Carnival – Spain’s greatest celebration?

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Spain loves an excuse for a good party. People celebrate the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Las Fallas in Valencia, and Feria in Sevilla. But perhaps the most well-known and widely-celebrated of these Spanish festivals is Carnival.

A woman dresses up for a Carnival parade in Barcelona.

Carnival is an explosion of food, music and celebration that traditionally takes place in the week leading up to Lent. It is thought that the name comes from the Latin ‘carne vale,’ farewell to meat. Carnival in Spain was banned for much of the 20th century during the time of dictator Francisco Franco, but has since returned in full force.

The celebration begins with ‘Fat Thursday,’ the week before Ash Wednesday. The main idea behind Carnival is to eat as much as possible before the 40-day period of restraint. So on the first day of Carnival, many markets celebrate with free food events and competitions. This is also the day that the Carnival King makes his arrival. The king is supposed to take responsibility for all of the bad things that occurred throughout the year.

Throughout the week, there are a variety of parades and festivals that take place. These vary from city to city. Then on Ash Wednesday, the ‘enterrament de la sardina,’ or burying of the sardine, marks the end of Carnival. There are often wailing widows present, and bystanders dress in all black to mourn the end of the festivities.

You will find some sort of Carnival celebration in most cities in Spain, but each city celebrates differently. And some celebrations are way more extravagant than others. Carnival in Tenerife is known as the most glamorous of the Spanish Carnival celebrations, and is second only to those of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. More than a million people flock to the Canary Islands from all over the world. The main events begin with the rest of Spain on Fat Thursday, but preparation for Carnival in Tenerife begin months earlier, as people plan themes and costumes for the huge parties. Friday is one of the biggest nights, with The Announcement Parade announcing the beginning of Carnival. The event lasts more than four hours, as ornate and elaborately decorated floats parade down the streets. More than 5000 people participate in the parade itself, and hundreds of thousands more disguise themselves in the streets to watch.

A group of American students dress up for Carnival in Cadiz.

The second largest Carnival celebration in Spain takes place in Cadiz. Otherwise a fairly quiet Andalucian city, Cadiz plays host to the biggest party on the mainland. The festivities include choruses, fancy-dress processions, jokes, disguises and a float parade. And in Cadiz, the party doesn’t stop on Wednesday. There is another parade the following Sunday, with people on floats throwing candy to the children.

I was lucky to be able to enjoy my first Carnival experience this March. Although I didn’t make it to Tenerife or Cadiz, I did get a taste of how Barcelona and Sitges do Carnival. Throughout the week I stumbled upon various children’s parades, and people were dressed in costume everywhere I went. The biggest event in Barcelona was the big Carnival parade – La Gran Rua de Carnaval on Avinguda del Parallel – on Saturday night. More than 2000 people and 34 groups danced their way down the 1.2 kilometer route. Some wore traditional dress from their native countries, and others wore elaborate costumes. It was a great cultural experience, but tame according to Carnival standards.

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Sitges was another story. The most popular days for Sitges Carnival are Sunday – The Debauchery Parade – and Tuesday – The Extermination Parade. Each parade consists of more than 40 floats with more than 2000 people. Sunday is the risqué, no-holds-barred parade and Tuesday is the parade to mark and mourn the end of the celebrations. Traditionally, the Tuesday parade is filled with drag queens dressed in black, but when I went everyone was decked out in glitter, feathers and bright colors. The streets were flooded with people dressed in their best costumes and disguises. And after the parade came to a close, all 250,000 revelers made their way to the beach.

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Carnival offers a little something for everyone. As a child, it’s fun to dress up and eat candy. As a teenager, trade the candy for some alcohol and enjoy the biggest party of your life. As an adult, uphold the long-lasting traditions and remember what the holiday is all about. If I ever get the chance, I would love to experience another Carnival season in Spain.