Mahón, the largest town on sleepy Menorca, erupts into a frenzy of horses and gin every September for the town’s fiestas, nominally celebrated in the name of the Mare de Deu de Gracia. While not as big or as famous as the fiestas in rival Ciutadella, Mahón’s riders put on an incredible display of horsemanship and, of course, the town goes wild.
In the middle of Mahón’s Plaza de la Constitución, the horses dance in time with the music. The wide-eyed revellers, some of whom may have had a little too much of the town’s famous gin, rush forward to touch the black Menorcan horses as they rear up on their hind legs and inch forward through the crowd. When they lose their balance, they land heavily on the sand. The riders are of all ages, from 18 to well past retirement age, and guide their horses expertly through the crowd. The island’s past as an English colony is also in evidence, as the riders’ uniforms echo those of the 18th century army that occupied the island. Riders have to be from Mahón itself to be able to participate in the jaleo, although under special circumstances riders may be invited from elsewhere on the island.
The beginning of the Mahón jaleo is stunning, even for the most travel-hardy of visitors, and this is one show that we would rate among the best in the world. It is free to enter the main ring, a town square that has been covered with sand to protect the horses’ feet. As is traditional in Spain, a mass is said prior to the celebrations and the authorities, in traditional dress, give permission for the jaleo to begin. The brass band starts playing, local dignitaries take their seats in the raised stand, the crowd crane their necks and then the horses come. The dance, or jaleo, lasts for three frenzied hours. This happens at least twice over the course of the fiesta, which today sees a large range of events including other traditional spectacles and a cultural programme.
The sun is still summer-hot at the time of the fiestas (the 6th to 9th of September), so remember to bring water (or try one of the fiesta specials – frozen gin and lemonade slush), and get there early to secure a spot in the shade.