Thursday, August 20, 2009

LES ALFABEGUES (or The Tomatina without tomatoes – see link, still time to book)

The legend:
I have never been to Les Alfabegues festival but this year I was invited so was forced to say 'thank you' nicely. I had, of course, heard about it ... such fun, all these hefty guys stagger through the streets of Bétera wearing flowery shirts and straw hats carrying huge floats (over 2 metres high) of Basil decorated with roses at the top, whilst drinking copious amounts of Sangria and a homebrewed concoction that is anybody's guess. Every so often they stop to sing loud, rousing songs in praise of the humble Basil plant accompanied by brass bands. And if that isn't joyful enough for you there are others guys with huge bags of confetti who throw it all over you (you are not allowed to throw it back) where its specially gluey properties clamps itself to your sweaty skin ensuring that you will be unable to remove it before Christmas unless, of course, you get lucky and one of the residents throws a bucket of water over you from a first floor balcony. By the end, then, you're knee deep in tiny bits of sticky paper, it's 43º and you're soaked in either sweat or water, or both, with confetti in your underwear where it's worked its way into awkward little places even you don't want to go, wondering what you're doing here ... how blissful is that?

The truth:
This is a joyous festival, full of fun and laughter, music and singing. Even the little ones join in carrying small floats of basil between them, their small faces shining with pride, dressed in their flowery costumes and straw hats. The confetti is hurled with wild abandon and in places reaches almost to your knees. In England this festival would be banned. One because it makes a terrible mess (no less than 6 tons of Confetti are used in the two hours or so) and, two lots of drink is involved and fighting would, sadly, inevitably break out. But here everyone is good-natured and here to enjoy the spectacle and be part of this most important day.

The facts:
No-one actually knows when the festival first began – some say the 19th century, some say it's been going on since Roman times – but the purpose is to celebrate the rebirth of life after winter, to honour The Virgin of the Assumption and ask for the protection and welfare of her people. The seeded Basil of Bétera is acknowledged to be the largest and most magnificent in the world. The previous record was measured by the Notary at the Garden of Basil and reached 2.59m. This year the long, dry summer has been perfect for growing the Basil, making Ramon Asensi, the man in charge of the cultivation of the plants, extremely happy because he has a new record - not in height but in girth this year.

NB: Basil is a native plant of Persia and South East Asia and was first introduced into Europe by the Greeks, becoming highly prized by the Romans both as a culinary herb and for its curative properties. In Egypt it was used in the process of mummification.

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