43. A Very Unique Kind of Festival….

Battles. Fires. Horses. Catapults. And that’s just the start of it…

The 10-day Festival of Carthaginians and Romans (“Fiesta de Cartagineses y Romanos”) takes place in Cartagena every September, and is visited by people from all over Spain – and indeed the world. It’s unique to this city – and trust me, it is very very unique!!

How unique? As Hugo and I sat in a bar one evening with friends, we were suddenly surrounded by about 20 people, all looking a bit ‘Braveheart’ – tartan trousers, faces and chests painted blue – all cheering…. These were the Mercenaries Celtas. The bar was three deep with people brandishing cow horns to be filled with lager. About another 80 – similarly dressed, some with fox pelts on their heads, some in chainmail, some in leather armour – streamed passed the windows, cheering, singing, and chanting…

Within about 5 minutes, cow horns now filled, those in the bar had rambled out to join those in the streets… It was a whirlwind, but none of the locals in the bar seemed to bat an eyelid. Just some Carthaginians refreshing their horns on their way to fight a battle. What else would they be doing on a Friday night? It seemed fair enough…

The festival commemorates the second punic war (218-201BCE) between the Empires of Rome and Carthage, and started in the 1990 (soon after the discovery and excavation of several sites in the city revealing Cartagena’s historical importance in both of those Empires). Spoiler alert (?!): Rome wins. Every year. Rome’s victory marks the change in the name of the city from Qart Hadasht to Carthago Nova (which later became Cartagena).

I wont go into the history here, but you can check out blog post 35. Cartagena for a bit more information. Talking to several locals, the first year of the Festival was very much controlled by the ‘ruling classes’ of Cartagena who all, obviously, wanted to play the parts of the victorious Romans. No connections? Not wealthy? Well, you had to play a losing Carthaginian and get killed in the final battle… The second year however, things were conducted in a more equitable fashion; more troops and legions were founded, and membership of all was open to everyone. What a victory for equality… Several more troops and legions were formed over the following years – although the most recent ones weren’t formed until 2013, and they now total 50 (split roughly half and half between the two sides). Again, local friends explained that if you have no affiliations, you are able to choose which set you join, but if all your family are in one, then generally you will automatically join the same one. It isn’t that it’s ‘not allowed’ – although it may be a little frowned upon – more that, with social events, charity events, and other duties taking place throughout the year (it’s not just the 10-day festival if you’re a member), it would be a bit inconvenient – and possibly lonely – if all your family went to one gathering and you went to another… Nobody seemed to know what would happen if you married into a ‘rival clan’ though…

We really only caught the final parades last year, but this time we made more of an effort to go to some of the other events – we went to the opening night and saw the troops and legions amassing, we saw the arrival of the troops by boat, the lighting of the sacred fires, the Roman victory parade, and got tickets for the grandstand to watch the battle, as well as accidentally getting front row seats for the final parade.

The opening night was more impressive than I expected it to be if I’m honest – the Romans amass, fairly predictably, in the Roman Theatre, while the Carthaginians occupy the seafront (and set off plenty of glitter cannons for unsuspecting folks standing downwind of them… I had wondered why there were fewer people on our side of the procession…). The sacred fire is lit, then both sides make their way to the Encampment, where they will be based for festival. The encampment houses the HQ for each Troop/Legion for the duration of the festival, they also have their own bars, and this year, the Roman Games (only held every two years) were hosted nearby.

For me, one of the stand outs of the festival are the outfits (and to those of you who know me well, that may sound extremely strange indeed…). They are quite simply amazing – they range from genuine punic-era chainmail (costing the participant many thousands of Euros), through animal skins, opulent fabrics, and crafted leather, to altogether more esoteric creations! The participant has to pay for their own costume, and they are all stored at the Legion/Troop’s headquarter building – no using them as an elaborate fancy dress outfit for your mate’s birthday do…

One of our local friends and her husband are in the Mercenarios de Lobetania troop, and between them they have 5 fox pelts, and goodness knows how much leather as well as plenty period adornments (including pewter tankards that hang on their belts so they are never short of a vessel if there’s any beer around!). We saw them several times over the festival and they looked amazing! MaríaJosé’s husband also has long curly hair and really looks the part of a warrior!!

The second night, we headed into town again with our friends Poppy and Judith to see the nightly play and the raising of the Carthaginian flag. A different Troop/Legion takes to the stage each evening to depict the events of the time. The play was good – although we missed the start and it was standing room only by the time we arrived.. However we did catch the entry on horseback of one of the protagonists, and let’s just say the horse made the most of its 15 minutes of fame by being skittish in the extreme… The raising of the flag was a bit of a non-event, and it was only by pure luck that, as Jamie and Hugo watched one of the bands (Judith and I had long-since bailed out and gone for a coffee…), Poppy was glancing around and saw the flag being hoisted, watched by only a handful of people to no ceremony whatsoever… This is clearly not one of the main events of the Festival!!

