The people of Garganta la Olla maintain alive a festival, which is unique in the north of Extremadura. They say this tradition originated in Greece, when the innocent maidens danced in front of the altar of goddess Dianne. Today, eight girls or young women dance in front of Virgin Mary, every First and Second of July, during the commemorations of the festivities of Saint Elizabeth. The girls, continuously come and go trough the streets of Garganta la Olla, dressed up for the event and accompanied by the rhythm of drums. This is a special occasion to visit the beautiful town, which in itself is a Historic-Artistic Location and it is situated in the district of La Vera. During the summer months this place increases the opportunities of relaxation with fantastic natural places for bathing combined with cultural tourism at the nearby Yuste Monastery.
The Dance of The Italian Maidens is one of those authentic popular festivities, that the town celebrates as if Sunday, every body in their best finery and is not well known to the general public. Thus it is more than interesting to participate in this activity with the local population, extremely hospitable people, who are happy to share the event with visitors, showing them an authentic treasure with merits to be generally discovered. People say the tradition was originated by soldiers from Extremadura, who belonged to the Spanish Thirds, military units that fought during the time of the Hapsburg Kings and were influenced by Italian soldiers, converting this tradition into their own custom. Also, the tradition is said to have started in 1608 by Royal permission and authorization from the Bishop of Plasencia.
It is enough to sense the admiration generated by the local people when walking in front or following the dancing girls, this will no doubt make visitors enthralled by the spectacle of the Dancing Italian maidens. On the evening, before de Grand Fiesta, the girls come out for the first time, right after the sounding of the bells. This first outing announces the Grand Fiesta, which actually starts at noon, the following day.
The maestro and the drummer, Luis Lopez and Pedro Calero, go seeking the maids, as they have done for the past thirty years. They are always eight young girls, chosen by the Foremen. An individual girl can be selected on more than one year, until she is married. At this moment they will wear a garment called “Guardapies” which is a typically embroidered skirt, which later is changed to a simple pleaded skirt. On the grand day the girls will wear unpolluted white, but decorated with scarves of thousands of colors on their shoulders and colored ribbons on their petticoats, a carnation pointing downward if they are without a fiancée and a very curious hat that shows a small bird and a mirror which tells that they are unmarried maidens. They will be dressed in this manner from dawn, at six in the morning through the day. The visitor must pay attention to the schedule that has been set, to see them pass through the streets in rapid races. However, the sounds of the castanets and the drum will announce their itinerary.
The most solemn moment of the celebration is when the girls go to fetch the Virgin Mary. From that moment they will accompany the virgin in a procession, dancing softly, but always facing the Virgin as a sign of respect. In the afternoon the ambient is more recreational and leisurely, which will end with the offertory and the raffle of cakes. Then any girl or woman can participate in the dancing. On the other hand men are no allowed to participate in this ritual. The men can participate by being foremen. And a year prior to being foremen, they are named deputies. Thus, if someone, in Garganta de Olla, introduces himself as a deputy it does not mean that he is a deputy to the Assembly.
Festival: The Dance of The Italian Maidens
Date: July 1 and July 2
Where: Garganta de la Olla, at La Vera district, North of Extremadura, Spain.
Original article by Merche R. Rey
Translated by Susana Windt