10 best Spanish festivals: Candlelit processions, religious bar crawls, and sheep impersonation

Travel publisher Sawday's man-on-the-ground in Spain, Carlos Oppe, reveals his favourite places to experience local festivals, where you'll discover the country's beating heart

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The Independent Travel

A homage to ham in Galicia

Galicia's Feira do Xamón en A Cañiza is a homage to all things ham, held from 13-18 August. Wander the streets tasting hams and supping local wines. The best hams will be awarded a prize, and there are children's shows, traditional music and dancing.

Stay at nearby A Pampla, a bohemian hideaway in an old cattle shed, surrounded by a vineyard. Weekly rental of the cottage starts at €490 (£348) for up to four guests (00 34 629 78 42 45).

Candlelit processions in Cordoba

From 8-11 September the little-known Andalucian town of Iznajar comes alive for its annual religious feria, a beautiful and solemn event. It begins with a candlelit procession as the Virgin de la Piedad is paraded from her chapel.

Nearby Cortijo La Haza is a beautifully renovated farmhouse with stunning Sierra Nevada views, beamed bedrooms, and superb dinners. Double rooms start at €85 (£60), including breakfast (00 34 957 33 40 51).

An Extremadura serenade

Two weeks of celebrations take place in medieval Trujillo, building up to the national day of Extremadura on 8 September. The fiesta culminates with the Virgen de la Victoria being carried to the packed square from the castle. The square is plunged into darkness and locals sing "La Salve" , followed by an impressive fireworks display.

Stay at Casa Rural el Recuerdo, a former farm transformed into a comfortable and convivial B&B. Doubles start at €70 (£50), B&B (00 34 927 319 349).

A culture-fest in Malaga

A four-day cultural extravaganza in Archidona, the Feria de Agosto y Día de la Virgen runs from 14-18 August. This includes a wonderful night pilgrimage, a horse parade, tapas competitions, free sherry, children's events and a fairground.

Almohalla 51 is in Archidona's historic quarter – two solid houses woven into one and exquisitely restored. Doubles start at €89 (£63), including breakfast (00 34 952 716 370).

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Party time: Feria Grande de Iznajar, Cortigo La Haza

Religion and flamenco in Cádiz

On 5 August, Arcos de la Frontera celebrates the Virgen de las Nieves with a mass in the Basilica and an evening procession of the statue, accompanied by the local band. A flamenco concert also takes place with renowned artists playing in the Plaza of the Basilica Menor, a fusion of religion and flamenco.

La Casa Grande is a three-minute stroll from the Plaza. The house is almost 300 years old and many of its features have survived to tell the tale. Doubles start at €75 (£53), including breakfast (00 34 956 703 930).

Sheep impersonation in Navarra

There's a wait until early next year for this one, but it's worth it. Carnaval de Ituren is held in the last week of January; the villagers of Ituren and neighbouring Zubieta take it in turns to visit each other dressed as sheep. Once they reach the village, drinking and merriment ensue.

Doñamariako Benta in nearby Donamaría was once a farmers' rest. These two old village houses are packed full of antique furniture and the atmosphere is easy. Food is memorable, bedrooms simple, and the garden beautiful. Doubles start at €70 (£50), B&B (00 34 948 45 07 08).

Hazelnuts in Asturias

On the first weekend of October, Infiestos holds the Festival de la Avallana (Hazelnut Festival). On the Saturday, head down to the market in the Mestres area for costumed stall holders, cider and music. Sunday is the highlight though, when the whole town closes to traffic and hazelnut producers come from far and wide to sell their wares.

Stay at El Gran Sueño in nearby Caspio la Vega. The styling is exceptional, most of the furniture is original to the house, and the views are magical. A two-night Hazlenut package costs €149pp (£106) in a double room, half board (00 34 696 267 268).

Flotilla and fireworks in Huelva

Sanlucar del Guadiana's homage to the Virgen de la Carmen takes place on 15 August with a procession of the statue, before she is placed on a boat and taken, in flotilla, to the neighbouring village of Alcoutim in Portugal. She is taken up to the church before travelling back to Sanlucar.

At Casa Verde, right on the riverside in Sanlucar, you can see the Virgin's crossing from the terrace. This big, light-filled house delights in its eccentricities. Families will love it – there's a zipwire across the river to Portugal. Rental from £600 per week for up to seven (01263 768440).

Horsey high jinks on Menorca

The Fiesta de Sant Jaume in Es Castell is held on 24 and 25 July. The tradition includes a gigantes y cabezudos (giants and big heads) parade, but the real excitement comes with spectacular horse races through the town, and an amazing fireworks display.

Nearby Villa d'Este overlooks the Port of Mahon. From your terrace, look over the harbour and fireworks in Es Castell. Weekly rental starts at £1,800 for up to 10 (01795 892 036).

Religious bar crawl in Huelva

Alajar's Romeria Reina de los Ángeles (Queen of the Angels) is held on 8 September in honour of a 16th- century mystic. Residents of seven villages travel to the shrine of the Reina, with several stops for fino (sherry) en route. Picnics are laid out and celebrations go on into the night in the town square.

Molino Rio Alajar is a complex of stone cottages a stroll from the centre. Donkeys and a pool keep children entertained. Weekly rental from €1,050 for four (00 34 959 501 282).

See sawdays.co.uk/fiestasandfados for the full collection

A bluffer's glossary

Look out for the following to make the most of your fiesta experience:

* Pregon (opening ceremony): a local dignitary or a famous person, says a few words to begin the fiesta.

* El aperitivo (lunch-time drink): before lunch the best place to be is in the local bar in the main square. It will be packed, full of drink and tapas (sometimes free).

* El baile (the dance): each night, from late and often until dawn, there's dancing. A group of singers accompanied by musicians (or pre-recorded music) plays a mix of traditional and popular songs. Everyone gets involved.

* La iglesia (the church): at some point there will be a Mass, a procession, or walk to a local shrine. You'll see locals respecting their traditions and if you catch a romeria (pilgrimage), it is an unforgettable glimpse into España profunda (deep Spain).

* Las tapas (bar snacks): the bars don't rest during the fiestas, from serving delicious churros for breakfast, to hot chocolate in the early hours.

* Concursos (competitions): the best to look out for are food competitions because you can then eat your way around the village free of charge.

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