Traveller's Guide: Festive Spain

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Whether it's flinging ripe tomatoes at each other or burning political effigies, the Spanish know how to party. Mick Webb runs through a year of fiestas

Britain has rather more than usual to celebrate over the coming year, with the London Olympic Games and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in the offing. However, with the festive season now comfortably behind us, it's worth remembering that one particular part of Europe knows how to party better than most – and that's Spain.

In Spain, you're rarely far from a fiesta – national, regional or extremely local – lasting anything from a few hours to more than a week. The southern region of Andalucia alone has more than 3,000 of them annually, if you count all the different varieties: romerías (pilgrimages), verbenas (night fairs), ferias (fairs) and festivales.

It may not come as a surprise to discover that Spain has six more public holidays than the UK. Each municipality is allowed a maximum of 14 days off per year, nine of which are national public holidays, chosen by the government.

Even at quieter times in the year, religious floats will be dusted off, streets closed to traffic and – despite the looming spectre of national austerity – a good time will be had by all.

If you're keen to get into the spirit of things as soon as possible, then head to the Basque city of San Sebastiá* on 20 January, when the hoisting of a flag will announce La Tamborrada (pictured, right): 24 hours of marching, drumming and gastronomic indulgence in honour of the city's patron saint (00 34 943 481 166; sansebastianturismo.com).

The roots of most fiestas are to be found in Roman Catholicism; they commemorate saints' days or miraculous local events. The oldest of all is the Romería Virgen de la Cabeza at Andújar in the Andalucian province of Jaén, easily reached from the UK via Malaga – served by flights from a wide range of airports. This fiesta, held on 29 April, dates back to the 13th century, when, so the story goes, a local shepherd discovered an image of the Virgin Mary on a rocky hillside and had his withered arm amazingly healed.

The current celebrations attract an astonishing 500,000 people from all over Spain. The most committed make the 30km pilgrimage on foot or on horseback, rather than by car, from the town up to the sanctuary of the Virgin – built, dramatically, at the highest point of the Sierra Morena. Visitors can expect a heady mix of singing, dancing, drinking and expressions of religious fervour, and a festival that is still authentically Spanish.

For more information on the Romería Virgen de la Cabeza and many of the other fiestas listed below, call the Spanish Tourist Office (00800 1010 5050; spain.info)

Some celebrations are connected with the land and the natural cycle of the seasons: the centrepiece of Jerez de la Frontera's festival of the grape harvest from 8 to 16 September is the symbolic pressing and blessing of the grapes at the entrance to the Collegiate church, which ushers in a week of sherry-tippling, flamenco and general fun.

Other fiestas are purely political. El Día de la Hispanidad, held on 12 October to commemorate Columbus' arrival in the New World, is a good example. Apart from a military parade in Madrid, though, the day has more of the low-key character of a bank holiday in the UK.

Not all fiestas can claim a lengthy heritage: one of the most eye-catching, colourful and messy is La Tomatina, which is just over 60 years old. On 29 August, in the small Valencian town of Buñol, 35,000 people cover each other in 120 tons of very ripe tomatoes during a one-hour battle. The adventure company Pillow Tours (01666 504 601; pillow. co.uk) offers a three-day guided trip to La Tomatina for £149 per person based on two sharing. This includes two nights' B&B at a two-star hotel in Valencia and transport to the town of Requena (on 28 August) for a wine and water festival – as well as to Buñol, for the big one. You have to make your own way to Valencia; be warned that flights from Gatwick on easyJet leaving on the morning of 28 August and returning on the morning of 30 August are already selling for more than £200 return.

Fireworks, food, drink, music and dancing are the essential ingredients of any Spanish fiesta. As a popular saying goes: "Fiesta sin guitarra, ni es fiesta ni es nada." (A fiesta without a guitar is no kind of fiesta.)

A more sinister motto warns: "Duélete carnero, que hay fiesta en el pueblo" (You'll be sorry, billy goat, there's a fiesta in town), although it is now 10 years since the residents of Manganeses de la Polvorosa stopped the practice of hurling a live goat from the church tower to be caught (if it was lucky) in a blanket.

Cruelty to animals is now prohibited in all Spanish regions – although bull-fighting is still regarded as a special case, except in the region of Catalonia where, as of this month, it has been made illegal. Bull fights are still the focal point of fiestas such as Madrid's celebration of its patron saint, San Isidro (15 May), which marks the opening of the capital's bull-fighting season.

