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The Day of the Witch

Every year, in spectacular caves near Biarritz, the small town of Zugarramundi celebrate the day of the witch

Featured June 11 Words by Regina Winkle-Bryan
The Day of the Witch

In the Baztan Valley near the Spanish-French border, about an hour's drive from San Sebastián, lies Zugarramurdi, a sleepy town of around 225 people, where little has happened in the last 400 years. Prior to that it was an entirely different story. The village was home to a coven of witches and warlocks who carried out pagan rituals in the nearby caves. Then, in 1610, the Spanish Inquisition arrived to arrest many villagers - 11 were burned at the stake for crimes ranging from casting spells on crops, people and animals, to shape-shifting and worshipping Satan.

It's easy to see why they chose to hold their rituals in the Witch Caves of Zugarramurdi. They are truly awe-inspiring, the largest being 12m high and 120m across. Now, every year, a festival takes place on the Saturday before San Juan and the summer solstice to mark this history - it's a day known as El Día de la Bruja or "The Day of the Witch" (this year it happens on 18 June). During the festival, the entire town is transformed to resemble a set from a Harry Potter movie, with local women in tight bodices and fabulous vintage hats; medieval games set up in the streets for kids; and a purple tent filled with messenger owls sitting on scraggly perches. Psychics sit at folding tables, ready to sell the future, while naturopaths prepare herbs to cure coughs or break spells. Thousands of people turn up for the festival, mainly from France and Spain, eager to learn about Zugarramurdi's dark past at the Witch Caves and the Witch Museum. The town's centre square hosts presentations on natural remedies and the history of witchcraft, honouring the wisdom of the "witches" - or healers - of yesterday.

The highlight of the event takes place in the main cave at night, when a ceremony depicting the village's diabolical past is presented around a crackling bonfire with 1,000 or so onlookers. It lasts about 30 minutes and might be followed by a live concert - a real treat, due to the cave's acoustics.

Any time of year, Zugarramurdi is sure to leave visitors feeling enchanted, but those who come for El Día de la Bruja may just end up spellbound. Witch Caves and Witch Museum, 22 Calle Behitiko Karrika, Zugarramurdi, tel: +34 94 85 99 004, zugarramurdi.es 


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