Lots of Spanish towns and villages host a fiesta in mid-July, and not only because they like fireworks, processions and parties, although all of this is true! Algorfa is no exception, and the Virgen del Carmen fiesta is the highlight of the fiesta calendar. Dia del Virgen del Carmen is celebrated on 16 July each year, and there are up to two weeks of festivities ahead of the main day.
The Virgen del Carmen is another incarnation of the Virgin Mary, based on a religious reading from the Old Testament. Elijah was doing battle with the wicked monarchs Ahab and Jezebel. A drought was brought on the land as punishment for worshipping false gods, and eventually, Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel and organised a competition of sacrifices to see who was the true God. Long story short, Elijah won, and as a reward, God sent the rain to end the drought, and also told Elijah that a saviour would be born of a virgin.
It took another 300 years or so for that to happen, but that was the start of the worship of the Virgen del Carmen, which led to the founding of the Carmelite religious order. The first group of hermits built chapels to her on Mount Carmel, so that’s probably why many chapels to the Virgen del Carmen are also built on hills, like Algorfa’s own Ermita.
The Virgen del Carmen is the patron saint of more than 100 towns and villages in Spain, including Algorfa, as well as being the patron saint of sailors, fishermen and the Spanish navy. She’s also called ‘Stella Maris,’ or ‘Star of the Seas.’ You might be wondering why Algorfa should celebrate this saint, when it’s clearly not a coastal town. Well, there’s the Biblical connection to Elijah’s prophecy and drought. As an agricultural area, drought is the last thing Algorfa needs, so that’s one good reason to get her on our side. And Carmel is derived from the Arabic Al-Karem, which translates as ‘Garden of God.’
When the 7th Marques of Algorfa, Raphael Rojas y Galiano, built the Ermita Chapel at the beginning of the 20th century, he dedicated it to the Virgen del Carmen, and that’s another pretty good reason to celebrate on 16 July. This particular Marques was a cousin of the previous one, who died without heirs, so maybe he wanted to emphasise his right to the title by building something recognisable all over the area and teaming up with one of the most important of all the Spanish saints. Coming from an aristocratic family, there were sure to be naval connections, and he was born at San Juan, Alicante, so there’s another connection with the sea. He would have grown up celebrating Virgen del Carmen.
In coastal towns and villages, it’s common for the Virgen to be taken out to sea to bless the waters, after being paraded through the streets. Clearly in Algorfa that can’t happen, so the Virgen is taken to the Ermita, where she stays for the day before being brought back to the parish church in town. There are holy masses all through the fiesta, because like many fiestas in Spain, it has its roots in Catholicism.
Why 16 July? Well, on that day back in 1251, the Virgen del Carmen appeared to Simon Stock, and English monk who was the head of the Carmelite order at the time. He’s credited with being the first person to call her Stella Maris. In 1901 she was declared patron saint of the Spanish Navy – around the same time the Ermita was built.
If you’ve never been to Dia del Carmen, try and make 2022 the year you do. It’s moving, it’s fun, it’s entertaining, and it’s traditional Spain. It’s probably your best chance to integrate with your Spanish neighbours and celebrate one of Spain’s most important and well-loved saints. Nobody does fiestas Spain, and no fiesta is quite like Virgen del Carmen. You’ll want to return again and again.