Friday, June 10, 2011


Sunday will be Pentecost (or Whitsun as it's known in the land of my birth). It marks 50 days after the resurrection and is liturgically significant for a reason I can't now remember. I'm not aware that England does anything special for the occasion, although I have dim and possibly false recollections of rainy Bank Holidays and traditional games that had to be rediscovered every so often because they had fallen out of use.

Over here it's a big event in some places, because it's often when the local Virgins are commemorated. The biggest of them all is the Rocio, down in Huelva, where tens of thousands of people congregate in honour of Our Lady of that ilk. The iconic image is of gypsy caravans and long coloured dresses that swirl as they dance, and every year there are new stories and events which go down, quite literally, in legend and song.

My little city has the Virgen de Alarcos, which follows a similar pattern if not quite on the same dramatic scale. Alarcos is, or was, a mediaeval walled city guarded by a castle on a hill a few miles out of town. In the 11th C there was some continued unpleasantness with the Arabs to the south, and the Knights of the Order of Calatrava were send to guard it. One day in 1095 the Arab army turned up unannounced, overran the place and put the entire city to the sword. It was never settled again.

You can almost see the Arabs in the distance
It's been excavated and partly restored over the last 20 years. I've been up there many times. Standing on the walls, looking out over the plain, you can imagine what it was like, day after day, watching, wondering, beginning to feel safer as the days went by. Then, one day, a movement in the distance, the flash of sun on steel, dull sounds carrying in the still air, and you turn to your fellow guard and exchange a look that says something like, "You know, when I joined the army it looked like a good career. Steady job, living wage, roof over your head, food on your plate, the chance to travel, set up for life, we were. Respect, women, bit of pillage here and there, and a bit of land from the King when you retired."

When you looked back at the plain it wasn't there. It was a mass of armed men, thousands of them, moving quickly in formation with swords in their hands and murder in their eyes. You exchange another glance which just says, "Oh, fuck", and you wait.

In true mediaeval fashion the statue of Our Lady was rescued from the church and carried to safety. It is she who will be placed on a cart and taken back to her old home this weekend, accompanied along the old road by a lot of people, hundreds, and possibly thousands. Once there they will hear Mass, then set about getting completely whammed.

These events are similar in many places around the south of Spain, taking an image to a shrine out of town and setting up camp there for the weekend with the flagon and the camp stove; and the tradition involves, of course, a lot of food and drink, usually fairly simple stuff, the traditional country food. This means that when you wake up on the grass late on Monday morning wondering what you did last night, you have the added pleasure of knowing that breakfast will consist of cheap red wine and fried chorizo. Colour is added by the stalls selling food and drink, headscarves and light dresses, olives, guerkins and pickled aubergines, and the air is thick with recycled fat and the cheerful banter of aubergine salesmen discussing who has the right to the prime pitch by the band.
The Ditch by the Wall on the Left was full of Bones

We often go up there on the Monday (which is a local holiday, for obvious reasons), either on foot or by bike, and contemplate the wreckage as it slowly stirs into life and becomes human again for the last few hours of the fiesta. In case we don't get there this year, I offer this post in advance. It's always the same.

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