Of all the crazy Spanish fiestas that take place throughout the year there is nothing wilder than the Carnaval celebrations in late February. The week leading up to Lent is a time for partying and the country plays host to some of Europe’s biggest and best Carnaval festivals.
There are a few speculations on the origins of Carnaval in Spain. Some believe the term Carnaval derives from the words “farewell to the flesh,” a reference to the feasts on meat that led up to the sombre Lent when meat must not be consumed. Others say Carnaval 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 throughout his dictatorship.
Carnaval 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 Carnaval 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 Carnavales, you’ll have a lot more fun taking part in the masquerading than just watching.
Carnaval en Tenerife
The Carnaval in the Tenerife city of Santa Cruz is possibly the biggest party held in Europe. It is perhaps the one most like the infamous Rio Carnaval, 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 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 this, 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!
Carnaval en Cadiz
Off the southern coast of Spain you’ll find a different sort of Carnival happening. While it’s definitely a match for the Carnaval in Tenerife in terms of fun and over-the-top partying, the Carnaval 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 the best sense 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!
Carnaval en Sitges
Half an hour southwest of Barcelona you’ll find Sitges. With 300,000 attendees its Carnaval is a bit smaller than the celebrations in Santa Cruz and Cadiz but, with a whole week of non-stop celebrations, no one will ever doubt it’s devotion to the spirit of Carnival.
The Sitges Carnaval shows the whole town devotion to partying, from the little ones (with their own parade around town), to the seniors (who actively participate int he parades) and the local and international gay community. This makes it the location of choice for most gay attendees, drawing crowds 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 (first parade) and the Rua de l’Extermini (last parade), 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.