Pageantry and passion from history...

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ALTHOUGH I’ve never been there, spotting the signpost to Benidorm from the window of our airport transfer coach, I was relieved when the driver took the inland turn to Alcoy.

Nestled in a valley, the medieval city of bridges in the Alicante province attracts tens of thousands to its major annual event, a mammoth fiesta celebrating the 13th century struggle for supremacy between Moors and Christians. According to legend, St George appeared during the battle and the Christians won the day. The townsfolk of Alcoy made him their patron saint and hold an annual festival in his honour.

This is no procession of home-made costumes, village bands, paper flowers and tin foil covered floats. It’s a passionate affair, a serious business.

Preparations for the Fiesta de Moros y Cristianos take a full year and around five thousand Spaniards take part.

A total of 28 Christian and Moorish filaes or groups meet regularly beforehand to raise funds, organise banquets and design costumes specific to their own army, down to each tiny detail.

There are no trainers, T-shirts or trouser legs peeping from beneath costumes.

However, tradition relaxes in some areas. You may be amused to see an armoured squadron leader’s teeth clamped on a fat cigar.

On the big day, the white and red cross flag of San Jorge draped from strings of balconies. A cacophony of bagpipes, brass, drum, string and woodwind sections stirred the blood of the 40,000 spectators, who cheered and roared as they threw red carnations, sparkling confetti and streamers on to the narrow streets and squares of the old city.

Shield-bearing squadrons of Christian soldiers of the Middle Ages marched onward to herald the arrival of the troops and standard bearers. A team of four pulled a wheeled wooden cage of live wolf-like creatures, some pacing, some panting, tongues out, in the heat.

Christian leaders galloped in at a pace, waving and smiling to the crowds as they showed off their amazing horsemanship.

And also their glistening, bulging biceps, rippling thighs gleaming from beneath short, tightly-belted leather tunics. (Maybe it was the hot weather which made me feel a little dizzy.)

They played to the crowd, as proud steeds pranced, danced on hind legs, side-stepped, circled and pawed the air, just a few feet from tots in pushchairs and babes in arms, but always in supreme control.

Women were secondary in this testosterone-filled celebration. Christian females were portrayed as gentle, ethereal beings, almost floating weightlessly in seas of blue-green fronds and ribbons.

It rarely rains on this parade and the May sun blazed down on the entrance of the Moors, of Arabic and Muslim heritage. This was a darker, more theatrical entrada of Eastern mystique, with camels, stilt-walkers and bare-chested fire-eaters. Swords, scimitars and sabres flashed during mock battles with horsemen shouting as they attacked, defended, reversed and turned. Chariot riders challenged the crowd with steely glares.

Their women were seductive and overtly female. A sensual, snake-like, 13th century version of a pole dance on a float caught many a male eye.

Celebrations continued into the evening, but travelled to nearby Alicante on the Costa Blanca. Famous for its palm tree-lined boulevard, stunning beaches and shopping streets, its original name Lucentum, translates as City of Light. Clearly the Spaniards make thorough preparations for big events.

In Alicante, it takes a year to prepare for the annual Foguera di Alicante, The Bonfire of Alicante in June.

Around 200 intricate tableaux of giant papier mache figures, sometimes three metres high, are designed, painted, mounted and displayed in the town, before one is declared the best. A small section from this is displayed in the town’s museum.

The rest of it plus all the others, is set alight in a Spanish version of Bonfire Night.

The elevated, town centre Castle of Santa Barbara is one of the biggest medieval fortresses in Spain and offers fabulous views.

We stayed at the Hotel Tryp Gran Sol, minutes from the sea front. The restaurant must offer one of the best 90 degree vistas in the resort. With its terracotta-washed walls, tiled floors and tapas-style food, the authentic La Cosana Alicantina restaurant enables al fresco dining on a pretty, pedestrianised street. It’s a favourite haunt of Fabio Capello.

A tasty, serrano ham pate with walnuts, tomatoes and a balsamic dressed rocket salad was followed by a mountain of bread-crumbed, fried cheese with almonds and slivers of pumpkin.

We then tucked in to scrambled eggs mixed with gula fish, plus mushrooms and onion on fried bread. Then came huge tender, juicy steaks with fried potatoes plus dessert.

With food like this, we needed a siesta and enjoyed colourful dreams of the flamboyant Alcoyan fiesta.

Alcoyanos are sad when their celebrations come to an end, and immediately start counting the days to the next one.

So would I if I was likely to be in Alcoy, for the Moors were rather moreish!