It was when we reached the road at the top of our lane that we saw the people. Groups of two or three, dressed in Sunday best, all heading in one direction, into the very centre of the old town. The numbers grew as we approached the centre, passed the police cars blocking the streets to traffic. We could hear music in the distance, a band playing a slow march.
On the twenty-fourth of September in Jerez de la Frontera Nuestra Senora de la Merced Coronada, la Patrona of the city, is paraded around its streets. A ‘black madonna’ of the traditional type, she lives for much of the year in the fourteenth century church which takes her name, on the street of Merced on the northern edge of the old walled city. On Sunday last the crowned lady was carried on a circuit encompassing the eastern part of the old walls, into Calle Larga, the main shopping street, then back into the medieval centre, a warren of narrow cobbled lanes, pretty squares and even older churches ( which made life difficult for the men carrying the huge platform ). We intercepted the procession, which was several hundred feet from the silver cross at the front, through to the followers at the rear, just as it passed from jacaranda tree-lined Povera on to the Larga.
The origin of La Senora is either thirteenth or fifteenth century, no one can decide, as there are competing myths about how she came to be in Jerez. Carbon dating would be of no help ( even were it allowed ) as not much, if anything, of the original statue remains, destroyed by the tradition of presenting the Madonna as a mannequin, wearing royal or religious vestments and sometimes ‘adapted’ to suit. Both myths involve the Reconquista of Al Andalus and conflict with the Moors. In an historically rain-starved region ( and rain isn’t forecast here until November this year ) she is ascribed the obligatory magical or intercessional powers to cause the rain to come. For many years she was honoured on 30th April, the day an infamous drought ended.
The town came out to mark her passing and, by and large, stayed out. Sunday lunch is the big meal of the week here, when restaurant tables cannot be had without planning, and many restaurants and bars are closed on Sunday evenings. Not so last Sunday. We positioned ourselves strategically for a pre-prandial sherry, keeping an eye on the restaurant we wanted to go to, which was just putting tables and chairs outside. We swooped and were only the second occupants. Ten minutes later all the tables were taken and even the inside grew full ( the temperature had been up to 32 degrees Celsius that day, so outside was definitely preferred ).
Our dinner was excellent, as always. After we had eaten and walked around a while, we headed home, to sit under the stars on our patio, where we were watched over not just by the heavens, but by the Senora de La Merced Coronata, in an old tiled mural on our patio wall.