In Spain, you’re rarely far from a fiesta – national, regional or local – lasting anything from a few hours to more than a week. The southern region of Andalucia alone has more than 3 000 a year of various kinds: romerías (pilgrimages), verbenas (night fairs), ferias (fairs) and festivales.
Even at quieter times in the year, religious floats will be dusted off, streets closed to traffic and a good time will be had by all.
In the Basque city of San Sebastián at the end of January, the hoisting of a flag announces La Tamborrada: 24 hours of marching, drumming and gastronomic indulgence in honour of the city’s patron saint (sansebastianturismo.com).
The roots of most fiestas are to be found in Roman Catholicism; they commemorate saints’ days or miraculous local events. The oldest of all is the Romería Virgen de la Cabeza at Andújar in the Andalucian province of Jaén.
This fiesta, held on April 29, dates back to the 13th century, when, so the story goes, a local shepherd discovered an image of the Virgin Mary on a rocky hillside and had his withered arm healed.
The current celebrations attract 500 000 people from all over Spain. The most committed make the 30km pilgrimage on foot or horseback from the town to the sanctuary of the Virgin – built, dramatically, at the highest point of the Sierra Morena.
Visitors can expect a heady mix of singing, dancing, drinking and expressions of religious fervour, and a festival that is still authentically Spanish.
For more information on the Romería Virgen de la Cabeza and many other fiestas, click on to the Spanish Tourist Office website, www.spain.info
Some celebrations are connected to the land and the natural cycle of the seasons: the centrepiece of Jerez de la Frontera’s festival of the grape harvest from September 8 to 16 is the symbolic pressing and blessing of the grapes at the entrance to the Collegiate church, which ushers in a week of sherry tippling, flamenco and fun.
Other fiestas are purely political. El Día de la Hispanidad, held on October 12 to commemorate Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, is a good example.
Not all fiestas can claim a lengthy heritage: one of the most eye-catching, colourful and messy is La Tomatina, which is just over 60 years old. On August 29, in the small Valencian town of Buñol, 35 000 people cover each other in 120 tons of ripe tomatoes during a one-hour battle.
Fireworks, food, drink, music and dancing are the essential ingredients of any Spanish fiesta. As a popular saying goes: “Fiesta sin guitarra, ni es fiesta ni es nada.” (A fiesta without a guitar is no kind of fiesta.)
A more sinister motto warns: “Duélete carnero, que hay fiesta en el pueblo” (You’ll be sorry, billy goat, there’s a fiesta in town), although it is now 10 years since the residents of Manganeses de la Polvorosa stopped the practice of hurling a live goat from the church tower to be caught (if it was lucky) in a blanket.
Cruelty to animals is now prohibited in all Spanish regions – although bull-fighting is still regarded as a special case, except in the region of Catalonia where it has now been made illegal.
Bull fights are still the focal point of fiestas such as Madrid’s celebration of its patron saint, San Isidro (May 15), which marks the opening of the capital’s bull-fighting season.
However, the fiesta that really sorts the sheep from the goats, not to mention the bulls, takes place from July 6 to 14 in Pamplona, the chief town of Navarra, where the San Fermin festival takes place.
At 8am on each of the seven days of the festival, a rocket signals the start of el encierro, the bull run, in which a dozen bulls race through the narrow streets towards the bull ring, with thrill-seekers running in front of them.
Those who want to participate will not be encouraged by animal lovers or concerned relatives because there are frequent gorings and occasional deaths (the last being in 2009).
Those in Rio and Venice may be more famous but carnival is energetically celebrated in Spain, particularly in the Canary Islands, where Santa Cruz de Tenerife has forged a reputation as the place to party. Fancy dress is the order of the day, replacing traditional masks. This year it was held from February 17 to 26.
Vying with Santa Cruz for best carnival is the southern Spanish city of Cádiz, where the accent, during two weeks of celebrations, is on music and wit. This year’s carnival was staged on February 16.