The battle reenactment certainly is one of the main events, however. It is held on the grounds just outside the eastern city ramparts and close to remnants of the original punic wall around the city, so it’s quite possible that the reenactment is being done in at least one of the areas that the original battle took place over 2,200 years ago. Which is pretty cool if you think about it.

We got tickets for the grandstand this year with Poppy and Judith. I’m not completely sure how it came about, as the tickets were being sold in a completely signless, nondescript hut in one of the town squares (my marina friend Jane had told me of it) by a man who seemed to spend his days hanging out and drinking coffee with his mates rather than trying to bring in the punters to buy his tickets, but come about it did. We even got seats next to a man that appeared to be dressed as Julius Caesar (slightly post-era, but maybe that’s what the cool kids do), but he was very friendly and kindly let me take a photograph!

The battle commenced! Riders on horseback entered the arena and instantly set fire to the small town market that had been set up. Another horse (or maybe the same one…) got his 15 minutes of fame as he chucked his rider and caused quite a stir as he ran amok around the battleground, the other riders on their steeds trying to catch him. He ran out of the arena and we didn’t see him for a while, but he was eventually reunited with his rider, who brought him out for a lap of honour and some applause (and photos)!

The battle is really worth seeing – there were bows and arrows aplenty – real ones that fly far and could hurt… (Health and Safety here is a bit different…), people armed with slingshots, and there was also a lot more fire – aside from the market at the start, the mangonel catapults also launched live fiery projectiles, fire and smoke grenades were thrown down from the city walls, and scores of torches were paraded. Troops scaled the walls on ropes (no mean feat when the walls are around 30m high and you’re dressed only in a leather pouch and carrying an ornate dagger), mounted regiments engaged each other with swords, and the foot soldiers fought hand-to-hand while dodging the raining arrows and slingshot. Eventually, all but a few score of the Carthaginians lay dead on the battlefield and it was time for Anibal to concede defeat. Scipion made a speech commending the valour of the Carthaginian troops, and Anibal then presented his sword to Scipion to signify their surrender to Rome. This presented another slightly awkward moment as Anibal’s sword got stuck in its sheath and he had to be assisted by his deputies… Again though, everyone had a laugh about it – the show, after all, must go on…

After the battle, all the kids raced onto the battleground to collect the arrows (all of which have the names of the troop/legion that fired them on the fletching, so they make a nice little collector’s item, if you’re that way inclined), Hugo got to bang one of the drums, then everyone headed up to town for the Roman Victory Parade. Everyone apart from the Carthaginians, that is… They headed to the encampment bars, even the battle-dead ones. The horses chilled out and cut the grass while they waited for their ride home.

Last year, among the troops there was an army of geese being herded through the streets, this year, it was a camel! We found a bar near the parade route that brought a 1.5L ’decanter’ to you table so you could pour your own beer, which went down very well indeed… We didn’t have pewter tankards, but Hugo made sure Poppy, Judith and my glasses were kept topped up – toddler training at it’s zenith!

The final evening of the festival is reserved for the main parade and includes all the troops and legions that have taken part over the previous 10 days. It’s by far the best way to see everyone.

Last year by sheer fluke we had been lucky with a front row table outside a fast food restaurant that charged €1 a pint, but this year we (prudently, as it turned out) decided to book a table at a tapas bar. When we arrived, we had been allocated a second-row table, but we chatted to the waiter and if ‘Ingrid’ who had reserved the front row table didn’t turn up with her three buddies, we could have hers… the parade started, no sign of Ingrid… We were told we could move, but if Ingrid and friends turned up, we would have to move back… However Ingrid and her party never showed, so we’d like to say a big thank you to them for our front row seats, enabling some photos and video (which, although still shockingly poor quality, do not have lots of heads in the way) and also the receipt of more gifts and sweets from the paraders!

The parade seems never-ending. Early on, we were given a fan with the order of the parade on it, which was quite helpful in seeing whereabouts we were in the proceedings. Many of the troops and legions gave out sweets for the kids, but Honderos Baleares troop won by giving us a free pennant/belt/souvenir… There are also plenty of shots of (fairly mild) liquor given out (possibly a mead-type drink), and this comes from varying sources ranging from being poured from regular jugs to expressed from the breasts of a statue, or the teats of a wild boar. No, I don’t know why either… Must be a Roman thing… There is also, of course, lots more fire. People carry live fire torches, there are fire-weilding acrobats, and there are plenty of firework fountains – the sparks raining down on everyone… As I said, Health & Safety is a bit different here…

The entire thing took around 3 hours, but it was three hours that kept even a two-and-a-half year old boy enthralled (although it could also have been the sweets)… It’s our favourite festival in Cartagena (and trust me, there are a lot), and definitely something not to miss if you get the chance!

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