Yeah, I know, I know – I’m so bad at this.
I have been reminded repeatedly that I haven’t posted anything for several weeks now, lest it should perchance have slipped my mind, and further that my avid readership awaits daily and disconsolately for a wee sign that I have at last dribbled something into my keyboard again. Yeah, right.
The trouble is that despite my best intentions to blog weekly, somehow I am almost always prevented from doing so by mundane intervention. And tiredness. You know – so much to do, so little sleep, or something along those lines.
But lo! Today I have just returned from my demi-weekly slog up and down the motorway to deposit John at t’airport, and have managed to squeeze a sliverlet of time between feeding the dogs, feeding and showering the parrots and (possibly) feeding me, and so feel an urgent need to tell you in timely fashion about one of the stranger Bullas festivals that occurs annually on 23/24 June (the magical Noche de San Juan).
By the way, I think I invented the term “demi-weekly”, since Google doesn’t recognise it, but I have a fancy to stick with it regardless. Remember where you read it first when it makes its way into the chunkier dictionaries.
But I digress. For a change.
I have spoken of our Bullas “fiesta de la Mora” before now, although I was until last year under the misconception that it was a summer solstice thing, as those of you who remember the book may recall. I was disabused of that notion when at Loli’s insistence we actually made it to the El Salto waterfall basin to take part in the ritual in an up-close and personal fashion for the first time last year.
We set off at around 11pm to walk the couple of miles or so from home along the camino towards town and then back out along the El Salto road towards the waterfall. All attendees were of necessity traversing the same route, which resembled a mini laser show as torch beams bobbed and danced along on their merry way, punctuated regularly by the orange flare of a match and the subsequent red glow of a cigarette, all combining to create shadowy outlines of the perambulating groups.
The police, displaying an unprecedented degree of forethought, had blocked the road to prevent motor access, a remarkably wise move given the general state of Spanish driving and the fact that many Bulleros (especially the older and more toothless among them) wear spectacles with lenses in them that were possibly refashioned from an old glass-bottomed boat found in a breaker’s yard, and who therefore would not notice a pedestrian in the dark, with or without a torch, until he climbed out of his Atos to see what the “crunch” was.
Arriving therefore intact at the basin, we found that a huge TV screen had been erected, along with the scaffolding bearing the vast speakers hitherto heard but not seen. Camera crews were buzzing about checking angles and lighting, and the sound crew were going through the usual overloud and fuzzy “uno…dos….uno…dos” ritual. (How tedious, by the way, is that? Wouldn’t it be great if they recited some Edward Lear instead?)
It was by this time around 11:50pm and there was a tangible sense of rising anticipation. Loli broke out a bottle of her best home-made chocolate aniseed liqueur, along with a tube of plastic shot glasses which I regarded dubiously, since having tasted her liqueurs previously I was unconvinced that they would not merely become a gloopy mess on contact. They did not, though, and the contents were downed far too rapidly to test their onward durability.
Then, at the stroke of midnight (well, maybe not the stroke – more like the twenty-minute massage, in truth) the music rang out loud and clear, exactly as I so distinctly recall hearing it for the first time four years before as it bounced from side to side of the valley cut to arrive undiminished at our caravan 500 metres downstream. Beautiful stirring”earth” music, throbbing and melodious – stuff like Lisa Gerrard’s Gladiator theme “Now We Are Free” and the like, played at a volume sufficient to feel it vibrating up through the rocks below our feet and into our very souls. A moving sensory communion with a place of natural beauty in the balmy midnight air.
This signalled the commencement of the torchlight procession from the old castle ruins atop El Castellar, the bare-faced rock high above on the south side of the valley, up to which we look directly from the house. The cameras sought and found their targets and the procession, in actuality small figures way up on the hill picking their way through the pine forest, suddenly loomed large on the giant screen so that all could watch their descent. The music became mesmeric and the atmosphere almost reverent.
The lead figure of the procession, adorned in the rich robes of a Mora (north african) princess, sashayed her way downwards at the head of a column of her courtiers, also garbed in traditional arab costume. The story runs thus:
Legend has it that in times of Arab settlement in the lands bathed by the River Mula there was, on the El Castellar mountain, on a rock bluff, a castle famous for having been the scene of great and memorable battles, with men having fought bravely to try to raise the banner of the cross on its battlements.
In this castle lived a Sultan with his court and with his beautiful daughter, who was in love with a young Christian. This young man, renowned as much for his piety as for his bravery, had been wounded and taken prisoner by the Arabs in fierce battle.
During his captivity, the Christian knight managed to catch sight of the Sultan’s daughter, with whose beauty and charm he fell madly in love.
The Sultan, seeing the mutual love of his daughter and the young Christian gentleman, sternly prohibited them from ever meeting.
Ignoring her father’s commands, the beautiful girl met her young Christian each night at the Salto del Usero when everyone was asleep.
During one of these trysts, the Christian knight turned his eyes to heaven, took up some of the running water from the falls and asked his beautiful lady, “Would you like to be a Christian? Do you want to live within my religion and be saved with me?”
The Princess dipped her head forward, and the young Christian poured the baptismal water over her while invoking the name of God.
Then the young Christian gentleman dived into the pool to swim, but tragically his body disappeared into the crystal waters.
From that moment, the beautiful Moorish Princess who had willingly disobeyed the orders of her father, fell under a spell: that she would stay young and beautiful over the years, and that her soul would wander forever in the forests of El Castellar.
They say that on the Night of San Juan the beautiful soul of La Mora appears at midnight to descend from the mountain to the spot where she was baptised, to bathe her beauty again and to look for her beloved – and that she collects water which bears his singing, leaving the river Mula totally magical for the night. *
So the column of courtiers, who have by now obviously muscled in on the eternal life thing, followed their Princess down the footpath to El Salto, and further on down the winding steps into the cold water in the basin below the falls. Here, they all immersed themselves fully in the waters and concurrently filled the large pitchers they were all carrying with the now-magical waters of the Río Mula.
A narrative of the story is running with the music, which, still weaving its enchantment under the cloak of the night sky, climbs to a crescendo as La Mora dips under the water.
When the icy mountain stream has found its way into the thick arabic costumes, the players in this tableau hoist themselves fairly hastily out of the waters and then commence their squelchy way back up the steps from the basin. Their progress is slow on two counts – the first being that their costumes are now waterlogged and heavy, rendering their ascent less than flight-footed, and the second that their way is lined by people clamouring to be splashed by the magical waters borne in the pitchers, so that they may have luck, beauty and longevity.
When they finally made it back up to the top of the waterfall, the Princess passed very close to us and I realised that, for all her very impressive sashaying, she was in fact extremely hirsute and I exclaimed involuntarily something to the effect that it was a drag show. Obviously armed with a smattering of english, the Princess turned to face me, smiling broadly and showing his nicotine-stained teeth.
“I bless you,” s/he said, and promptly poured the water left in his ewer over my head.
Loli shrieked. “Muy buena suerte!!” she announced. Very good luck. She went on to say that now I would stay young and beautiful forever.
Huh! Too late on both counts, mate. Try wet and cold for the walk home instead.
* (Roughly) translated by me from the Spanish narrative from “Bullas, Leyenda y Misterio” by José Luis García Caballero.