Altea on Spain’s Costa Blanca’s is proud to be known as The Town of Artists.
Since the early twentieth century the brightness and beauty of the Mediterranean town has attracted large numbers of painters, famous and otherwise, but in the 1950’s an artistic explosion took place in the tranquil town. Artists of all disciplines and nationalities fell in love with Altea and it became a Town of Artists.
To this day, art in Altea is alive and well. A large number of painters, sculptors and artisans reside and work in the town and there is an eclectic range of art galleries and craft shops. The Old Town streets are home to craftsmen, creatives and fashion designers.
The iconic symbol of the town, the magnificent Blue Dome of the Virgin del Consuela Parish Church was inaugurated in the middle of the 19th century, when the original castle in the Town Square was demolished. Part of the fortified wall became a viewing platform from which breathtaking sea views can be seen. Black and white tiles lead the way from the city gates at Portal Vell to the church square.
The church is defined by its central great dome covered with curved blue and white glazed tiles, dragon figurines and elegant spines over a slender lintel. In this area of Spain, it is not unusual for churches to have two domes but due to problems in the foundations which emerged during construction of the place of worship over the original 1617 temple, Altea’s church has only one. Still its unique architecture has captured the minds and hearts of locals and visitors perched, as it is, high above Altea Bay on a steep hill overlooking the whole town. In the evening, the setting sun shimmers on the dome and bathes the town’s regulation white washed houses, in a golden glow.
Altea is a place of elegance, culture and peace.
Except in the last week of September. Then the town is invaded. The Moors and Christians Fiesta produces an explosion of excitement, noise, marching bands, booming canons and ringing church bells.
Town streets are closed to traffic as processions, parades and marauding hordes square up for a battle at the castle erected in the Town Square.
The pageantry and elaborate costuming of the opposing factions is breathtaking and defies imaginative as everyone in the community from the tiniest babies in banner draped carriages, toddlers in full length ornamental gowns that make them appear to glide on air and beautiful teenage girls and handsome boys dressed as members of the Royal court take their places in the processions.
Oxen with hats on, goats with flowers in their hair, beribboned donkeys and white, black, chestnut and dappled grey horses ornamented with leather, steel and banner carrying conquistadors, advance through the streets.
A black Moorish knight on a jet-black horse is challenged by a Christian female rider dressed head to toe in gold with a flying falcon on her gauntlet encased arm.
Hundreds of Moors and Christian armies are dressed to kill in fantastical costumes. Bedecked in fur, animal skins, feathered wings and plumed headdresses male and female warriors with exotic painted faces of gold, silver, black and white brandish shields, swords, cudgels and spears.
Church groups, societies and educational facilities spend all year plotting, planning and creating and sewing their awesome images.
Symbolically the Christians favor white and the Moors black.
Crusaders in glittering gold helmets, red and gold tabards and cloaks of scarlet velvet adorned with symbols of their religious allegiance face off with Moors in black and silver costumes with spiked headdresses and sickles and scythes.
Swords, clubs, maces and leather spiked staffs are the weapons of choice.
In a moment of pure theater, the black knight rouses his armies and provokes his enemies as on a gleaming black horse he gallops into the fray and leads the magnificent creature in an orchestrated display of power as the horse rears up on hind legs. The beast’s gymnastics are designed to intimidate the enemy and please the crowd.
Marchers and camp followers in flamboyant gowns, cloaks and tunics in velvet, satins, animal skins, feathers and plumes declare the might of the armies, the wealth of their leaders and add weight and substance as battalions march in unison, arms linked, weapons clanking, chain metal rattling.
Dressed in dazzling costumes of purple, scarlet, Royal blue, olive green, religious white, devilish black, gold, silver, and the Spanish pennants of dazzling red and yellow, the procession throngs the streets with color and grandeur.
Crowns and coronets and studded headbands dazzle the eye alongside engraved insignia, flashing breastplates, fringed tabards, leather breeches and thigh high boots and shiny silver shields.
The cry goes up for the Christians as a battalion of beautiful golden gladiators proudly wearing bronze lurex shirts and tasseled drapery of velvet embellished with gold chains, golden feathered helmets and clanking chains on boots, link arms and swagger into battle.
Winged airborne creatures in satin cloaks sit astride bedecked horses and children lead placid donkeys and gentle goats.
Red bandana wearing percussion bands blare out a cacophony of sound on their brass instruments, cymbals and drums. Armored crusaders, resplendent in purest white with red crosses are in stark contrast to the silver and black costumed invaders. Tiny princesses and courtly attendants led by adult protectors dressed in all their finery, walk with decorum in royal robes resplendent with embossed gold embroidery and extravagant, plumed hats.
Young males stride arrogantly to war tooled up in leather, animal skins, animal pelts, fur and feathers. Their weapons flash in their hands and warn off the opposition.
In the warmth of a new moon autumn night, the crowd of hundreds is entranced by three hours of entertainment staged by the Moors and Christians Fiesta organizing committees. Almost 50 local and community groups co-ordinate the annual event.
Each faction is accompanied by their own costumed band, dictating time with their music and adding to the general cacophony and intimidation of noise, power and devastating purpose. With bravado and ear-splitting brass, hundreds of musicians blast out their rallying calls and marches. The thunder of cannon fire booms out over the town day and night.
Performances are flawless, the fiesta tradition is in the bones of the townsfolk, for generations their families and neighbors have marched, played in the band, dressed up and shared their community spirit and pride.
Everyone joins in the work of making, painting and motorizing floats, wooden castles, painted cannon ball catapults, pirate ships and sky reaching towers. Like clockwork all proceed in an orderly fashion as children throw confetti and glitter and farm girls hand out freshly baked bread to declare the lasting abundance of the Fiesta. Wine in huge casks is pushed and pulled on carts, but not distributed.
Christian emblems, crosses, banners, flags, pennants, all decorate the parade and hang from the balconies of the local houses.
Altea comes together to celebrate the values of church, community, family, tradition and prosperity. Visitors are welcome to join and share in the outpouring of goodwill and sheer theatricality.
The Fiesta officially lasts for five days, there are processions, masses, musical events, spectacular firework displays over the bay and activities for all the family.
One pastime that is not high on the agenda is the pursuit of retail therapy. Many of the local shops are closed for several days and the banks do not open.
Altea embraces its reputation as a Town for Artists. Those seeking an oasis of beauty and tranquility can still experience the natural attractions of the mountains, sea, sky and sanctuary of this magical seafront enclave.
Fiesta lovers unite as the marchers, the bands, the audience join together and the pageant ends with one final rousing chorus of Viva Altea.
Ellen Frazer-Jameson is a journalist, former BBC broadcaster and published author. She lives in London and Miami and to relax dances Argentine tango.
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