Chain mail and sackcloth

Sitting on straw bales, looking at sackcloth-covered walls, and watching medieval damsels and brave knights-at-arms process down narrow, cobbled streets and dine in castles is not an everyday experience. But medieval fairs are growing in popularity, and Andalucia is made for them, with its Moorish castles, ancient towns and willingness for a party. This particular fair was in Alanis de la Sierra, a small, pretty town in the far north of Seville province - and of Andalucia - just kilometres from Extremadura. Nestled in the oak-covered rolling hills of the Sierra Norte, it is overlooked by a magnificent castle, whose walls are intact though its interior sadly missing for centuries. As we wandered through the shady streets (toldos hung over the narrow space between the houses, providing much-needed relief from the sun), the kids had a great time climbing onto straw bales, and then jumping off again. We admired all the outfits - plenty of caballeros, with their heraldic crest emblazoned on their tunics, chainmail hoods, swords and boots; doncellas with long velvet robes and wide, hanging sleeves, with embellished with gold and silver, topped with scarves draped over their hair. Children were princesses, Robin Hoods and peasants. There were even some Tudor-era costumes (late medieval - the whole era lasted from 500 to 1500, apparently), with embroidered fabric and semi-circular headdress. Most of those in costume were locals, who make their own outfits, some even having two or three for the feria, as with flamenco dresses at modern-era ferias. Even the kids' amusements were medieval-themed - the carousel had little leather and wood chairs (or at least they looked very convincing) which hung from a round metal centre, and the pirate ship ride was operated by the scariest-looking fellow you ever saw, straight off the Black Pearl - not that the kids were bothered, wearing their pirate hats and screaming with delight as they swung away back and forth in their boat. Musicians played drums and pipes, while stilt-walkers moved along, amazingly steady on their super-long limb-extensions, waving their colourful flags - a mesmering sight at night, with brightly-coloured bunting strung across the plaza, and the castle lit up on the hill above. There were other entertainments, including plays and concerts, but we stuck to the easy bit - standing or sitting around watching the action, with a beer in hand. The nick-nacks varied from the unmistakeably period-style (wooden swords and shields, bows and arrows, plain brown ceramics, floral garlands) to the contemporary (bright ceramics, Indian bags, artesanal cheeses) and those which were somewhere in between - an ingenious wooden toy, which looked like a pipe, which you blow in order to keep a little ball balanced just above its end. My son loved it, and then of course lost it soon after. Inevitably, the usual, plastic made-in-China toys were there too, but it was fun to see traditional wooden toys, increasingly hard to come by in the face of CCC (cheap crap from China). And local tourist offices were out in force: little jousting tents housed emissaries from each Sierra del Norte town. My husband, ususally one to avoid fancy dress, was gently goaded into joining in. He looked quite the part in a floor-length Moorish djellaba (hooded tunic) with pointed leather shoes and man-pouch (all courtesy of our friends), while I used a long dress with my friend's bodice to make a wench outfit. She's a pro, and made her own damsel/princess outfit and her partner's knight (complete chainmail tights sewn onto underpants) some years ago. When it got to about 2am, the local youth contingent came out in force - teenagers and 20-somethings carrying out a full-on botellon, and the rock concert started, so it was time to take exhausted toddlers home through the straw-strewn streets, past the crenellated churro-y-chocolate stall, to my friend's flat, where we all collapsed into bed. If you ever get the chance to go to one of these events, I would highly recommend it. Dressing up makes it all the more fun; you feel part of the scene. Definitely worth the effort, whether you make, hire or borrow your outfit.
Blog published on 6 September 2010