Of all the crazy Spanish fiestas that take place throughout the year there is nothing wilder than the Carnival celebrations in late February. The week leading up to Lent is a time for wild partying in some parts of Spain when the country plays host to Europe’s biggest and best Carnival festivals.
There are a few speculations on the origins of Carnival in Spain. Most popularly it is believed the term Carnival derives from the words “farewell to the flesh,” a reference to the excesses that led up to the sombre Lent. Some suspect Carnival is derived from the Roman solstice festival, the Saturnalia, where participants indulged in much drinking and dancing. Saturnalia is believed to have had the first parade floats, called the ‘carrus navalis’. With these pagan roots it’s easy to see why the dictator General Franco banned them for forty years!
Carnival in Spain is celebrated nationwide though the most raucous festivities are in the Canary Islands, Cadiz and Sitges. While each town has its own unique flavour of celebration they all have a devotion to having a good time. In these main destinations during Carnival it seems that no one sleeps as the drinking and dancing go from dusk until dawn. You’ll see extravagant costumes and people in masks everywhere and, in any of Spain’s Carnivals, you’ll have a lot more fun participating in the masquerading than you will just watching.
Carnival in Tenerife
The Carnival in the Tenerife city of Santa Cruz is possibly the biggest party held in Europe. It is perhaps the most like the infamous Carnival of Rio, with a strong emphasis on beauty pageants and contests of every sort. One of the first and most publicized events of the Carnival of Tenerife is the crowning of the Queen of Carnival. Girls in outrageous, extraordinary costumes parade across the stage in dresses made of beads and satin and feathers, each one more flamboyant than the last. Keep in mind that you need tickets for many of the competitions (a few others include a children’s Carnival Queen and traditional vintage car competition), but if you can’t get tickets that you can always head to the open air parties, called the ‘Mogollones’ by the locals. The celebrations take up whole chunks of the city and everyone is eager to have a good time and help you do the same! See Carnival in Tenerife.
Carnival in Cadiz
Off the southern coast of Spain you’ll find a different sort of Carnival happening in Cadiz. While it’s definitely a match for the Carnival in Tenerife in terms of fun and over-the-top partying the Carnival in Cadiz is defined by its music. At any point in the crowded streets you’ll find musical groups stationed in plazas or in open air carts accompanied by guitars and lutes. The majority of these songs are satirical; the people in Cadiz are known to have amongst the best senses of humour in Spain, and the music of Carnival reflects this. Politicians, clergy and celebrities are all cheerfully mocked and the costumes, while still extravagant, have a focus on cleverness and wit. You can find rock music at the Plaza Catedral and a competition for satirical group songs at the Gran Teatro Falla. Between street theatre and daily fireworks displays, the Carnival at Cadiz strives to entertain and succeeds in leaps and bounds! See Carnival in Cadiz.
Carnival in Sitges
Half an hour southwest of Barcelona you’ll find Carnival of Sitges. With 300,000 attendees it’s a bit smaller than the celebrations in Santa Cruz and Cadiz but no one will ever doubt it’s devotion to the spirit of Carnival. The Sitges Carnival is the location of choice for gay attendees and it draws participants from all over the world. Though you can see cross dressers in almost any Carnival, the drag talent of Europe comes out to shine for Sitges. Check out the Rua de la Disbauxa and the Rua de l’Extermini, the famous themed parades that show off decorated carriages and some of the boldest, brightest costumes you’ve ever seen. The last day of the event you’ll see some of the best drag shows Europe has to offer, so buy your tickets early!
If you can’t make it to one of these fabulous parties not to worry, Spain has several other Carnivals that are definitely worth your time. In Las Palmas de Gran Canaria there are major celebrations centred on the Santa Catalina park with few events requiring tickets.
Madrid doesn’t have the wild parties of Tenerife or Cadiz but there are parades and fancy dress events culminating in the traditional Burial of the Sardine on Ash Wednesday. This marks the beginning of Lent when formally dressed “mourners” carry a cardboard sardine to Fuente de los Pajaritos where it is buried in its coffin!
Events in Barcelona are fairly restrained where the return of Carnival is seen as recognition of the rights of the people of Catalonia after enduring a 40 year dictatorship under General Franco when such festivities were banned by the state.
No matter where you are in Spain, you can reach out and touch the Carnival spirit and let it touch you in return!