However, the fiesta that really sorts the sheep from the goats, not to mention the bulls, takes place from 6 to 14 July in Pamplona, the chief town of Navarra, where the San Fermin festival takes place. At 8am on each of the seven days of the festival, a rocket signals the start of el encierro, the bull run, in which a dozen bulls race through the narrow streets towards the bull ring, with thrill-seekers running in front of them.

Those wanting to participate will not be encouraged by animal lovers or concerned relatives, as there are frequent gorings and occasional deaths (the last being in 2009).

An entertaining feature of many fiestas, particularly in Catalonia, are the gigantes y cabezudos (giants and big heads), the papier-mâché figures you'll see paraded through the streets, accompanied by a band.

When all's said and done, fiestas are an excuse for the whole community to have a good time and to let off steam. Since Franco's restrictive era, when many non-religious fiestas were banned, politics has become a key part of festivals, such as Las Fallas (see panel), with politicians being mercilessly satirised.

If you're going to Spain on business, be aware not just of fiestas but also of the puentes, or bridges. These are long weekends with a Spanish twist, meaning that if the fiesta falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, many people will take the intervening Monday or Friday off work as well. One of this year's top puentes will be afforded, somewhat ironically, by the Day of the Worker, on Tuesday 1 May.

Carnival

Those in Rio and Venice may be more famous but Carnival is energetically celebrated in Spain, particularly in the Canary Islands, where Santa Cruz de Tenerife, pictured (which is twinned with Rio) has forged a reputation as the place to party. Fancy dress is the order of the day, replacing traditional masks – this year's theme is the 1960s. Dates are 17-26 Feb. A good way to enjoy it is while on a package to Playa Las Américas. Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk) has one-week holidays departing Gatwick on 16 February, from £465 per person, half board.

Vying with Santa Cruz for best carnival is the southern Spanish city of Cádiz, where the accent, during two weeks of celebrations, starting on 16 February, is on music and wit. Small groups, called chirigotas, tour the city singing satirical songs and competing for the grand prize, won last year by a band dressed as fruit and called Ricos y Maduros (Tasty and Ripe).

Although it's an advantage to understand Spanish, the general ebullience will appeal to all party animals. A double room at the centrally placed, four-star, Hotel Barceló (0800 4 227 2356; barcelocadiz.com) costs from €171. Access is via Faro or Gibraltar.

Catalonia also celebrates Carnival with gusto, with the epicentre at Sitges – a pretty resort south-west of Barcelona, with a big gay community. Festivities begin on 22 February with the arrival of the Carnival King, Carnestoltes. Folk dances are performed and xatonades (Lenten fish salads) are eaten, while everyone waits for two wild parades called Debauchery and Extermination, before the Burial of the Sardine, in which the parading and burning of the fishy image, symbolising the end of Lent, brings things to a close on 26 February (00 34 938 94 2251; sitgestur.cat). Sitges's Gay Carnival (gaysitgesguide.com) is held over the four days beforehand.

A great place to stay is Hotel Platjador (00 34 938 945 054; hotelsitges.com), where B&B starts at €120.

Holy Week: Semana Santa

Processions take place every evening in the week before Easter. Whitewashed streets are thronged with onlookers as gilded images of Christ and the Virgin Mary are carried on huge floats (pasos) accompanied by figures cloaked in white robes and conical hoods, pictured right. The Holy Week celebrations were introduced by the Catholic Church in the 16th century as a way to portray the last week of Christ's life. They are most associated with the Andalucian cities of Seville and Malaga, where they attract hundreds of thousands of spectators.

Holy Week celebrations in the north of Spain, in Castilla-León, are just as serious although it's easier for the last-minute visitor to find somewhere to stay.

Zamora, the smallest of the region's cities, has the oldest and most beautiful pasos, some of which are designed by famous artists. The most important day in the week is Maundy Thursday (5 April) when people stay out in the streets all night. Events culminate in "la procesió* de las cinco de la mañana" (the 5am procession commonly known as "the procession of the drunks").

Events are rounded off on Easter Sunday with a traditional meal of ham and eggs, which marks the end of Lent.

For more information, call 00 34 902 20 30 30 (turismocastillayleon.com). The nearest airport is Valladolid, served by Ryanair. Stay in the central Plaza del Mercado at the Hotel Horus (00 34 980 508 282; hotelhorus.com). A double with breakfast costs from €82.

