Take a statue of the Virgin, mix in the entire population of an Andalucian village, supply humungus quantities of fino (here that’s Manzanilla) and tapas, add a brass band from the neighbouring town, hire a couple of dance-bands, top up with a DJ for the teenagers down a side-street, string up fairy-lights and awnings across the main calle, hold fireworks and light directly from the fuse – then keep the entire action going till dawn. Those are, mas o menos, the essential ingredients for a successful feria.
September is getting late in the season but this little village has been gearing up to its annual feria (fair) for months. Every house is re-painted blinding white, the streets are immaculately swept, the geraniums all look spiffy and at night jasmine fills the air. But temperatures are cooling and on the first night, inaugurated by a solemn, torch-lit procession circling the village while a group of beefy men carry the Virgin aloft, it actually drizzles. Yes, while northern Europe is crying out for rain here in this parched sierra the heavens open. Our long candles keep blowing out in the wind and we hold our jackets tight against the cool night air – not having the earthy stamina of the women’s choir who remain obstinately clad in summery flamenco flounces while serenading us. Once the Virgin has been put back to bed in the (repainted) church, more musical action kicks off for the night at the hangar, aka village hall.
Next morning of course starts s-l-o-w-l-y as an ominous quiet blankets the web of streets. Then by early afternoon a few figures materialise, looking surprisingly sharp, the two village bars open up and the sun breaks through to warm things up. This at last feels like the real feria. Horse-riders appear for a race later in the day, their riders soon getting stuck into cervezas, while a steady stream of women carry their best culinary offerings up to the village hall for a competition. When the village lunch for 400 kicks off, everyone crowds in to taste the dozens of dishes that have been donated. “And the winner is”… “everyone!”. When a solemn award ceremony takes place on the stage later in the evening, every single one of the sixty or so cooks receives a made-in-China tea-set.
Meanwhile beer and fino are soon flowing like the stream under my house – and this is only mid-afternoon. By nightfall, the natural atmosphere of Andalucia is in full swing – these nightbirds just can’t have enough, and impromptu dancing, drinking and a few pot-shots at the shooting gallery carry on till dawn.
Day 3, the last, is virtually a remake of Day 2 though at a much slower pace and with far fewer party-goers – a sign that they’re not super-human after all. Later, outside one of the bars, a rare traditional event takes place: improvised oral poetry. We are mesmerised to see such an obviously rich Andalucian tradition (allegedly from North Africa, so dating back centuries) still alive and well, full of humour, repartee and eager participants who grab a mike to intone their rejoinders. The only downside is that they’re mostly of the older generation – pointing to the fact that in 20 years or so, oral poetry will probably have disappeared. In the meantime though, this fabulous region will party on – rain or shine, recession or not.