Maybe it’s because I’m not from Spain that I have trouble keeping it all straight, but, regardless, Spain’s fiestas can be a bit difficult to keep track of. In June, we celebrated L’Arbret, a special fiesta involving the carrying of a tree that’s entirely unique to Altea, and Saint Joan with bonfires on the beach. In August, El Castell de l’Olla attracted thousands and required a couple tons of powder for fireworks. Moros y Cristianos took place at the end of September and involved four days of fireworks, parades and practically non-stop partying, and we just enjoyed a day off on Tuesday to celebrate Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America.
Unfamiliar with all of the Spanish traditions, David and I try to gather as much information from the locals as possible in the days leading up to these fiestas in an effort to get an idea of what we should expect business-wise. The previous owners, Pepe and Amparo, tell us when it’s best to stay closed to the general public on the day of L’Arbret when drunken, half naked men will come into any open bar and ask for beer in support of their efforts to carry a tree to the center of the square. Our regulars tell us when to expect slow nights such as the night of “El Castell” when all of Altea was crowded together just up the coast a bit to admire one of the biggest and most impressive display of fireworks. Our neighbors and the surrounding business owners make sure that our terrace is in and out of the way when somehow we didn’t receive the notice from the city that we had to keep the street cleared for the parade that was preparing to pass through.
Next year, we’ll be better prepared for each of these special fiestas. We’ll know that the booming explosions that made us cower in sheer fear that AlteArte’s roof was caving in the first time we heard it is really just fireworks being set off for a fiesta or a wedding taking place in the square. We’ll know that we might as well close the night of Sant Juan because it’s dead in the old town since everyone heads down to the water to celebrate the beginning of Summer around beach bonfires. But, this year, we didn’t know what each celebration entailed so all we could do was wait and see.
And, fortunately, I have friends like Warner and Pepa who coaxed me out of AlteArte’s four walls to see the fiestas, like L’Arbret, with my own eyes. They told me where to go for the best viewing of the hundred of villagers – both men and women – as they arrived with a tree hoisted on their shoulders. These villagers had woken up early to chop down the tree and spent the day drinking and celebrating. So by the time they arrived in the old town, it was late in the afternoon, and they were half naked and drunk but determined, nonetheless, to successfully deliver the tree to the center of the main square at the very top of Altea. And in honor of their noble efforts to bring this tree to its designated destination, those who weren’t involved in the physical transportation were very much involved in the general festivities as they stood from their balconies and hoisted buckets of water on those below or came out with hoses to drench not only the tree carriers but spectators like myself who quickly learned to run whenever a hose was pointed menacingly in their direction. That day, I joined the hundreds of spectators to follow the hundreds of villagers and their tree down the final street leading to the square. And I watched as they hoisted it up and then proceeded to attempt to climb it one at a time, tying their shirts at the point at which they could climb no higher. L’Arbret was truly a celebration like no other – happening only in Altea – and I loved being a part of this random village celebration that originally started as a way for the village men to display their strength to the village women who would then choose the one that they wanted as their mate. And I was happy to recognize several of our customers among the crowd of tree carriers because it made me feel more than just a random spectator, but instead a member of the village.
And I broke away from AlteArte for an hour to run down to the main avenue to see the Moors parade that took place on the second day of the four day Moros y Cristianos celebration, and I was amazed at the amount of work and money that goes into this parade. And two days later, David and I took advantage of our day off to watch the entire 2 plus hours of the Christian parade which took place along the same avenue, and I lost myself in the elaborate costumes, floats and orchestrated performances. And I couldn’t believe that a village as small as Altea with only 26,000 residents put on such a major show every year. All year, they had been preparing for these festivities and, during the Moros y Cristianos celebration, they went all out. And after the parade ended at 10 pm, the parties continued at “las peñas” where different associations would throw parties out of their garages complete with food and drink. And these meals and parties, parades and fireworks continued for four days straight.
These days of festivities are not always the best for AlteArte. Oftentimes, the fireworks distract and the parties elsewhere lure our customers away, but they make life in Spain special. It’s on these days that everything stops (whether you like it or not) and the parties start. It’s on these days that even our grumpiest neighbor at AlteArte who barely acknowledges our presence proudly leads the marching band in the parade with his clarinet dancing on his lips and a happy twinkle in his eye. And during these festivities, anything can happen and you need to have your camera ready at all times for you never know when even the mayor might stop just in front of your door.
I’ve stopped trying to make sense of things, of trying to keep it all straight, and instead am just enjoying life. It’s Spain’s randomness, it’s its never ending festivities and its the charm of Altea’s community that makes life so colorful here in this village on the Mediterranean. And I’m so happy to call Altea my home.