‘The Spanish know how to do festivals. We nod to religion, then we party,’ according to a renowned teacher in Asturias. The festival of Virgen del Carmen perfectly exemplifies this maxim.
It all started with the prophet Elias, about 300 BC. The story goes that, in the vicinity of Mount Carmelo (the Hebrew word for garden), now Mount Carmel south of Haifa in Israel, there was a drought that had lasted many years. The holy men retreated to the mountain to pray for rain. Elias saw a cloud rise from the sea and drift over the land, bringing the long sought-after rain.
Elias, always one to elaborate a story, interpreted theevent as foretelling the coming of a virgin who would conceive a saviour who would bring a rain of blessingson humanity. Hermits on Mount Carmelo started to worship the virgin and were apparently vindicated 300 years later. The hermits eventually, by the 11th century AD, became known as Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel and then simply Carmelites.
We now leap forward to the 13th century AD. An Englishman, Simon Stock, was trotting around Europe founding monasteries dedicated to the cult of the Virgen del Carmen, the Carmelites. On the 16th July 1251, the Virgin appeared to him holding a religious artefact, a scapular, which is a sort of apron. She told him, ‘Let this be a sign and privilege for you and all Carmelites. Whoever dies, using the scapular will never suffer
eternal fire.’ Simon didn’t know what to make of the pronouncements of this woman waving a pinny, so he decided that henceforth the 16th July should be a religious holiday.
Within a century or so the Virgen del Carmen had become known as ‘Estrella del Mar’, the star of the sea,
of particular importance to Catholic mariners who prayed for her protection and considered her their patron saint. In the 18th century, the Carmelites were widespread throughout Spain and the Spanish Admiral, Antonio Barcelo Pont de la Terra, officially changed the patronship of Spanish sailors from Saint Telmo to that of the Virgen del Carmen.
By the end of the 18th century, the celebrations on the
16th July were well established on the Mediterranean coasts of Spain.
While the 16th is a day celebrated in every coastal town, the holiday is extended in some places. Nerja traditionally has a three-day holiday with a huge ‘moraga’, an outdoor party with food and drink, on one of the evenings. Sardines are roasted on spits on a large open pit on La Torrecilla Beach and given to bystanders. This charitable act has been compared to the feeding of the five thousand but has yet to be accomplished in Nerja using just five loaves and two fishes.
In every town, though, July 16th is when the statue of the Virgen is taken from the church and carried through the streets accompanied by bands and crowds of followers. In most places, she is put on a boat for a trip around the bay this time accompanied by a flotilla of small boats all dressed with flags and packed with revellers. Occasionally, if the seas are too rough, she will be carried around town again. Food, drink and fireworks with music blasting from speakers and in many cases, live bands, make this beach party the liveliest of the year and one at which you will see the sunrise the following morning if you can stand the pace.
The festival is especially important inMálaga city where the procession is repeated the Sunday following the 16th July. In 1981 the diving club placed an image of their patron on the seafloor. Members descend every year to pay homage.
The festival of Virgen del Carmen is well celebrated in San Luis de Sabinillas, Puerto de la Duquesa and Castillo de la Duquesa, Estepona, Fuengirola, Torremolinos, Málaga, Rincón de la Victoria, Velez Málaga, Nerja, Almunecar, Roquetas de Mar and Almeria and at many of the smaller fishing towns on the coast.
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