Murcia, in Spain, offers a host of colourful festivals and rich culture – just beware of bolting horses, writes Paul Suart.
The sight of stallions running wild and at full pelt would probably unnerve the most hardened of equine enthusiasts.
So for those like me, who have enjoyed few close-up encounters with horses, the experience was genuinely terrifying.
But I was far from alone in this apprehension.
Because, for tens of thousands of people who lined the Spanish streets of Caravaca de la Cruz for the annual madness that is the Wine Horses Fiesta, the feeling was mutual.
It’s an ancient custom like no other, and one that has great historic and spiritual importance for residents of the fifth Holy city of Catholic Christianity.
Up to 60 stallions, each dressed in spectacularly embroidered mantels, are individually introduced by a compere.
They are then paraded through the city by four handlers, the vast majority sporting white shirts, red neckerchiefs and red waistbands, whose practice it is to gee up their horses into a frenzied state.
This frequently results in the horses bolting in unpredictable directions and quite often into the crowds of spectators.
Many, myself included, opt for Dutch courage in the form of Sangria which flows merrily from pouches sold on every street corner.
Needless to say, ambulances and stewards are on standby in case of emergency.
Once the horse is brought under control (not every equine gets loose I might add) it is led through the charming alleyways that meander through Caravaca, located in the Murcia region in south-east Spain.
They are led to the foot of a steep slope which climbs up to the imposing Basilica de la Vera Cruz, a renaissance-inspired fortress home to the famous Cross of Caravaca.
This sacred fragment of wood is said to have been part of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified and has protected the city since the 13th century.
It is for this reason that Caravaca was ordained by the then Pope John Paul II as a Holy City in 1998 alongside only Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and Camaleño. And it’s here, at the bottom of the hill, that the real fun begins.
The horses take it in turns to race up the path with their four fearless chaperones hanging onto the reins for dear life.
It’s a symbolic recreation of the medieval legend in which the Knights Templar braved the Moorish armies besieging the castle to bring wine to the thirsty inhabitants barricaded within.
Like earlier in the procession, the whole affair is viewed keenly by hordes of spectators at dangerously-close proximity to the racing stallions.
While steeped in ancient tradition the race has, over the years, been influenced by modern technology. For each run is electronically timed with the result displayed on a scoreboard above the finish line.
Only the horses who make it to the finish with all four of their handlers in tow qualify with a valid time.
To see ‘nulo’ - Spanish for disqualified - flash up on the board is every handler’s worst nightmare given that they spend 12 months preparing their horses. The fiesta might not be as famous as the Pamplona Bull Run in San Fermin or the Tomatina Tomato Fight in Buñol, near Valencia, but it certainly should be.
And it’s for that precise reason that the Tourist Board of Murcia is actively promoting this proud parade that excites and exhilarates as much as it frightens and bewilders.
The actual fiesta is always staged on May 2 but is traditionally preceded and followed by a series of age-old customs and practices.
And while a trip to Murcia would certainly be lifted by taking in this scintillating spectacle, there’s so much more to the region.
We left Caravaca for the resplendence and refinery of the world famous La Manga Club, about 10 miles east of Cartagena on the south-easterly tip of Murcia.
In the UK at least, this five-star resort is probably best known as a mid-season retreat for over-paid British-based footballers.
And when you see its majesty in person – underpinned by breathtaking balcony views out over the golf courses, the Mar Menor lagoon and Mediterranean – you start to understand why.
It’s serene in the extreme and the perfect way to unwind and escape the pressures of Premier League exposure or any other demanding profession for that matter.
Our whistle-stop tour of the city-sized complex involved a winding drive through the arid mountains of Calblanque Natural Park, which borders La Manga, to a secluded beach front beneath the foothills.