If there’s anything you already know about Spain, it’s that their fiestas are world-renowned, and seemingly every other day. Given the plethora of parties to choose from we decided to make merry making in Spain a bit easier by telling you about the ten biggest and best. We’ve organized our list by date so you can plan your travels accordingly and our advice is to book early, as each festival draws hundreds of thousands every year.
Carnaval – Tenerife and Cádiz – March 5th– March 16th, 2014
A last-ditch effort to heed pagan needs before the Lenten period begins, the popular Carnaval celebrations in Spain garner attention worldwide. Cádiz and the Canary Island capitals are the best-known fêtes in Iberia.
Cádiz, the oldest inhabited city in Europe, is said to be blessed with the wittiest people in Spain, and that whit is put on display in the weeks leading up to Lent when groups perform songs and skits before audiences at the Fallas Theatre in the center of town. Carnaval officially kicks off the last night of the Fallas Theatre competition and lasts nearly two weeks. In Cádiz most of the revelers take to the streets in costume. Daytime festivities are more family friendly as groups preform their satirical fare throughout the city, but don’t miss out on the nighttime crowd either, as the streets are filled to capacity with costumed debauchery until the early hours.
In the Canary Islands the festivities resemble their well-known counterparts in South America and Tenerife’s festival is one of the largest in the world, second only to Rio’s. As in Cádiz, Carnaval is lived in the streets and is music-based, beginning the Wednesday before Ash Wednesday and lasting until the following weekend. Saturday is the big night where partygoers pound the streets in a colorful parade replete with music, floats and costumes down Constiución Avenue, and the party is declared over with the burial of the sardine, called El Entierro del Sardina, on Ash Wednesday. Each year has a different theme, and a local is crowned queen each Wednesday to kick off the event.
Las Fallas – Valencia – March 15th – 20th, 2014
Spain’s version of fireworks comes in the form of huge bonfires in the coastal city of Valencia to commemorate Saint Joseph. For five days, fireworks and hogueras rock the city as citizens take a satirical jab at politicians, newsmakers and scandals.
Valencianos work year round to raise the necessary funds to build the giant ninots, which will eventually be paraded around the capital city and then burned. The ninots are made of paper-mâché and loaded up with firecrackers. Prizes are awarded for the most creative, and some of the largest can reach heights as tall as buildings!
Tradition reins at this pyro maniacal festival, with strict adherence to dress, events and timing. Each morning begins with La Despertà, a raucous wake-up call at 8am, followed by a midday parade, called La Mascletà. During the week, flowers are offered to the Virgin Mary and nightly fireworks are set off from the Turia gardens, called La Nit del Foc.
Festivities come to a head on the 19th, St. Joseph’s feast day, with the Cremà, or the burning of the ninots. The week is full of dance, celebration, food, and typical dress which can run up to 1500€ if you’re a fallera!
Holy Week – Throughout Spain – April 13th – April 20th, 2014
Fervent Catholics take to the cobblestone streets of many Spanish cities during the week leading up to Easter known as Holy Week, or Semana Santa, during which religious brotherhoods carry enormous floats, called pasos, on their shoulders that depict the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
For the first-time viewer the processions can be both frightening and fascinating, as many of the brotherhoods don a traditional long, pointed hat and tunic, making their identity invisible to spectators. Each brotherhood has a specific parade route that they’ve followed for hundreds of years finishing at a local church or cathedral.
Seville’s Holy Week, perhaps the most famous in Spain, sees more than 60 churches participate, meaning the center of the city is entirely blocked off to make way for the gold-laden floats.
Processions can last up to 12 hours, and spectators spend the entire day in the streets, dressed in their finest clothing, drinking beer and eating torrijas, a Spanish version of French toast made with wine or honey.
Semana Santa is held throughout Spain, though Seville, Málaga, Zamora, Valladolid and León are the most visited and most highly revered.
The Ferias in Andalucía – Andalucía – throughout spring and summer
Andalucía celebrates a fair in nearly every city and town as a yearly homage to Andalusian horses, sherry and dance. The biggest and most famous is the Feria de Abril in Seville (May 6th – 11th, 2014), which kicks off the Feria calendar that will last into late summer all around Southern Spain.
The Feria de Abril is inaugurated each year with a traditional fried fish dinner, called the pescaíto, on the Monday two weeks after Easter. At midnight, the main gate of the fair grounds is lit and flamenco music begins to tumble out of makeshift tents, known as casetas. For an entire week, people flood to the fairground between 11am and 4am, drinking sherry, sharing plates of food, dancing flamenco and riding in horse carriages.
While every fair has its own feel, there are a few hallmarks that are shared – women wear curve-hugging trajes de gitana, horses and carriages parade through the streets during the day, and the tents rock with music until the early hours. The more traditional fairs will play sevillanas, a four-part flamenco dance, though it’s common to hear rock, pop and rumbas, too. There are also carnival rides and food stands to explore.
Don’t know anyone in Seville? Don’t fret – the fairs in Jerez de la Frontera, Córdoba and El Puerto de Santa María have the same feel without being closed off to the public. Check local city websites for information about dates.
San Isidro – Madrid –May 15th, 2014
Madrid’s most famous fiesta takes place in May, coinciding with the feast day of their patron saint, San Isidro. The week is characterized by bullfights, chulapos and sugar-coated donuts.
To celebrate the saint day, madrileños flock to La Pradera de San Isidro in the Carabanchel neighborhood, a large open space prefect for picnicking and making merry. Elsewhere in town, the biggest names in bullfighting take to the sand at Las Ventas, the city’s renowned bullring. Many neighborhoods throughout the capital city also celebrate with their own block parties.
The celebration is not complete without donning the typical chulapo dress, which was a style made popular by the painter Goya. This fashion is also typical costume for zarzuelas, a musical theatre genre that was popular in Madrid at the turn of the century. Rosquillas, a round pastry that resembles a donut, are consumed at the pradera while families picnic.
Not enough for you? The summer is ripe with festivals all across Spain, and we’ll fill you in on five more Spanish fiestas soon.