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Displaying items by tag: Helen Vicary

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Gypsy Celebration, Cabra, Spain

Ever imagined drinking brandy for breakfast with gypsies? Me neither. But that's exactly what happened when I and two traveling companions decided to go to the religious festival held at the Ermitage de Nuestra Senora de la Sierra, in the province of Cordoba, in the region of Andalucia, Spain.

We were living on the Costa del Sol. Almost a crime in itself. The Costa is full of holiday apartments, villas and British pubs playing English soccer matches and serving English food. A strip of prime real estate around the southern coast of Spain and many would say, a travesty.  We were renting an apartment in one of the enclaves and working. Getting paid under the table seemed relatively easy and we cleaned villas and apartments, or baby-sat.  We did anything that would enable us to live in the sun and explore the interior of Andalucia in our spare time. We wanted to know the real Spain and you could only find that far away from the Costa.

I had noticed an article in the local English newspaper about a festival on the outskirts of Cabra, a small town approximately 200 kilometers from where we were living. The festival features as an important event in the gypsy religious calendar: their worship and celebration of the statue, Nuestra Senora de la Sierra. Sounded like an adventure. For my two Australian buddies and I, adventures in Spain were what life was all about. 

The three of us bundled into our small Renault car and headed down the autopista (motorway) towards Malaga on a Friday afternoon.  We had decided to get there early because there could be hundreds of tourists turning up and we didn't want to have to park miles away from the festival. How naïve we were. We had no idea if there was accommodation, food stores or even public toilets where we were headed. Still, we packed our sleeping bags, took some food and a few bottles of water, just in case. The Anzac adventure spirit was up and running. We arrived in Cabra and then spent some time looking for the Ermitage. 

Eventually, following a sign, we drove up a long, narrow, steep, windy road to the top of a hill which was strewn with rocks.  It looked as though some giant had thrown huge boulders from on high and they had crashed and smashed into the rocks now covering the barren hill.  There, at the top was a tiny church, the Ermitage. 

Much to our surprise we were the only people there. So much for the hoards of tourists. Doubt settled in when we discovered the church was locked. Had we made a mistake?  Finally we spied a car winding its way slowly up the hill. Its passengers told us that yes the festival was here and on tomorrow.  Their manner was not hugely welcoming.

That evening the wind sprang up, the rain poured down and we retreated into our trusty Renault. Throughout the night, there was thunder and lightening as the storm played over us.  Our car shook every time the thunder boomed. There were other noises too, though it was too dark to see and we were more than a little scared. The three of us uncomfortably scrunched up inside, trying to sleep but alert in case someone tried to break in. We could hear voices, some shouting; some right beside us but could see nobody. 

As soon as light appeared, we wiped the condensation off the windows and peered out.  We were surrounded by huge buses; rows of them. The gypsies had arrived during the night.   Our Renault looked like a gauche, fragile imposter.  Opening the doors gingerly, we emerged; unwashed, hungry and very sleep deprived. Still, we had come to see a festival, so there was no point hiding away. Besides, we were so obvious with our tiny chariot and our antipodean looks.

It was freezing. The fog swirled as we wrapped our sleeping bags around us and made our way to where we could hear voices. We came across a large circle of men who were singing flamenco, clapping in time, drinking and very surprised to see three foreign women appear through the mist.  They offered us brandy which we gratefully took, and then another and another.  

Keeping a close eye on any action that might indicate the festival had begun, we noticed we were the only non-gypsies there.  At around 11am, still hungry, slightly drunk, but full of anticipation, we entered the tiny church.  It was beautiful. The Virgin, Our Lady of the Sierra, was arranged in white clothing edged in gold, sprinkled with gems, surrounded by flowers and placed on a platform. Incense hung in the air blending with the intense perfume of the flowers. 

What happened next is a memory I'll keep close to my heart. A flamenco mass began.  Singing, clapping, wailing, crying; all merged into one almighty, powerful, spine-tingling vocal. Nuestra Senora was hoisted onto the shoulders of six men and taken up and down the small aisle instead of outside and around the church as was the usual practice. The cobble stones around the Ermitage were feared to be too slippery, too wet and she might fall.

Shirts were ripped in passion and ecstasy as men and women's voices called and sang. My eyes were darting everywhere; looking at the joyful faces, listening to the singing in wonder and awe. Eight times the men hauled the statue up and down the aisle. So many people wanted to touch her, I was terrified she would fall from the platform and crush her followers to death. The gypsies' veneration was so deeply felt and unashamedly displayed. Energy whirled around us like an eddy, spinning everyone into another world.  It became faster, more frenetic, almost visible. The crush of the crowd increased as more people tried to make their way into the tiny Ermitage. It felt as though the emotion in the room would explode through the walls.

It was time for us to go; to leave the gypsies to their intimate devotion of Our Lady without the wide-eyed stares of turistas. Somehow we squeezed our way through the dense throng, taking a long time to find ourselves out into the fresh air again. We walked silently to the car, enveloped and uplifted by our experience and drove off down the windy, stone covered, barren hill; back to the flashy, fleshy, worldly Costa del Sol.

©Helen Vicary

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