events will be taking place during the week this time (and everyone has to get up for work, plus they're a bit blasé about it all at the moment, feelings towards this holiday come and go in cycles), but I'll still get around to what I can. And my sister is bringing some friends down from London for the Cremà so we'll be a crazy group then!
A word on this year's "cartel" (announcement of the fiestas at the beginning of the post). The design is selected each year by a competition, and this year's winner was Rafael Guillén Belmonte from San Vicente del Raspeig (town right next door where I went for the crazy Moros y Cristianos fiestas in April). In it he's recuperated an old tradition of representing typical elements of the Hogueras such as the dolçaina (wind instrument the figure is playing) or the espardenyes (reed? sandals that tie at your calves).