THE HUGELY POPULAR FIESTA OF THE VIRGEN DEL CASTILLO: THE BLASTING NOISE OF A SOLEMN OCCASION

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“In contrast with the silence and solemnity of most ‘Semana Santa’ processions, the Fiestas de la Virgen
del Castillo  features a colorful display of waving flags and banners and the blasting noise
of the arquebuses which permeate the air with the smell of gunpowder.”

 

by Muriel Feiner
Photos: Ayuntamiento de Yecla unless stated otherwise

Every Spanish city and town has its own Patron Saint around which it organizes its annual celebrations.  Each of these festivities proves to be quite unique in relation to the others, because of the very different regional history, gastronomy, customs, and traditions. Most of these holidays coincide with a significant religious event for the community.

Noise rents the air and the smell of gunpowder permeates the fiestas

The Murcian town of Yecla celebrates its “Fiestas de la Virgen del Castillo” at the beginning of December and in contrast with, for example, the silence and solemnity of the “Semana Santa” processions in Seville, it features a colorful display of waving flags and banners and the blasting noise of the arquebuses which permeate the air with the smell of gunpowder.

This Fiesta dates back to the times of Felipe IV, when a group of 61 valiant young “yeclanos”, under the leadership of Captain Martín Soriano Zaplana, marched off to defend Catalonia against an invasion from the French, during the “Guerra de Cataluña”. They held their ground in the town of Vinarós to the north as part of a successful military campaign from which all the young Yecla men returned home safe and sound.  It was considered a miracle and the devout townsfolk expressed their gratitude to Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación (Our Lady of the Incarnation), also known as the Virgen del Castillo, considered the Patron Saint and Protector of the city. Her original image dating back to 1695 was worshipped in the Castle on the hill, but, sadly, was destroyed over the years, though it was replaced with a replica made by Miguel Torregrosa in 1941.

In addition to the colorful and indeed noisy processions marching the Virgin through the town, up to the site where the town’s castle once stood and back down to the Church of the Asunción, there is also music, dancing, eating, drinking and general merriment.

The Fiesta begins on December 5th when the President of the “Association of Majordomos or Constables” requests formal permission from the Mayor to fire fifteen rockets, thus signaling the commencement of the Fiestas. And the celebration… and noise begins! These are indeed festivities in which the entire town participates and which are culminated on December 8th, which is a nationwide Spanish holiday to honor the Immaculate Conception. The day begins with a solemn mass in the Basilica of La Purísima, and a parade through the streets led by drummers and “alabarderos” (halberdiers) waving their banners, followed by the townsfolk dressed in traditional 18th century attire. Women wear black dresses and mantillas draped over tall “peinetas” and the men, black frock coats and trousers, white shirts, bow ties, blue sashes and “bicornio” cocked hats.

Gachamiga/Olea, CC BY4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As in any festival, gastronomy plays a key role and Yecla’s combines traditional dishes from Murcia, La Mancha and Valencia. Aside from the customary Spanish food like “cocido” stews and rice dishes with rabbit and snails, it offers “gazpacho” (the local version is not a cold soup but more of a stir-fried cake prepared with unleavened bread, rabbit and snails), stuffed meatballs, fried “tortas” (cakes), sauteed cheese and tomatoes and potato “empanadas” (turnovers) that will delight any gourmet. However, perhaps the most characteristic dish is the “gachas-migas”, a hearty porridge made with flour, oil, garlic, salt and water. On December 7th, 300 volunteers prepare more than 200 pots to serve the 8,000 hungry people gathered in the streets at dawn. All this festive gastronomy is naturally accompanied by the fine local wines of the region, with their corresponding Certificate of Origin.

And we should not forget the desserts, such as the “libricos” thin wafers filled with honey or chocolate, each stamped with a picture of the local monuments, the “mantecado” buns and the wine rolls, which are washed down with “mistela”, mistelle, a sweet dessert wine.

These Fiestas of the Virgen del Castillo in Yecla have been declared of National Touristic Interest and aspires international recognition and the commemoration of a military confrontation that ended in a victory without bloodshed.