[words and photographs © Mark Eveleigh]
With an average of nine fiestas on any given day, Spain has every right to claim its place as Europe’s party nation, if not the world’s. Here’s a list of some of the most famous occasions – along with a few of the most bizarre “wild-card” gems – of the Spanish fiesta calendar.
LOS REYES MAGOS (5 Jan): Camel-riding oriental kings lead impressive parades through all Spanish cities. These “three wise men” take the place of Santa Claus in these southern climes and after the kids have been sated with presents and put to bed it’s back out for a night of bar-hopping known as the cotillon de reyes.
FIESTA DE SAN ANTON (Madrid, 17 Jan): Thousands of animal-lovers bring their pets (including, over the years, iguanas, pythons, elephants and giraffes) to a little Madrid chapel for blessings from the patron saint of animals.
CARNAVAL (23 Feb): Tenerife and Las Palmas are certainly in the eye of the carnaval hurricane with processions that are said to rival even those of Brazil. On the mainland, Cadiz draws thousands of party-goers who are keen to celebrate what is seen as the end of the winter (already?!).
RUNNING OF THE COCKS: In a strange Galician version of the “running of the bulls” cockerels are let loose to “wreak havoc” around the marketplaces.
LAS FALLAS (Valencia, 12 to 19 March): A frantic week of partying ends with the “Night of Fire” when Valencia’s self-confessed pyromaniacs transform their city into a place of flame and smoke and incinerate 400 gigantic papier-mâché sculptures. Once again the noble idea behind all this is to burn off the last sad residue of an (admittedly fairly benign) Mediterranean winter.
PARADE OF DRUMMERS: In Baena (Cordoba, 19 March) hundreds of drummers march around bonfires literally playing until their fingers bleed.
SEMANA MEDIEVAL (Montblanc, Tarragona, 23 April): The ancient town of Montblanc takes a step back in time to celebrate the fiesta of San Jordi. There is a full week of theatre, markets, parades and parties – all with a medieval flavour. The townspeople boast that Saint George the dragon-slayer could ride through the town once again and not notice the changes.
FERIA DE ABRIL (2 weeks after Easter): This is the chance for God-fearing Sevillanos to let their hair down in a raucous week of true Andalusian passion.
EL ROCÍO (Huelva province, 15 May): The tiny village of Almonte attracts as many as a million horseback pilgrims from all over Spain. They gather outside the local church, still on horseback, to celebrate a mass for “Our Lady of the Dew”. Then they party for the next 40 hours… many of them still on horseback.
“KIDNAPPING EVE” (Laza, Orense, 2 May): When the young “Eve” is kidnapped by a gang of hoodlums the townspeople go to rouse the fearless “Adam” who sets out to liberate her. (More drinking and dancing follows).
BATTLE OF THE WINE (Haro, 29 June): La Rioja has to be the perfect venue for a wine fight. Wineskins used to be the weapon of choice (as in many fiestas) but these days tankers and fire engines are employed as “heavy artillery”. All participants and bystanders – along with most of the town – end up indelibly died with tinto.
“DEVIL OF A HERNIA” (Castrillo de Murcia, Sunday after Corpus Christi): An athletic character representing the devil leaps over a bed in which the town’s newborn babies are lying. This apparently ensures a lifelong immunity to hernias!
A RAPA DAS BESTAS (San Lorenzo de Sabucedo, Galicia, 3 July): The wild mountain horses are rounded up and, amid feats of “crazy-horse” recklessness, are clipped of their winter coats.
SAN FERMIN (Pamplona, 6 TO 14 July): The running of the bulls is only one of the many crazy aspects of the non-stop mayhem that overcomes this otherwise sleepy northern Spanish town during its wonderful 204 hours of unparalleled fiesta fever.
“COFFIN TOURING” (Santa Marta, Pontevedra, 29 July): People dress up in their festive finery and go for a joy-ride around the village bars… in their own coffins.
The official guidebook lists 388 fiestas during the month of Spain’s fiesta high-season. Just a few highlights are LA TOMATINA (31 July), when the town of Bunyol hosts a blitzkrieg 130 tons of over-ripe tomatoes; the VIKING FIESTA (Catoira, Galicia, 7 Aug) in which a longboat invasion is successfully defended by rebellious villagers; GYPSY HORSE-RACES along the beach at Sanlucar de Barrameda (Cadiz, last week in Aug); the TOROS AL AGUA waterfront bullrun (Benicarlo, Castellon 24 July).
FIESTA DEL CHARCO (Gran Canaria, 9 Sept): After the villagers of San Nicolás de Tolentino have demonstrated once again the ancient sport of pole-vaulting down mountainsides, their poles are sacrificed to the Sea Gods as a petition for the long-awaited autumn rains… and then, in the rite known as el charco (the pond), the whole congregation rushes fully dressed into the sea.
SAN ANTOLIN (Caparroso, 2 Sept): The usual frenetic week of drinking and dancing…except that somewhere in the streets of this little Navarra village there is an enraged fighting cow, charging anything that moves.
MOORS & CHRISTIANS (El Campello, Alicante, 15 Oct): Christians in medieval costumes do battle with Moors – often dressed slightly more tongue-in-cheek. The latter are invariably defeated and then both factions repair to the bars. (There’s also a children’s “bullrun” with surprisingly feisty calves).
FESTA DO MARISCO (O Grove, Galicia, 9 Oct): This local fishermen’s annual binge has over the years transformed itself into nine days of internationally renowned “seafood worship”.
FIESTA OF SMOKE (Arnedillo, La Rioja, 27 Nov): Since the town of Arnedillo was delivered from a medieval plague by St Andres’s sacred smoke, the inhabitants have carried out an annual purification ceremony in which they jump through bonfires. The local herb that is burnt on the fires is said to be “strangely stimulating”.
CHRISTMAS: Christmas Eve kicks off the festive season with a big family meal and then stretches through two weeks of partying to NOCHE VIEJA – when the New Year is greeted with champagne and the challenge of trying to swallow a single grape for each chime of the midnight clock. An almost uninterrupted stretch of partying leads once again to the ‘Night of the Three Kings’…see January.
NOTE: Some dates may change from year to year. For more info, take a look at this website.