The fiestas of Caravaca de la Cruz are centered around two legends that go back to the thirteenth century.  The first legend concerns the horses.  The festival is known for the races of decorated horses – the wine horses.  In the thirteenth century, there was a siege by the Muslims and the Christian residents took refuge in the castle.  But the Moors poisoned the water, and many people became sick.  The Templar Knights mocked the Moors and went to get the wine which would be carried in the saddlebags on their horses.  After they had returned to the castle with the wine, the wine was blessed with the sacred cross and given to the sick, who were healed.

A large part of the fiesta involves decorating the horses for a race up the hill to the castle, with four young men running with each horse, one horse at a time.

The second legend involves the holy cross of Caravaca, which is distinctive for having two horizontal arms.  It is a reliquary that, according to legend, contains a piece of the true cross, the actual cross Christ was crucified on.   The cross belonged to the first bishop of Jerusalem after the holy city was conquered by the Muslims in the first crusade, in 1099.  Then in 1229, in the sixth crusade another bishop possessed the cross.  A couple of years later, while the city of Caravaca was under Muslim rule, the Muslim king questioned the Christian prisoners what their role was.  The priest explained his role was to conduct mass, and so the King directed the priest to perform a mass.  But the priest told the King that he needed a crucifix.  And at that moment two angels came in through the window and set a double-armed cross on the altar.  Seeing such a wonder, the king and his court converted to Christianity.

During the fiesta, the cross is brought outside the church and many of the faithful approach the priest to kiss the cross.  The priest also places the cross on the forehead of small babies to bless them as well.

On the first of May, the wine horses were paraded through the streets of the city, and there was a competition.  The horses were well groomed but did not carry the fancy embroidered panels that would adorn them in the races the next day.   There was much festivity in the streets, and each of the sixty peñas (clubs) that had a horse in the upcoming race, were enjoying the party.

When I was there, I saw a man with several lipstick kiss prints on his face and asked him what had happened.  He replied that his wife had "marked" him, to lay claim to him and keep him out of the arms of others during the festivities.  He was from the Pua peña, identified on his shirt.  Several others from the peña joined us and invited me to have a drink with them.  One of the women said I should be branded as well and planted a fresh lipstick kiss on my cheek.  I asked her if that meant I now “belonged” to her.

Later I came to a small plaza packed with people.  The peñas were bringing their horses up the hill through narrow streets, through the plaza, at a gallop, as the crowd parted just enough for the horse and runner to make their way through.  (As I said on my home page, fun trumps safety in Spain.)  I saw someone on a balcony from the Pua peña, and they invited me up to take photos from the balcony – lovely hospitality!

In another street, I approached some boys from the Escandalo (scandal) peña because they had a good looking horse, and the name of their peña had caught my eye as well.  I asked one of them if it would be possible to come and watch them prepare their horse the next day for the races.  He said sure, but I would have to be there at 5 AM to be able to see all the preparations.  The next morning, the preparations began with braiding the horse’s tail.  I have shared two photos of the embroidered panels being attached to the horse.  They must be secure, as the horses will later be galloping up the hill to the castle and church.

While the fiesta is fun, the decorating of the horses and the race are serious business to these boys.  Each peña is out to win the prize.  That evening I had a long conversation out on the patio of the Pua peña, with one of the mature men of the peña who shared what the race means to the young men who run with the horses.  There are trials to pick the four runners, and this year was the first time running for three of the four.  One spent the morning vomiting and another crying, all from nerves for the big race.  It’s more than just a couple days of partying.  It’s also more than just an 8 second run up the hill.

these are thumbnails and not a full view - click on a photo to see full size

Up on top of the hill with the castle and church, in addition to the finish line of the horse races, there was an offering of flowers to the holy cross.  Many people had traditional dress on.  In the photos, you can see a pretty young woman with flowers for the offering and a very young lady excited with the festivities.

In addition to the offering of flowers, and the wine horses, there are groups of Moors and Christians that parade through the streets in full regalia.  Below is a picture of the king and queen on horseback, then one of the Moors, and several more Moors sharing adult beverages during a pause in the procession.

and sharing adult beverages while resting

The second of May is when the wine horses race up the hill to the castle.  Each horse is accompanied by four runners, each holding onto the horse.  The horse and all four runners must reach the finish line together, or the horse is disqualified, such as when one of the runners falls.  The race takes 7 or 8 seconds for the fastest ones, and each peña runs their horse one at a time.  Below is a photo of one of the horses near the end of the climb, and a video of two of the horses, with runners falling.

As with the run through the small plaza the day before, the street is crowded with people that part at the last moment to let the horse and runners through.  Later in the day, I needed to find someplace to recharge a battery for my camera (I had brought four) and saw someone from the Pua peña.  I was invited to their club house and shared a dinner with them.  They were celebrating the large trophy their horse had won, and there were lots of chants and singing, and some dancing.  Needless to say, there were a few adult beverages available.

The hospitality and friendliness of the people of Caravaca de la Cruz were outstanding.