If you were asked to explain what first comes into your head when you hear the word fishermen, you would probably describe bearded men in macs and anoraks, sailing in old decaying boats while mending their thinly built nets against the slapping sound of the tide in the background.
• But if you happened to be in a coastal region of Spain on 16 July these stereotypical images would be shattered, because on this day various coastal towns and villages up and down the country celebrate the Day of the Virgin of Carmen.
• The Virgen del Carmen Festival as it’s known, is a fiesta that celebrates the patron and protector of all fishermen and seamen in the name of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmelo – the Star of the Sea (or Stella Maris in Latin).
• To explain a little bit of the history behind this: towards the end of his life the Old Testament prophet Elias became a recluse, confining himself to a cave on Mount Carmelo. Hundreds of years later, pilgrims attempting to follow in the prophet’s footsteps invoked the protection of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmelo – Stella Maris – and the legend was born which is still celebrated today.
• Keeping in tradition with many Spanish fiestas, the Virgen del Carmen Festival fascinates visitors in the way in which it finds a perfect balance between religious devotion and eccentric partying without any sense of unsuitability.
• Each village, town and city has its own unique celebrations according to their own traditions, but the crux of the celebrations centre around a parade through the town towards the sea front during which a group of fishermen carry an effigy of the Virgin, usually scattered in flowers. When the parade reaches the sea it’s usually met by a flotilla of illuminated and decorated boats, all sounding their horns. The parade’s attendants then say prayers for those at sea before carefully placing the effigy on a boat, which then sails around the local harbour as fireworks light up the sky and bands accompany the Virgin’s journey.
• In certain areas, the Virgin is also seen as the patron and protector of scuba divers. This is because in 1981, local scuba divers near Málaga lay an image of the Virgin on the sea bed. Since then, part of the tradition in Málaga has involved divers paying their own respects to their underwater patron.
• Among other large towns with notable Virgen del Carmen celebrations are Alicante, Nerja and Almería. In Nerja, the route to Torrecilla Beach is taken up by fisherman carrying the effigy and rallying the crowd, yelling “Viva! Viva! Viva!”, while elderly women lean out of windows showering the Virgin in petals. These scenes are replicated in Alicante and Almería too.
• If you plan on being around to take in the Virgen del Carmen you are recommended to book accommodation well in advance if you haven’t already, as 16 July is in the height of the holiday season and hotels and B&Bs – particularly in tourist hotspots – are likely to fill up early. Take a look at our Factfile boxes for a list of recommended accommodation in Alicante, Almería and Nerja.
• All three places have good transport links, with Alicante perhaps unsurprisingly offering the most comprehensive. The Alicante Tram is the most popular mode of transport in the city itself, while the city is also home to one of the busiest airports in Spain with numerous domestic and international flights; a good railway service with connections to the surrounding cities and towns as well as further afield to Madrid, Barcelona and more; good motorway links to Murcia, Benidorm, Cartagena, Valencia and Albacete; and even has regular ferry services to the Balearic Islands and Algeria.
• Almería offers bus services serving the city and local area, as well as some destinations further afield. Almería Airport is the fourth largest in Andalusia with domestic and international flights to London, Manchester, Birmingham, Dublin, Madrid and Barcelona, while the city has good motorway links to Málaga, Granada and Cartagena. Almería train station provides services across the rest of Andalusia and further afield, while there are ferry services from the Port of Almería to Melilla, Algeria and Morocco.
• Nerja has good motorway links to Málaga and Motril, but with no railway station it relies on buses from the High Street to take people further afield to places such as Granada, Cordoba, Seville and Almería. The nearest airport is Málaga Airport – the fourth busiest in Spain behind Palma de Mallorca Airport, Barcelona El Prat and Barajas (Madrid) – and has regular domestic and international flights.
• Held at the peak of summer time, beach barbecues are plentiful during the Virgen del Carmen Festival and the parties last well into the night, perfectly demonstrating what Spanish fiestas are all about.
By David Johns