Murcia’s Festivals serve up a Cultural Feast to suit all tastes this summer in Spain
By Rupert Parker
Whether you love music, theatre or dance, a host of internationally renowned festivals mean the Spanish Region of Murcia is the summer destination for all arts lovers. A host of distinguished performers will be showcasing music from across the globe, displaying their theatrical skills, and staging traditional Spanish flamenco.
Caballos del Vino – Wine Horse Festival
Caravaca de la Cruz is a small town on the border of Murcia and Granada and, like the rest of the region, is relatively unknown to your average tourist, content to stick to La Manga Strip on the coast. For pilgrims, however, it’s famous as only one of five holy towns in the Catholic world, on par with Jerusalem and Rome since it’s home to the Vera Cruz, the so-called “True Cross”. Depending on who you believe, it was either borne down from heaven by angels, or carried here by Templars from Jerusalem in the middle of the 13th century. It’s still kept in the Chapel de la Vera Cruz, in the fortress at the top of the town, and the festival celebrates the great occasion when it was prevented from falling into Moorish hands in 1252.
I arrive on the eve of the horse running. Already they’ve closed off most of the town and, on every corner, there are groups of people pampering their stallions and raucous brass bands blaring out music. This is a serious competition and each group of friends or “Peña’s” have spent all year training their horses, and embroidering their stylish horse coats. There are two prizes, one for fastest time up the hill and, the other ,for the most magnificently dressed horse. The outcome will be decided tomorrow but the coats are on display in the Iglesia de la Compania. Apparently they cost thousands of Euros and when you see the amount of gold thread and the intricacy of the embroidery it’s not difficult to believe. They also feature pictures of local dignitaries and some of the more famous Peña members.
Fittingly I’m staying in a converted monastery and I’m awoken at seven in my cell by the noise of fireworks and chimes of bells. No chance of a lie-in so I’m out on the streets early. There are far more people than yesterday and they’ve now dressed the horses in their regalia, almost like pantomime animals if they didn’t exude so much power. I get a glimpse of this when they each have a practise run up through a narrow street in the old town. They’re just limbering up so it’s just one runner with each horse. Still their speed is terrifying and bystanders are forced to hug the walls of the houses to avoid being trampled. I’m now getting a sense of just how dangerous an exercise this is going to be and already the ambulances and paramedics are hovering.
Fortunately nobody gets hurt and there’s then a good natured procession through the town, the horses, their Peña’s, their logo displayed on their white shirts topped with red neckerchiefs serenaded by the brass, and, finally, assorted Christian and Moors. They salute the Major and his retinue before making their way to the starting point in the small square below the castle. The idea is that the horse charges full pelt uphill, with four runners hanging on for dear life, and the fastest time wins. If all four runners don’t reach the top, the run is deemed void and there are no second chances.
Of course there are now thousands of people gathered on the slopes and I manage to find a position on the wall where I can get a good view but also not get crushed by the horses. I see the first animal being brought to the start and four young lads attaching themselves to it with ropes. Suddenly they start charging up the hill into the mass of seething humanity. The PA announces “Caballo en Carrara” to say they’re on route, almost too late, as the racing retinue forces everyone to jump out of the way. It’s as crazy as allowing the crowd to block the course at the Grand National and hoping everything’s going to be OK. But that’s the attraction, crazed animals and the scent of blood is a good recipe for any Spanish fiesta and this one is no exception.
As you can imagine, not everything goes to plan. A number of horses are daunted by the crowds blocking their path, turn back and never make it up the hill. The dropout rate among the runners is high, after all there’s very little running, rather more dragging, as they struggle to get their feet to make occasional contact with the ground as they hang on to their horse. Surprisingly there are very few casualties and, when someone is slightly injured, the paramedics are immediately on the scene. It’s all really good natured fun and apart from a few scuffles in the crowd, I never really feel threatened. And it’s a genuinely exciting spectator sport, the times ranging from eight seconds to a laggardly sixteen, with plenty failing to make the grade. They even have action replays on the TV but somehow I don’t think it’s right for inclusion in the Olympics just yet.
Since you’ll have to wait until May 2013 for the next Wine Horse Festival, why not visit San Javier where every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from July 6-28, leading jazz exponents from Spain and around the world will take to the stage in the internationally-recognised Festival Internacional de Jazz, with a line up including Eliane Elias and Terri Lynne Carrington.
Cartagena hosts La Mar de Músicas from July 19-28 which will celebrate African music forms and pay special tribute to the work of Mali’s renowned singer Oumou Sangare. San Javier will again become a cultural hotspot when it stages the Festival de Teatro, Música y Danza from August 3-25.
And if you’re into Flamenco, there are two festivals in August. From 1-11, the mining town of La Union will become the venue for Cante de Las Minas, one of the biggest events in the flamenco calendar. The 10-day festival attracts a first-class field of international competitors including singers, musicians and dancers, with past performers including Paco de Lucia and Camarón.
From August 21-26, the small town of Torre Pacheco stages the popular Festival del Cante Flamenco de Lo Ferro, a regular event for more than 25 years.
Monarch operates year round flights to Alicante from Birmingham, London Gatwick, London Luton and Manchester airports with fares, including taxes, starting from £38.99 one way (£69.50 return).