A wonderful thing about Spain is the number and variety of festivals and celebrations we continue to find.
Villena, pronounced ‘Bee-yen-a’, was designated a ‘city’ in 1525, and despite having a population today of approximately 34,000, it is still called a city. It lies 36 miles west (inland) from Alicante and, while not far from the coast, mountains separate Villena from the Mediterranean creating a much drier climate. The average rainfall each year is only 17-18”, slightly more than southern California, creating an arid landscape that reminds us of home.
We found the Festival Museum behind beautifully carved locked doors in the Plaza de Santiago, in a four-story 19th century former palace. An employee from the tourist information office next door offered to unlock the museum and was then kind enough to give us a quick 15-minute private tour. How lucky were we!
The museum is solely dedicated to the many festivals held in Villena and the highlights inside are beautiful posters, pamphlets and awards of past festivals and dozens of mannequins dressed in an array of magnificent period costumes used in the various festivals.
Moros y Cristianos
In addition to the popular Medieval Fiesta held in March and the Moors and Christians festival held in September, we believe the Carnival of Villena 2019 may have been in full swing during our visit to Villena in February. As we walked around the city we encountered a number of people in costume role playing their characters, but we were not 100% clear what was happening.
The much larger Moors and Christians festival is a week long celebration held in September each year. Many cities and towns have a Moros y Cristianos Fiesta and depending on the city, the festival takes place in whatever month the conquering Spanish King ousted the Moors from that city. Villena’s festival dates back to 1474 and according to tradition, the festival commemorates the ongoing battles between Moors and Christians during the period known as Reconquista (re-conquest) that took place between the 13th to 15th centuries.
The festival lasts for several days and everyone wears medieval costumes during the entire event. Christians wear furs, metallic helmets and armor and fire loud arquebuses (an early type of portable gun supported using a tripod) and Moors wear Arabic costumes and carry scimitars. The festival has medieval music, parades, fireworks, numerous events and activities each day and ends with the Christians winning a simulated battle around Atalaya Castle.
Castillo de la Atalaya
‘Atalaya Castle’ or ‘Castle of the Watch’, in Villena, was built in the 11th century by the Moors. There was an older castle called Castle of Salvatierra built two centuries earlier and located a couple of hundred meters higher up the mountain. The purpose of Atalaya was to watch, protect and defend Salvatierra against the advance of the Christians.
Jaume I of Aragon tried unsuccessfully twice to take the castles but it wasn’t until his third attempt in 1240 that he was finally able to conquer the Moors and claim the castles for Aragon. A treaty was signed 4 years later between the Crown of Aragon and the Crown of Castile handing the fortress over to the Castilians.
The Castle of Salvatierra was abandoned and left to ruin in the 14th century but Atalaya Castle was occupied, enlarged and reinforced many times throughout the centuries. After the War of Independence, in 1813, the retreating Napoleonic Army reduced a large part of the castle to rubble making it uninhabitable. Restoration work would not begin until 1958 and would continue off and on over the decades with the most recent reconstruction finalized in 2013.
The castle is now in wonderful condition and hosts the annual fireworks that begins the Moros and Cristianos festival as well as the location of the final feast one week later.
Ruta de los Relojes de Sol
(Route of the Sundials, or literally, Route of the Solar Watches)
We have written before about how much we enjoy discovering the amazing variety of sundials. Imagine our surprise when we learned Villena had a map indicating there were five sundials to search for in the historic center. Our favorite type of hunting.
Up until the 18th century, sundials were the most reliable way to tell time. Traditional sundials would be read by watching a shadow cast by a rod, called a gnomon, progress over a series of time lines drawn on a plane.
Sundials were often applied to the facades of churches and town halls between the 16th and 18th centuries, although we found one installed as recently as 2007. A few of the Sundials had Latin slogans carved above them and two of our favorites were: “Brief are the days of Man” and “Friendship overcomes the hours.”
Museo Arqueológico Municipal de Villena
Villena’s beautiful renaissance Town Hall, built in 1520, shares its space with the Archaeology Museum. The museum opened in 1957 with the intention of exclusively exhibiting local archaeological finds. We found this museum to be tiny, but it is mighty.
In our Elche, Spain blog [Elche, Spain] we talked about the beautiful bust from the 4th century BC, called “La Dama de Elche” or “The Lady of Elche”. This museum in Villena has a second similar sculpture called “Dama de Caudete”, also dating to the 4th century BC. Unfortunately Lady of Caudete is fairly damaged and her features have blurred considerably with time.
The museum presents a number of samples of Islamic pottery that were excavated from Salvatierra Castle and there are ancient tools displayed from nomads that lived in caves in this area 50,000 years ago. However, the star attraction of the museum is called ‘The Treasure of Villena’.
In 1963 a group of stonemasons found a golden treasure, called ‘Tesorillo del Cabezo Redondo’ – treasure of Cabezo Redondo, (the archaeology site). They found 35 pieces of gold jewelry dated from 1000 BC. Then in December 1963 another gold bracelet, weighing more than a pound, was found in a different area of Villena. That bracelet eventually lead an excavation team to ‘The Treasure of Villena’. Found inside a vessel in a deep hole, were 60 gold pieces, including bowls, bottles and jewelry, silver bottles, iron jewelry, gold and amber buttons and more. The gold collection weighed in excess of 20 pounds and had been hidden for more than 3000 years!
During a tour of the museum the staff may open the cabinet where some of the gold pieces are displayed.
Prior to our travels we had read many books, fiction and nonfiction, about the two powerful kingdoms of Aragon and Castile and being the history buffs we are, often walking through, seeing and visiting these glorious sites can feel surreal.
Salud from these roamers,
Ted & Julia