When writer Simon Prichard came to a crossroads in his life, he took the road that led to Spain – and some of its quirkiest festivals…
More than 30 years ago, I did a two-week exchange trip to Cabra, near Córdoba, and fell in love with Spain. A degree in Spanish followed, including a memorable year teaching English in Bilbao but, despite my best intentions, I never did emigrate. Instead, like many of my friends, I ended up working in London, getting married and trying to clamber up the London property ladder – while suppressing an uncomfortable feeling that I should have stuck to my guns.
When fifteen years later I found myself unemployed, divorced and living in a car, I decided to try and rekindle my relationship with my old flame. I took my redundancy cheque on a six-month tour of Spanish fiestas.
The result is Heartbeat: A journey through the fiestas of Spain, which I have just published for Kindle, iPad and most other downloadable formats. My trip took me to dozens of fiestas, from world-famous events to village celebrations where I was not just the only foreigner but the only outsider.
As I weave my way around Spain, trying to recapture the joy it had always embodied, I make discoveries everywhere I pause:
La Virgen del Sufragio, Benidorm (Alicante)
In Spain’s capital of tourism, I join the locals as they celebrate their patron saint with processions, brass bands and earthy humour.
Smoke procession, Arnedillo (La Rioja)
The inhabitants of an ancient hill village in La Rioja light fires in the street and take part in a ritual smoke procession to protect themselves from the plague.
Los escobazos, Jarandilla de la Vera (Cáceres)
This may be my favourite fiesta in the book – alternately terrifying and heart-warming. The inhabitants of an entire village drink heavily then beat each other – and me – with burning torches.
Christmas and New Year, Granada
I witness the all-consuming frenzy of the Christmas Lottery, the cosy rituals of a Spanish New Year’s Eve and the visit of the Kings at Epiphany.
Festa Major d’Hivern and Els Tres Tombs, Argentona (Barcelona)
This simple local fiesta features animal parades, pet blessings and seasonal cakes.
Col.locació i pujada al pi de Sant Antoni, Pollença (Mallorca)
This starts with a charming bonfire-building competition, turns into an outrageously boozy country walk and culminates in a spine-chilling tree-climbing contest.
La Tamborrada, San Sebastián (Guipúzcoa)
I see how silly costumes, bad drummers and terrorist propaganda combine during the city’s most important days of the year.
El Cachi, Oión (Álava)
At this festival celebrating the independence of a village from its neighbouring town, I realise that celebration in Spain is all about belonging.
La madre cochina, San Pablo de los Montes (Toledo)
In a tiny village in Castile, I join a parade of cross-dressing soldiers, a crazy tug-of-war challenge and wait to be ‘run through the streets’ and officially welcomed into the community.
Carnaval, Ituren and Zubieta (Navarra)
I am overwhelmed by a fiercely Basque festival, where anarchy, folklore and a strong whiff of danger take the place of ceremony and religion.
Carnaval, Santa Cruz (Tenerife)
Carnival in Tenerife is nothing like as much fun as I expected, especially a ludicrous beauty contest between women on wheels.
Las Fallas, Valencia
The most spectacular of all the festivals I saw, Las Fallas shows that the Spanish can do local celebrations on a grand scale.
Semana Santa, Granada, Madrid, San Vicente de la Sonsierra (La Rioja) and Burgos
Easter is the climax of my journey. I admire the commitment and sacrifice of some participants and am depressed by the hypocrisy of others.
Corpus Cristi, Granada
A year on, I revisit the Spanish festival that originally inspired me and make a surprising discovery about my search for a happier way of life.
You can buy Heartbeat on Amazon and through most other e-book retailers. And a big thanks to John Wildgoose for the fiesta images.