The Holy Grail, the sacred cup reputedly used by Christ in the Last Supper, is kept in Valencia’s Cathedral – or at least the one recognised by the Vatican is. It is no surprise then that one of the most colourful, as well as traditional festivals in the city should revolve around the celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist: the Feast of Corpus Christi.
The Day of Corpus Christi is a movable festivity which is held 60 days after Easter Sunday. Though the actual Corpus Christi Day is on Thursday (15 June this year), the celebrations extend over several days, and the biggest events now take place on the following Sunday (18 June). And, as in many other festivals in Valencia, they involve a mixture of the solemn and the riotous.
The tradition of celebrating Corpus Christi in Valencia dates back to the 14th century, and one of the main elements of the festival, the Rocas (or Roques), can be tracked back to that time. These are beautiful horse-drawn carriages built in the Middle Ages for the representation of Mystery Plays. The eleven wooden structures resemble ancient boats carrying the sculptures of biblical figures and saints.
These remarkable pieces of religious art are kept throughout the year at the Corpus Christi Museum (also known as Casa de las Rocas), which has just reopened following a full renovation, with new informative displays – a secret gem worth visiting. During the festival, they are taken out and displayed at the Plaza de la Reina, before being paraded through the city centre on Sunday (4.30pm).
But this is not the only parade on Sunday. The most popular – and fun – is the Cabalgata del Convite, which takes place at noon. Here, symbolism and religion mix in traditional dances and giants and dwarves take over the streets before a water fight erupts.
People lining the streets of the Barrio del Carmen cheer as the Capella de les Roques (the Priest of the Roques) leads the parade on horseback, inviting everybody to join in the celebration. Following him, you will see allegorical dances performed, like the one of the Moma. This peculiar character, played by a man dressed as a woman completely covered in delicate white clothes and veil, represents virtue. In her dance she has to fight the seven deadly sins, represented by the Momos – men wearing black masks and dragon-shaped hats.
Other traditional dances follow, to the sound of the tabalet and dolcaina, the typical Valencian tambourine and flute. Amongst these is the dance of the Gegants (giants) and Nanos (dwarves). The giants are huge hollow papier-mache figures, up to four metres tall, which symbolise faith in the Eucharist.
Finally comes the Degolla, a group dressed as devils, representing the supporters of King Herod who slaughtered innocent babies at his command. In a word, they represent evil, and as such must be defeated… with water! Buckets of water are thrown from the balconies as they pass through in what is known as the Poala. But watch out, as they usually fight back with their own water supply, catching out unsuspecting bystanders in the fight.
Things calm down after that, and there is a break to dry out before the more solemn procession in the evening, parading what is supposed to be the biggest gold monstrance in the world. This time, the parade is showered with flower petals instead of water, a peaceful way to end a most remarkable day.