As we cast our gaze towards the future with renewed optimism that our ‘new normal’ becomes a thing of the past. It is hard not to feel excited about continental adventures, airport duty-free and immersive foreign culture. If it’s cultural activities you are looking for, there are few as contagious (not the most positive adjective of 2020) as those you will find in Spain. A country close to my heart, whose warmth, beauty and bizarre quirks are there for all to see and for the most part love.
There are many reasons to visit Spain, but very few as enjoyable as a festival. These national and local holidays epitomize so much of the Spanish culture and should be experienced in good humour with respect for tradition. So, as we hope to be reunited with our Iberian neighbours very soon, perhaps it’s time to start drafting that post-COVID bucket list and experience some of the best cultural festivals in Spain.
1. San Juan (Saint John’s Day)
Every year on the eve of the 23rd of June, Spain celebrates the arrival of summer and the birth of St John the Baptist. This cultural event is a spectacle that you cannot miss, thanks to a packed schedule, which includes enormous bonfires, workshops, the ever-popular correfoc (translated from Catalan, it means fire run and literally involves daring members of the public running through fireworks), dancing and always ends in people taking a ceremonial bathe in the ocean at midnight.
This grand tradition is celebrated throughout most of the coastal towns in Spain. However, for those wanting a full on experience then the island of Menorca is the place to go. San Juan is the patron saint of Menorca, which means the locals are even more fanatical about their festival and their traditions. Here a whole weekend of festivities takes place including a spectacular medieval equestrian event in the heart of Ciutadella. San Juan embodies the true meaning of a Spanish summer festival and shows off a nation’s ability to throw a party.
Although often associated with Rio de Janeiro or Venice, Carnival is celebrated in over 50 countries as a final hurrah before the liturgical season of lent. In Spain that is no exception, with the country’s largest celebrations taking place in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The celebration first arrived in Tenerife along with the conquistadors towards the end of the 15th century, which means that there are many elements and traditions to the festival. Carnival takes advantage of the enviable climate in the Canary Islands and takes place towards the end of February and the beginning of March.
During this eventful 2-week period, prepare yourself for non-stop music and dancing which fills the streets. Processions and a host of special traditions like the crowning of the carnival queen and the burial of the sardine, or ‘entierro del sardino’ as it’s known locally. This unique tradition involves a procession that parodies that of a funeral march and culminates in the burial of a symbolic figure, represented by a large paper sardine. This is celebrated on Ash Wednesday and marks the farewell to life’s pleasures and the arrival of Lent. Carnival in Tenerife is a sight that has to be seen to be believed and although it may come a little early for 2021, it is an island celebration on a global scale and an experience worth waiting for.
3. Semana Santa (Holy Week)
The celebration of Semana Santa is an annual event that is celebrated throughout Spain, and essentially pays tribute to the Passion of Jesus Christ. Traditions are carried out by Catholic Brotherhoods, who perform penance processions through the streets in the week leading up to the Easter Weekend. Although it is somewhat more sombre than the usual celebrations in Spain. This unique event is so historically important to the country, that it is part of UNESCO’s cultural world heritage and so it is the perfect time to visit and catch a glimpse into Spanish tradition.
Although Semana Santa can be witnessed in every city and town throughout Spain, Holy Week sees its most intense and traditional celebrations throughout the region of Andalusia, particularly in the province of Seville. Here you will find enormous crowds lining the streets to witness the fascinating processions of beautifully adorned floats, which depict different scenes from Christ’s Passion. Surrounding the floats are thousands of nazarenos, or penitents who march rather unnervingly through the streets for up to 14 hours and some even without shoes. Although for some this may not sound like the raucous celebration you are hoping to experience, there is always a wonderful buzz around the city and a surplus of culture to experience.
4. Las Fallas in Valencia
One of the worlds most unique celebrations; Las Fallas in Valencia is also one of the noisiest thanks to 4 days of fireworks, bonfires and parties. Taking place between the 15th -19th of March, this super festival’s origins date back to the Middle Ages when carpenters in the region would hang planks of wood called ‘parots’ outside of their homes throughout winter. These would then be burned to celebrate an end to the long winter nights. Little by little these parots became more ornate and identifiable figures, which are now known as ‘ninots’. This communal burning of ‘ninots’ conveniently coordinated with St Joseph’s day, he who also happens to be the patron saint of carpenters.
Fast forward 500+ years and the tradition has continued, but the scale is far greater. After months spent constructing their own ‘ninots’, which generally poke fun at celebrities or make light of political satire, each neighbourhood is decorated ready for non-stop revelling. During the 4 days of Fallas, prepare to be awoken early each morning to the sound of brass bands, fireworks and pyrotechnic explosions, which are set off throughout the city. To end the spectacle, crowds gather in the city’s main squares and the ‘ninots’ are stuffed with fireworks before meeting their spectacular and ear-shattering fate. With a building excitement that generates a frenetic energy throughout the city, the party atmosphere during Las Fallas is unlike any other festival in Spain. So as long as you can go without sleep for a few days there really is no better festival to ignite your interest in Spanish festivals.
5. La Tomatina
Another one of the country’s favourite summer festivals is that of La Tomatina. Known to many as the tomato throwing festival, this rather messy celebration takes place in the small town of Buñol, near Valencia. Held each year on the last Wednesday of August, this tiny town’s streets run red with tomato juice and the population of 9000 people can as much as triple overnight. Although with no definitive answer as to what started such a wholesome tradition, it is said that disgruntled townsfolk once launched a tomato-based attack on a hapless council member during a town celebration and since then the tradition has stuck. Although dating back over 70 years, this tradition was halted during the reign of Franco, but much to our luck it made a return in the ’70s and is now one of the country’s most famous cultural events for all the family.
Although surrounded by days of celebration, the box-office event takes place in the main square of the Bunol, when at 11 am lorries carrying copious amounts of tomatoes are loaded into the “battleground”. It is every man for him/herself from then on and as one can imagine; complete bedlam. For many the thought of taking part in the ‘the worlds biggest food fight’ is not top of their travel itinerary, but it is surely one of the most exhilarating ways to spend an afternoon and an unforgettable experience.
As many of us prepare to rediscover what made us fall in love with travel, it’s safe to say that Spain is an awe-inspiring country that has much to offer the passionate explorer who is so eager to experience something new. So as we look towards a more comforting future and a return to the new normal we never fully appreciated, there are many reasons to stay positive. If you are also inspired by the Spanish culture and looking for your own new experiences, then why not check out our current volunteer projects in Spain and help make a difference.
Written by WorkingAbroad Blog Writer, Barnaby Bourton
Photos from WikiMedia Commons
2. Carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Carnival Dame 2012 by Tamara Kulikova
3. La Entrada de Jesús en Jerusalén (Semana Santa de Zaragoza, Aragón) by Willtron