Virgen del Carmen Festival in Estepona
The town begins to stir in the days preceding the festival itself, and on the evening of the 15th, at around 19.00 hrs, locals come to the church of Nuestra Señora del Carmen to offer flowers to a lavish wooden sculpture of the Virgin and child – the same figure around which the whole ceremony centres. This is followed by a mass, and at midnight the sound of rocket fire tells the town that the day has begun – these booms continue sporadically for the next 24 hours.
On the day itself, the ceremony is celebrated with huge variety; there is a solemn Eucharist in the church, whilst around the lonja and fishing port, the community gathers for informal sports, including knot-tying races and the infamous ´walk the pole´ competition. Boys and young men from the town board a fishing boat with a greasy telegraph pole protruding from the bow. They take it in turns to scramble to the end of the pole, hoping to catch the Spanish flag nailed to the end and become a temporary local hero – very few manage, but all are supported by the crowd´s cheers
After a quieter afternoon, the principal events of the festival commence in the evening. Crowds gather on La Rada beach, and a vast flotilla of boats assembles in the water – fishing vessels, party catamarans, yachts and dinghies. Meanwhile, the icon of the Virgin, weighing almost two tonnes, is lifted on four poles carried by around 80 fishermen, and processed along the seafront to a marching band. It is a slow, rhythmic walk, and it takes almost 2 hours for the statue to reach the beach.
Here, it is placed on a raft and pushed out to sea, with the fishermen following into the water. With dusk arriving, the Virgin begins her regal tour around the awaiting boats, blessing them according to tradition. A call and response cry of ´Viva la Virgen del Carmen!´ is met with ´Viva!´, and the crowds scream ´Guapa! Guapa! Guapa!´ as the boats manoeuvre chaotically to get closer to the Virgin. Flares are fired, and the passion of the locals makes the atmosphere electric.
|The Virgen del Carmen is taken out to sea on a boat and flares are set off.|
Eventually, the boats all race back to the port, and the Virgin returns to the shore, where she begins her slow tour back into town. The crowds recongregate outside the Hermandad Nuestra Señora del Carmen Coronada (the former church, now the base of the fishermen´s Brotherhood), and along the Barrio Pescadores, a quaint street of fishermen´s cottages, to watch the Virgin one last time. As the procession squeezes up the narrow street, locals scatter flower petals from their balconies and cheer on the fishermen, exhausted by this point under the icon´s weight.
|The Virgin del Carmen makes her way back to church.|
Finally, the Virgin del Carmen reaches the small church building, is turned to face the crowd, hoisted high above the fishermen´s heads, and met with more cries of ´Viva!´, and a final few rocket blasts. The men sing a jaunty traditional seafaring song, and at last, the Virgin is placed safely inside. She remains here for a week, for locals and visitors to pay their respects, until she is returned to the bigger church (this time with far less pomp and ceremony…).
The music, the beautiful Catholic iconography, the spirit of the fishermen and the real religious sentiment which pervades Estepona during the Virgen del Carmen make it a truly unmissable occasion for anyone wanting an insight into the town´s history and culture.
A small company based in the port offers boat trips to join the flotilla, affording wonderful close-up views of the Virgin.