by Victor Sesma
Victor Sesma is an Alicantinian living in London. He is a Software Engineer who likes writing about the city he was born.
During Las Hogueras de San Juan -or The Bonfires of Saint John- everyone is welcome to celebrate a particular Midsummer-originated festival with unusual events and activities.
Las Hogueras de San Juan -The Bonfires of Saint John- is a festival in Alicante celebrated with gigantic bonfires made of satirical sculptures, party, gunpowder crackers, water, music, traditions, food and sun. On the 19th of June, the bonfires are mounted and on the night of the 24th, burned.
(Guide elaborated by hogueras.es)
There is a lot to know about the bonfires festival, celebrated following history and traditions but also with a lot of parties.
The main attraction of Las Hogueras (or Les Foguers in Valenciano) -The Bonfires- is the actual bonfires.
In Alicante, the hogueras are satiric sculptures made of flammable material. It is usually a mix of wood, white cork, cardboard and other materials that can be easily burned.
There are hundreds of bonfires distributed around the city -not only in the city centre-. Each Hoguera has its own central theme and several sub-themes in the smaller figures and dioramas. The topics can be politics, current affairs -such as wars or global warming- or health to name a few examples. The art communication approach is usually satirical.
The Hogueras are paid by neighbours associated with Barracas or Racos (more of this below) except for the Bonfire in the city hall –Hoguera Oficial– that is paid using taxpayers’ funds.
The Hogueras Infantiles -children’s bonfires- are the smaller bonfires nearby the main ones. Each barraca or raco (neighbours associations) have to build a hoguera for the children too.
This is a great way to involve the youngsters in the festivity as the associations have also a figure called Bellea -beauty- and the Bellea Infantil -or children’s beauty- that have a key role in the traditions, for example, bringing the spark that will burn the bonfire on the last day of the festival. More of this is below.
On the last day of the festival, the bonfires are burned by the firefighters in an event called La Banya and -again- more of this is below.
Each Hoguera monument is in a category based on the budget and other characteristics. The most impressive bonfires can be as tall as a 3 or 4 floors building and they are Categoria Especial or special category.
There are usually 6 categories plus the special, so 7 in total. They compete with the other monuments in their categories. The Hoguera at the city hall is paid with taxpayers’ money and it is as big as a Hoguera Especial but does not participate in the contest.
The following photo is an example of a special category hoguera:
Versus an example of another adult hoguera of the 5th category:
It is clear the size difference, hence the creation costs are different too and the category follows the same logic.
On the 20th of June, all hogueras must finish the mounting –la planta– and on the 22nd of June, the prizes are given.
As you can understand from the picture above, each hoguera comettee compites in different prizes: the best hoguera (arguably the most important prize), the satirical critics in the monuments, the best children’s hogueras or the best street illumination to name a few.
The city hall runs a bus to visit all the categoria especial hogueras during the festivity week that is free. Some stops are a few minutes away from the hoguera while others are very close to it.
Hogueras are about the party, so next to each hoguera monument, there is a Barraca or Raco, which are similar and both are generally called Barraca.
Both of them are in the middle of the streets. The roads get closed to cars so members can sit at tables with their friends for food and drinks, dance to DJ or band music and enjoy the festivities together.
The difference between barracas and racos is the type of membership to the hoguera association. While barraca’s members participate in all-year-round hogueras’ events and decisions, the raco’s members join the party only during the main days 19-24 of June.
Also, many barracas are fenced and the access is somehow protected while racos are open to anyone joining the dance floor -but not the table as you and your friends need to pay a table’s renting fee-.
To add more confusion, not all racos have dining tables so they are essentially music clubs.
Barracas also have beautiful and artistic entrances that get also burned on the last night of Hogueras.
La Fiesta happens all around Alicante. Roads are closed to cars so racos and barracas pop up literally all around the city. The centre is where a bigger concentration of fiesta in barracas and racos happens.
We earlier said the racos are open to anyone. There are several racos with permission from the city hall to be open to anyone in Alicante but a few can charge a ticket fee to enter.
For example, in Avenida de Federico Soto, there is -usually- an open to all raco with pachanga -a commonly heard Spanish music at festivals-. If you like drum and bass the raco in front of Bomberos plays this type of music all night.
