Probably one of the best things about going on Erasmus, apart from returning home as a multi-lingual bastard (hopefully), is the set of international friends you make. International friends are great excuses to travel. But, as it happens, local friends are also perfect for that too, even if you met them while in a foreign country. Years ago while on Erasmus in Germany, Jorge made a close knit group of Spanish amigos who were soon to be referred to as The Spanish Ghetto by the rest of their Italian, German, Finnish, British and American classmates.
One of The Spanish Ghetto lives in Casas Ibáñez, Albacete. And this weekend we went to their local fiestas: the fiestas de la Virgen de la Cabeza.
«Are you ready to go to deep Spain?» was the question I faced as we left Valencia on the Carretera de Madrid, token bottle of misteleta in hand as a present for our host. Half of the journey was to be spent on this motorway before turning off and winding our way up mountains towards the strangely straight and flat meseta roads.
La Virgen de la Cabeza is the patron saint of Casas Ibáñez (something about the Virgin appearing to a shepherd on the site of the chapel… why does she always appear to shepherds?). But much like many Spanish celebrations, the fiesta’s religious roots have taken somewhat of a back seat while the party aspect continues to thrive. Any excuse to have a party… and this fiesta is the epitome of ponerse las botas.
The crowning moment of the fiestas is the romería, which takes place on the final Sunday of April. This day in Casas Ibáñez sees the whole of the village descend on a field next to a chapel and set up shop with tents, campervans, barbecues and speakers, ready to eat kilos and kilos of roast lamb en masse with copious amounts of alcohol to boot. After a hearty breakfast of lamb chops and beer, we went up to the crowded chapel area to see the manchegas – the region’s local dance (think castanets and lots of skips and twirls). A sucker for all things vaguely cultural and folkloric, I was eager to catch a glimpse of the band, the singers and the dancers who, and I quote, «don’t dress as nice as the falleras». The latter came straight from the mouth of a manchega, before anyone decides to give their two pennies’ worth. We then popped in the shrine to see the lady of the hour: the Virgen de la Cabeza statue, who was surrounded by baby Jesús, cherubs, flowers and solemn looking pensioners. She’d later be carried 2 kilometres down to the village to be paraded around the streets amid outbursts of «¡GUAPA!» before going on her annual trip to the village church.
We also went to gawp at probably one of the most uncouth spectacles ever to be associated with a religious fiesta – a rave. Yep, a rave. Huge generator-run speakers blasting music, a rudimentary bar and drunken youths huddled into the far corner of the grounds partially blocked from view by trees and campervans. In fact we arrived just in time (about 4pm) to see an alarmingly drunk boy punt remnants of a giant paella towards his friends using the spatula as a golf club. We left just as some EDM remix of The Offspring came on the loudspeaker – and I’d be lying if I said that I hated it. But that wasn’t the end of the music. Aside from the manchegas and the cabra doing the rounds, the enclosure looked and sounded more like the Viña Rock festival than a village party. There was one bizarre moment over lunch when the tent nextdoor were blasting System of a Down. That’s one surefire way to honour your patron saint. Why do they always send the poor, Cabeza? Why? I’m sure paella boy and his friends stayed there dancing much longer than we did – and with the day after the romería being a bank holiday in Casas Ibáñez, why ever the hell not?
The weekend involved some of the tastiest food I’ve ever eaten; gazpacho manchego, lamb chops, caldereta -a wonderful lamb and garlic stew-, an assortment of delicious homemade desserts, fresh watermelon… Sitting under a makeshift shelter surrounded by the family of friends, and their friends, and their family, and their friends, and their babies, and their dogs, with the table full of food and drink, a broad manchego accent tells me, «THIS is Spain».
So there you have it, las fiestas de la Virgen de la Cabeza. Does it satisfy your cultural needs? Check, thank you manchegas dancers. Scenery? Yep, check out one of the few pictures I took at the end of this post. Religion? Yes, especially if you love a bit of religious postureo. Gastronomy? YES YOU MUST TRY THE CALDERETA. Party? Just ask the raving youths and the old guys with their homemade spirits. Anything else? Why yes, a priceless lesson in manchego vernacular thanks to the omnipresent word ‘guacho’ and all it’s derivatives (guacha, guachete…) constantly being shouted across the table, meaning anything from brother, sister, mate to son, daughter, boy/girlfriend. If anyone has ever heard this word outside of Albacete before, then do please let me know.
What about the negatives? Despite the well-followed tradition of naming your daughter after the town’s patron saint, I was disappointed to find out that there’s a distinct lack of women in Casas Ibáñez called Cabeza. I could also make a joke about the countless signs advertising the ‘Virgen Party’, but I won’t.
Hasta pronto, guachos.
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