Small groups, called chirigotas, tour the city singing satirical songs and competing for the grand prize, won last year by a band dressed as fruit and called Ricos y Maduros (Tasty and Ripe). Although it’s an advantage to understand Spanish, the general ebullience will appeal to all party animals.
Catalonia also celebrates carnival with gusto, with the epicentre at Sitges – a pretty resort south-west of Barcelona, with a big gay community. These festivities began on February 22 with the arrival of the carnival king, Carnestoltes.
Folk dances are performed and xatonades (Lent fish salads) are eaten, while everyone waits for two wild parades called Debauchery and Extermination, before the Burial of the Sardine, in which the parading and burning of the fishy image, symbolising the end of Lent, brought things to a close on February 26 (sitgestur.cat). Sitges’s Gay Carnival (gaysitgesguide.com) is held over the four days beforehand.
For Holy Week, the Semana Santa processions take place every evening in the week before Easter. Whitewashed streets are thronged with onlookers as gilded images of Christ and the Virgin Mary are carried on huge floats (pasos) accompanied by figures cloaked in white robes and conical hoods.
The Holy Week celebrations were introduced by the Catholic Church in the 16th century as a way to portray the last week of Christ’s life. They are most associated with the Andalucian cities of Seville and Malaga, where they attract hundreds of thousands of spectators.
Holy Week celebrations in the north of Spain, in Castilla-León, are just as serious. Zamora, the smallest of the region’s cities, has the oldest and most beautiful pasos, some of which are designed by famous artists.
The most important day in the week is Maundy Thursday when people stay out in the streets all night. Events culminate in “la procesió* de las cinco de la mañana” (the 5am procession commonly known as “the procession of the drunks”). Events are rounded off on Easter Sunday with a traditional meal of ham and eggs, which marks the end of Lent.
For more information, go to turismocastillayleon.com
In the Valencian dialect, Las Fallas translates as “The Torches”, a neat summary of the pyromaniac extravaganza that transforms Valencia for five days from the middle of March. The city’s population is trebled by two million visitors who’ll be entertained by paella contests, beauty pageants and parades, not to mention La Mascletà – the ear-splitting volley of firecrackers which shakes the Plaza del Ayuntamiento every day at 2pm.
But they’re really here to see the ninots – puppets or dolls used to caricature topical events and personalities in a bawdy, if playful way. For most of the previous year, neighbourhood organisations have worked to create their huge, life-like figures out of wood, papier-mâché and cardboard, with no expense spared.
On the day of La Planta (the rising) the ninots are moved into position all over the city, but the real fun comes on the day of La Crema (the burning). At midnight, the puppets, stuffed with fireworks, are set on fire, creating a spectacular display. Each year, one ninot is spared and takes its place alongside the pardoned puppets from previous years.
The intriguing fiestas, Moros y Cristianos, take place in more than 100 places at different times of the year. They recall the lengthy medieval struggle between the Moorish invaders from North Africa and the Christian forces from northern Spain, who eventually reconquered the peninsula.
Loosely based on real events, the fiestas follow a similar pattern and take place in Andalucia, Valencia and, above all, Alicante.
The acknowledged highlight is in the town of Alcoy, whose extravaganza (April 21 to 24) could win the prize for the noisiest of Spain’s festivities.
The fiesta begins with a day of parades by 28 local groups who spend much of the preceding year preparing to display the finery of their costumes.
They band together to form the competing armies of Moors and Christians and, on the final day, a battle royal is fought to occupy the town’s castle.
In the morning, the Moorish armies are on top, until the intervention of Saint George (the town’s patron saint) who helps the Christians carry the day.
Ancient firearms shoot thousands of blanks and a pall of smoke engulfs the town, added to by the cigars traditionally puffed on by participants. Why this should be, though, is something of a mystery (alcoiturisme.com). – The Independent