A mascleta is 5:30 to 7 minutes -mainly- sound spectacle based on loud pyrotechnic crakers. In Alicante, there is a show every day at 2 pm at Plaza de los Luceros during Hogueras. The different pyrotechnics companies compete in a contest that values the amount and types of crackers and rhythms on the firing, among other characteristics.
Mascletas can be very loud, and some flying crackers can be heard miles away from Luceros. Streets around the plaza gets usually very busy during the spectacle and it is quite loud. For the newer people, it can be a bit overwhelming, especially when the wind brings the powder smoke to you.
If it is going to be your first mascleta and you are a bit sensitive to noise the best is to watch and hear it from afar. A good place to watch the mascleta where it is less overwhelming is on Escaleras de Jorge Juan.
On the last night of the festivity, on the 24th of June, when the burning of the bonfires takes place. This is called La Crema or “the burning”.
The Crema officially starts at 12 am on the 24th, so the night from the 24th to the 25th. A firework from Santa Barbara Castle with the shape of a palm tree gives the official start to la Crema.
This moment creates expectations. People usually find a spot where the palmera can be seen. Hundreds of people will group around places such as Mercado, Jorge Juan or Postiguet Beach to watch it so they have a clear and direct view of Castillo de Santa Barbara. La Palmera is a special and meaningful event: a gigantic -and beautiful- palm tree growing from Santa Barbara Castle which is the beginning of the end of the Hogueras Festival.
Have in mind this ephemeral symbol that gives the green light to the burning of the Hogueras. The palm tree itself last for about 15 seconds.
La Crema happens the night of the 24th to the 25th of June.
The first hogueras to be burned are the Hoguera Oficial in Alicante’s city hall square and some other hogueras in the city center.
All the hogueras burnings are controlled by the firefighters. Until they are ready the burning is not provoked. The hoguera committee prepares the burning with petrol and a traca or string of firecrackers that is ignited by the Bellea, more about Belleas is below.
The children’s bonfires or hogueras infantiles might be burned without firefighters supervision at a different time as they are way smaller.
There are usually 3 turns for the burning depending on the Hoguera category and location. The schedule released is based on best effort and it is common to wait to see the burning due to delays. Safety first.
This is a tradition happening during the Crema.
Hogueras can be big and June in Alicante is warm; even at midnight. The firefighters -after being sure the burning is safe- help spectators to cold down throwing them water directly from the truck’s hoses.
In this tradition participates people of all ages, from young children to teenagers to adults. If you join the celebration, you will end up soaked in water at the end of the crema… then you can just walk to the next burning bonfire and repeat the process for a few hours.
It is of Alicantinian expertise to manage the burning times of different hogueras -remember the firefighters burn first the official and central bonfires- to go from one banya to another limiting waiting time and travel distance, especially when you are young.
Las Belleas -or the beauties- are girls and women that officially represent each raco commission. There are different acts throughout the year where a bellea is chosen -in between each hogueras committee- to represent the Hogueras festival in the city and hold the title of Bellesa del Foc or Fire’s beauty. There are two belleas every year, the bellea infantil -or children’s bellea– and the adult bellea.
There are also other girls that escort the Bellea to different acts. They are called Damas de Honor as they were not chosen as Bellesa del Foc but still participate in many representative acts.
All belleas of each hoguera committee have different tasks, being one of the most dramatic the ignition of the fire that will burn the bonfire on the last night of the festivity.
The chosen adult bellea that represents all hogueras is called Bellea del Foc -or fire’s beauty- and has many other functions such as giving the green light for starting the mascletas or participating in the desperta -a brass band playing traditional music while parading around Alicante’s streets to awaking the neighbours so they can join the party early-.
Belleas usually dress in traditional Alicantinian dresses. You can take a look at them on the hoguera’s website.
During the Hogueras week -7am on the 18th of June until the 24th of June-, the city centre is closed to car traffic. Only emergency vehicles and residents can drive through some areas and streets.
During Hogueras, both TRAM trains and buses have special schedules.
The city hall runs a free service with stops near each of the Hoguear Especiales so it is easy to visit the most spectacular sculptures.
The TRAM train lines in Alicante have a special night schedule during Hogueras and the night fireworks week.
Remember that Luceros station is closed during the Mascletas and there are special services most of the night during Hogueras and fireworks weeks.
There is also a special circular -and free- service during Hogueras to visit all the monuments in the special category.
