The Virgin of Carmen is the patron saint and protector of fishermen and sailors. Religious Virgins are hugely popular in Andalucia (Spain); they are normally handcrafted from wood and porcelain and spend 99.9 per cent of the year at the local church. Most are dusted down and placed on flower-decked thrones at Easter-time when they are lovingly and solemnly borne through the streets. The Virgen del Carmen, however, has her own special day.
On the evening of July 16, in the fishing villages and towns up and down the Coast, her much-loved effigy is not only paraded through the streets but also taken for a spin round the bay on a flower-adorned boat, accompanied by a flotilla of "jábegas" (fishing boats). Brass bands play, crowds cheer, rockets shoot off and fireworks fill the late dusk sky.
Celebrations vary slightly from town to town. In Málaga, for example, the procession takes place not only on July 16, but on the following Sunday. A recent Malagueñan tradition, started in 1981, shows the Virgen del Carmen embracing all lovers of the sea - including scuba divers. That year, the City scuba diving club placed an image of their patron at the bottom of the sea and since then divers have paid their underwater homage annually.
The festival is especially important in the fishing villages of neighbouring Rincon de la Victoria and La Cala, both of which have the Virgen del Carmen as their town patron.
To understand why the Virgen del Carmen should be held so dear to the inhabitants of towns such as Estepona, Velez Malaga, Torremolinos and Rincon de la Victoria, we need to go back to the Old Testament. Downshifting in his old age, the prophet Elias retreated to a cave in Mount Carmelo near Haife (Israel). Many centuries later, hermits following in Elijah's footsteps asked for the protection of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmelo - the Virgin of Carmen. Stella Maris, as she was also known, was soon adopted by mariners and fishermen everywhere as their patron.
Although long overtaken by tourism, many Costa towns still retain fishing communities and a strong attachment to "la Reina de los Mares" (the Queen of the Seas). It was once believed - perhaps in the days before water-purifying plants! - that the Virgin cleared up the waters with her presence and that only after July 16 would the sea be fit for swimming in.