Las Fallas: diary of a fiesta

In the Valencian dialect, Las Fallas translates as "The Torches" – a neat summary of the pyromaniac extravaganza that will transform Valencia for five days from 15 March. The city's population will be trebled by two million visitors who'll be entertained by paella contests, beauty pageants and parades, not to mention La Mascletà – the ear-splitting volley of firecrackers which shakes the Plaza del Ayuntamiento every day at 2pm. But they're really here to see the ninots, literally puppets or dolls, used to caricature topical events and personalities in a bawdy, if playful way.

For most of the previous year, neighbourhood organisations have worked to create their huge, life-like figures out of wood, papier-mâché and cardboard, with no expense spared. On the day of La Planta (the rising) the ninots are moved into position all over the city, but the real fun comes on the day of La Crema (the burning), pictured, on 19 March. At midnight, the puppets, now stuffed with fireworks, are set on fire, creating a spectacular, city-wide display. Each year, one ninot is spared and takes its place alongside the pardoned puppets from previous years in the Museo Fallero (fallas.com) at calle Monteolivete 4 (open daily except Mondays; admission €2).

Among the figures to go up in flames last year was the country's former prime minister, Rodríguez Zapatero, who was portrayed as a giant Pinocchio with a super-sized nose.

If you want to book for this year's festival, Travel Republic (020-8974 7200; travelrepublic.co.uk) has a package with flights from London on 15 March, returning on 20 March, which includes B&B in a central hotel, from £541 per person (based on two sharing).

Moros y Cristianos

These intriguing fiestas take place in more than 100 places at different times of year. They recall the lengthy medieval struggle between the Moorish invaders from North Africa and the Christian forces from northern Spain, who eventually reconquered the peninsula.

Very loosely based on real events, the fiestas follow a similar pattern and take place in Andalucia, Valencia and, above all, in the province of Alicante.

The acknowledged highlight is in the town of Alcoy, whose extravaganza, pictured above (held 21-24 April), could also win the prize as the noisiest of Spain's festivities. The fiesta begins with a day of parades by the 28 local groups who spend much of the preceding year preparing to display the finery of their costumes. They band together to form the competing armies of either Moors or Christians and, on the final day (24 April), a battle royal is fought to occupy the town's castle.

In the morning, it's the Moorish armies that are on top, until the intervention of Saint George (the town's patron saint) who helps the Christians carry the day. Ancient firearms shoot thousands of blanks and a pall of smoke engulfs the town, added to by the cigars traditionally puffed on by the participants. Why this should be, though, is something of mystery (00 34 965 537 155; alcoiturisme.com).

The nearest airport is Alicante and, given the shortage of accommodation in Alcoy, it's worth staying in Alicante (30km away) and travelling to the fiesta by bus. The three-star La City is an economical hotel (lacityhotel.com) where doubles start at €65 including breakfast.

The Year's End

The religious festivals and celebrations of a typical Spanish Christmas have a slightly different emphasis from those in northern Europe. They are kicked off in a decidedly materialistic fashion by the lottery draw of 22 December. Known as El Gordo ("The Fat One"), it has been running uninterrupted since 1812. The main family meal is eaten on Christmas Eve, with a centrepiece of roast meat (suckling pig or lamb) poultry or fish, particularly baked sea bream. 28 December – known as El Día de los Santos Inocentes and traditionally a Christian commemoration of the Bible story of Herod's slaughter of the first born – has metamorphosed into the equivalent of Britain's April Fool's Day, with practical jokes and tall stories the order of the day.

The old year is seen out with the ritual eating of 12 grapes, one for each chime of the bell. The most exciting place to be for this is the Puerta del Sol, pictured above, Madrid's central square, where thousands congregate with bottles of cava, cider and, of course, their "grapes of luck".

The festive period ends on 6 January with the visit of the Reyes Magos (The Three Kings) who bring presents for good children (and coal for bad ones). There's a special cake to be eaten on the day called El Roscó* de los Reyes. It's ring-shaped and decorated with glacé fruits, representing the rubies and emeralds which adorned the robes of the Kings. However, the most important ingredients are a broad bean and a figurine (usually the child Christ).

The person who gets the figurine is crowned king; the one who ends up with the bean has to pay for the roscón.

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