I think it is save to say that most people never heard of Caravaca de la Cruz – a charming little town in the region of Murcia in the south of Spain. About 30,000 people live here and most days it is a quiet place. It is the Fifth Holy City of Catholic Christianity. In 1998, Pope John Paul II granted the city the privilege to celebrate the jubilee year in perpetuity.
On top of the central hill of the town sits a beautiful Cathedral – the Santuario de la Vera Cruz (the Sanctuary of the True Cross). It contains several convents and the stunning parish church, which is home to the miraculous cross.
Legend says that when Arabs and Berbers invaded the territory and occupied it for a long time, a miracle occurred in Caravaca in the 13th century, at a time when it was a Moorish kingdom for already several centuries. Nevertheless, the Christians tried to reclaim their territory and this so called Reconquista took several forms: gradual infiltration, open fighting and missionizing. One of these missionaries was Don Gínes Pérez Chirinos de Cuenca. One day, he was captured by the Moorish king’S guards and taken to the king, who had a general interest in Christianity and its customs and traditions. He wanted to learn more about the celebration of the last supper and therefore asked the missionary to demonstrate how Christians celebrate it. The priest was reluctant at first but agreed in the end. The Moorish king arranged for all important artefacts needed for the ceremony except for a cross. Don Gínes Pérez Chirinos de Cuenca said, he could not celebrate the Last Supper without – but then the king shouted: “So – what is that?” by pointing to the window.
From the heavens, two angels appeared carrying a cross, which they placed on the altar and then disappeared.
The priest could continue with the ceremony. The king was deeply impressed by what happened during the ceremony that he converted to Christianity.
For this reason alone, it would be worth visiting Caravaca. If you wait for the beginning of May, however, you can witness a spectacular festival in honour of the holy cross, which draws massive crowds from all over the world every year: the Fiestas de Mayo.
The Story of the Fiestas de Mayo
From April 30 to May 5, the people of Caravaca create a festival to honour the Cross and to celebrate the “Caballos del Vino”. This is a horse race through the crowds of people (it does not just sound quite dangerous – it is!) up to the hill and the castle on May 2. Around this main event, there are many parades with people dressed up as Christians and Moors, there are music and food and of course, the horses. The horses are dressed up in beautifully embroidered costumes. The days before the big race, the horses and their costumes are displayed for everyone to admire and to select the most beautiful horse and the most beautiful costume – but of course, being the fastest and winning the race is the most prestigious prize to win.
This tradition is kept alive for years to remember the times in the 13th century when Knights of the Temple passed through the town and build the castle on the hill in the centre of town. One day, the town people and knights were under siege by the Moores’ army and hid in the castle. The people did not have water as the wells nearby had been poisoned and people fell in – so the group had to come up with a plan! Some of the knights sneaked out of the castle at night to find water. However, all they could find was wine, which they loaded on a horse and raced through the enemies’ lines back to the castle. The wine was blessed in the presence of the Caravaca Cross and given to the people who had fallen ill. They recovered immediately and after they mixed the wine with the remaining, poisoned water in the castle, the water became fresh again. This helped the Christians to regain their strength to defeat the enemy.
Tip: If you want to blend in with the crowd, bring a white dress shirt (but a t-shirt will do as well) and a pair of black pants. It is tradition to wear this uniform together with a red square bandana around your neck – you will easily find one at one of the many street vendors.