Children and teenagers at school finish the classes right before the hogueras begin on the night of the 19th of June.
The festivity is shared by children with their parents and grandparents, teenagers, adult groups and, essentially, anyone in any age range and vital circumstance. This way to celebrate festivals is common in Spain.
Something that might be shocking to see is the crackers tradition. Children, literally, play with small crackers that they make explode using lighters or wicks.
Usually, they are supervised by parents but not always. Be aware of this. Most of the crackers are small and can’t do much pain if exploding close to the body but still are noisy and can be frightening. Children might explode the crackers in the middle of the roads at times.
From the 25th to the 29th, at midnight, there is a session of fireworks of around 15 minutes every night at 12.
In contrast with the mascletas, the fireworks are focused on colours and beautiful shapes as seen in many countries and films.
Hoguras de San Juan in Alicante is a major event in the city. The events around it happen all year round, but there is even more during the 5 days of celebration. For example:
La Cablagata del Ninot –Ninot Parade- happens on the 10th of June every year. A multicolour procession where each Hogueras commission parades disguised in relation to a topic they choose.
Each Hoguera competes with each other for a prize. The participants are people in the Hogueras commission and it is a family event where a lot of children, parents and older generations take part.
La Planta is a day set in the calendar when all Hogueras monuments have to be finished mounting: the 19th of June at 00:01, in other words, the night from the 18th to the 19th of June.
Hogueras are complicated structures and are always made of different pieces that need to be put together. There is also so much more apart from the main structure parts such as ninots, decorations, lighting, and weights to keep everything up… A planta of the biggest hogueras takes several days.
On the 17th of June, Entrada de Bandas Parade showcase all the hogueras committees or associations dressing in traditional Alicantininan suits and dresses. There are also them brass band with each committee.
This parade is good to see traditional dresses in the region.
La Ofrenda de Flores or Flower Offering happens on two different days: the 21st and the 22nd.
This is a long-lived tradition in Hogueras -with a religious background- where each hoguera committee brings flowers to the Virgin of the Remedies. This Virgin is the patron saint of Alicante city and the flowers are offered to her as a symbol of gratitude.
The parade ends in Alicante’s co-cathedral San Nicolas and can visit the flowers for the rest of the Hogueras festivity.
On the 23rd of June is the International Folk Parade; a showcase of traditional folk clothing, dances and music coming from different parts of Alicante Province and region, the rest of Spain and guest countries.
For example, in Alicante’s province is common to celebrate the Moors and the Christians festivals:
In the region, it is also common to find los cabezudos or “the big-headed” during different celebrations:
In the Spanish region of Andalucia there is a big tradition of “Sevillanas” that are represented in this parade too:
And lastly, as an example of one international guest, Ukraine has been part of the folk festival for a few years:
A Ninot is a standalone Hogueras figure usually with a human resemblance.
Every year, a ninot gets Indultado -or pardoned-. It is an important honour for the Hogura Commission as it is part of the prizes the Hogueras Federation gives.
If you want to see other’s years’ ninots you can visit the Hogueras Museum in Alicante.
Similar to what happens in most European cities at Christmas, Alicante’s streets get festive lighting for hogueras.
Usually, the lighting is turned on a week -or more- before the planta (mounting) of hogueras.
Most of the lights are in Alicante city centre.
At this point, it is easy to understand Alicante’s views of the Midsummer Bonfires Festival are quite different from the rest of Spain.
While most of Spain (in Spanish) celebrates the birth of John the Baptist on the night of the 23rd of June Alicante’s aligns with the pre-Christian Midsummer tradition celebrating the big bonfires burning on the night of the 24th.
Nevertheless, some people in Alicante still follow the Spanish tradition of joining groups of friends on the beach to prepare small bonfires with wood and paper to celebrate San John’s birth on the 23rd of June.
El Postiguet Beach in Alicante gets usually extremely busy that night with people preparing bonfires or just having some food and drinks with friends. The bravest stay until the morning to see the beautiful sunrise.
Hogueras started in 1928. The idea spark initiated by José María Py (in Spanish), an artist from Cadiz who lived in Valencia for 25 years.
José got inspiration from the Fallas festivity and proposed to organise a festival in Alicante following the Saint John bonfires tradition. The mix of both resulted in Hogueras de San Juan Aliante.