Basically the Nit de l'Alba is an orgy of fireworks somehow miraculously loosely tethered to something religious. The origins are supposed to be that in the Middle Ages families in the city offered thanks to the Virgin for each of their children by launching one rocket for each child on the holy day designated to her. Nowadays all over the city, fireworks, aerial fireworks, are launched into the night sky in one long session of rolling thunder. I thought it was usually from quarter to midnight but Maggie told me that the city authorities were going to do something new this year in launching six enormous palmeras from different parts of the city at quarter past eleven. A pyrotechnical palmera is launching a huge number of fireworks from a concentrated area so that the tongues of flame and colour rise into the sky and fan out like the fronds of a palm tree, or palmera in Spanish. Elche is the city of the palm tree.
We headed for the Basilica church, where, at midnight, the most impressive of all the palmeras is launched from the highest of the church's towers. I read somewhere that it reaches over 250 metres into the sky. Sounds a long way to me. Anyway the square around the basilica de Santa Maria was closed. It seems that it has to do with European Health and Safety regs which have meant that several of the launch sites for the fireworks have had to be changed too. So, if things had to change, the city decided that it would try to improve the spectacle as well. Last night they pumped 64,000 rockets into the night sky and set off 390 of the palmeras using over two tons of gunpowder in the process. And that process started in earnest at half past eleven, just as we had arrived at the fences around the Basilica, and were discussing whether to go and get a drink or not. We waited whilst the lights of the city, at least in and around the square, were turned off. We waited whilst the fragment of the famous Elche mystery play - el Gloria Patri - boomed out from the loudspeakers and, as the sound faded away, the huge palmera from the church burst into the darkened sky. Impressive, With the lights back on the habanera type song, Aromas ilicitanos, got its turn to fill the square. It always says in the tourist write ups of the event that all the ilicitanos, the people of Elche, sing along with the song. Maybe so and maybe not but I can confirm that at least one young man was doing his best to make up for the recalcitrant, just in my left ear, at top volume and with obvious pride in his city.
We went on for a tapa or two and I forgot all about the firework battle, the guerra de carretillas, which I had described to one of our guests. In fact this morning I wondered if it still existed and I found that it does but that it has been renamed Carretillà to do away with the bellicose reference. In fact it was depressing reading for anyone who approves of the reckless abandon of some Spanish traditions. It seems the event, which once upon a time was a pitched battle between firework wielding youths, now has a specific, and purposely delayed, start time, is limited to one part of the city inside a fenced compound and that potential participants have to go on a training course beforehand.
One of the aspects I like most about the Nit de l'Alba has nothing to do with the organised part. It is that the city is simply rocked by bangers, rockets, Roman candles, flares and jumping jacks for hours. Fireworks exploded around the car as we searched for a parking space, we watched tiny children throwing bangers as we ate, the pavement was crunchy with rocket sticks. It would require a better writer than me to describe the way that the city simply booms and sparkles for hours but that's what it did and I think our visitors thought it had been worth the journey and the latish night.