Festival of the Three Cultures in Frigiliana

I first learned of the Feria de las Tres Culturas — The Festival of the Three Cultures — following my initial exploration into the three cultures in Cordoba last year, unfortunately only just after the event in Frigiliana had passed. So I’ve been looking forward to it ever since then and anticipation was high: I was aware of a childish excitement as my partner and I approached the village from the far side.

The constant stream of local fiestas throughout summer and fall has become one of my favorite things about living in Spain. It’s always culturally intriguing for an American expat such as myself; and let’s face it, I don’t get out much anymore compared to my previous life in London. So I have enjoyed the various fiestas in the surrounding villages this year and especially the week-long blowout bash that is the annual festival of Malaga, but none of them showed anything quite like the unique character of the festival of the Three Cultures in Frigiliana.

Frigiliana is a quaint but sizeable Andalusian white washed village sitting in the hills just a short distance up from the coast at Nerja in the breathtaking natural surroundings of the region of La Axarquia. Once voted ‘prettiest village in Andalucia’ by the Spanish tourist board, the old part is also one of the best preserved Moorish villages in Spain. Situated as it is, the Jews, Christians and Islamic Moors who all lived together there in relative harmony a millennium ago would have enjoyed a similar view of the sea and the orange light of sunset on the distant hills that welcomed us as we arrived.

Though the sun was getting low it was still early by Spanish time and we were happy to ease into the festivities, especially considering that we had eaten little that day in anticipation of the tapas route. Despite the culturally rich programme full of traditional music concerts, respected performers and academic speakers, it was really the tapas route we were most looking forward to, and I wanted the T-shirt promised to those who could complete the route! The first of the participating establishments greeted us almost immediately and did not disappoint.

At only €1.50 for tapas and a cup of beer I told myself not to expect too much, but the quality was quite good. There were two routes, in fact, with nine participating restaurants each: a Moorish route with culinary reminiscences of the Islamic Moors, and a Mudejar route characterised by the blend of Islamic and Christian traditions that evolved as the last of the Moors adopted Christian customs in this region after the fall of the Kingdom of Granada and the end of Moorish rule in Andalusia. This blend of cultures is visible in the architecture, but the main distinction on the two tapas routes is the inclusion of pork into the Mudejar dishes whereas the Muslim Moors would not have eaten the meat.

So we eagerly carried on toward the centre of Frigiliana, stopping at no fewer than four tapas bars before we ever reached the main area of activity. By this time the light had faded, the ancient streets had filled and the village did begin to transform in my imagination. Perhaps it was my eager anticipation that allowed me to buy into the back-in-time atmosphere, aided by timeless Arabic music in the streets and period dress from many of the shop and bar keepers. Never mind the electric speakers or the electric lights strung above the streets, which only contributed to the enchantment as night fell. Or perhaps it was just that the tapas tour was already beginning to feel more like a pub crawl to me.

Perhaps the organisers and the community actually just pulled it off. It felt like part medieval festival and part carnival, with street performers delighting young and old alike with all sorts of entertainment, from fully attired troubadours to plate spinning, juggling and fire breathing. In the central area before the 16th century palace (today looking more like the sugar refinery it later became) an ancient market had been recreated, complete with artisans displaying mouthwatering candies and making chocolates, woodcrafts, mosaics and myriad other wares that could have been traded at the time. Leather goods, incense, candles, and of course more food.

The combination of sights and scents was as intoxicating as the tapas route itself… We carried on through the narrow streets from one end of the village to the other and back, the series of restaurants seemingly strategically placed to include the entire community and show off the finest sights. The mood from all was festive and communal, and strangers struck up conversations in the street, unabashed and unconcerned with language barriers. Such was the genial atmosphere, at one point, as I was snapping a photo, a man ten metres away began shouting to me that I had dropped money from my pocket. Another stranger picked it up for me. Nice.

In the end I think we visited eleven of the eighteen tapas bars and restaurants but by then enough was enough: pork cheeks, migas with chorizo, marinated pork in mustard sauce, bean stew, veal stew, on and on and on. I was happy to sit it out for a while and just watch the entertainers and the entertained. Though they were celebrating the history of Jewish, Moorish and Christian cultures, this party was unmistakably Spanish all the while.

The Spanish do know how to party, without a doubt. However, the Frigiliana festival truly feels like much more than an excuse for a party. I think they may actually be on to something. It wasn’t all harmony in Frigiliana, it was the site of one of the main battles and the final bloody demise of the Moors in La Axarquia during the rebellion of 1569, after the Christian reconquest in 1487 and subsequent oppression. Still, in a world where these three cultures (and others) seem to have drifted ever further apart since then, and today are still characterized more by the clash of civilizations, surely it is worth celebrating and remembering the spirit of harmony realised in this very place a millennium ago.

Dreaming about travel? Here’s an adventure in San Miguel De Allende, Mexico.

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