A First-Timers Guide to Las Fallas

At nearly 6 am, small firecrackers still fizzled on the streets. I’d been awake for an entire day, driving from one end of Spain to the other before plugging my fingers in my ears every three minutes. This is Las Fallas, the Valencian festival celebrating Saint Joseph by burning a whole bunch of paper-mâiché effigies.

Fireworks and charangas? Well, color me hortera and show me the way!

Las Fallas Ninots Flamenco Dancer

I’ve used my Semana Santa holidays to explore the Balkans and India and had planned to walk part of the Camino up to Mérida in 2016. But when Valencia’s biggest festival falls during your vacation time and you have a friend offering up a couch, you curb your walking plans in favor of pyromania.

After a six hour trip from Seville, I parked my car at the end of the metro line in Torrent and hopped onto the train. Emily, a college friend, had recently moved to Valencia and into the trendy, central neighborhood of Ruzafa.

Beautiful ninots in Valencia

Almost as soon as I’d surfaced the street with a duffel bag slung over my shoulder and a pillow stuffed under my arm, I was met with smoke. Smoke from kids lighting firecrackers in the street at their feet, smoke from the stands frying up churros and buñuelos. The streets of Cádiz, Sueca and Cuba had become an all-out festival chocked with food stands peddling stuffed jacket potatoes and corn, people carrying cans of beer and ninots, two-story high effigies that would meet their fiery deaths during the Cremà.

It took me nearly 30 minutes to traverse the narrow streets that had been shut down, save foot traffic. The ninots – the valencià word for puppet – towered overhead, depicting current events, celebrities and political figures, as well as nods to Valencian culture. Traditionally, each pocket of a neighborhood has a special sort of brotherhood, much like Seville’s religious hermandades, called a casal. Each casal pools together money, time and resources to conceive and construct a ninot and then display it on a street corner in the days leading up to March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph.

what is las fallas like

Valencia has 750 casales with 200,000 members – about one-quarter of the city’s population. That made for a lot of ninots to see (pick up a map of the most popular from the tourism office or look for city patrons on the main thoroughfares and in booths.

Emily’s flat on the eighth floor near the market was close enough to the action but far enough that I could relax for a short time. I’d arrived just after the Mascletà, a daily barrage of noise emanating from the city’s main square. Em and I hadn’t seen each other since we graduated, but we fell into a rhythm, gabbing our way out the door and into the street to gawk at the ninots, cans of beers in hand.

Ruzafa is not only the city’s hipster paradise, home to a dizzying amount of trendy eateries and bars, but a hotspot (pun intended) during Fallas. Every Haussmann-style street corner had a ninot stacked up to three stories and fanciful lights, arbor-style, surrounding them. Even in the middle of the day, young people stumbled around, throwing fizzlers into their wake. It was hazy, despite the overcast afternoon.

Are there fireworks at Las Fallas

Crossing Gran Vía de Colón, we ran right into the L’Ofrena des Flors. One of the Novio’s coworker’s wife is a natural valenciana and gushed about this part of Falles in which falleros don traditional costumes and bring bundles of flowers to a towering Virgen de los Desamparados sitting in Plaza de la Virgen. Behind the barricades, I craned my neck and stood on my tiptoes to watch the casales pass by, arms full of daisies and sunflowers.

Women falleras take their garb seriously – like southern Spain’s traje de gitana, quality dresses are handmade, unique and costly. Come to think of it, dressing for Las Fallas was more like the Feria de Abril than I could have imagined. Consisting of a hooped skirt and bodice, they are typically made of pure silk and embroidered. Once you add the lace shawl and apron, shoes, jewelry and hair do, you’ve practically bought a wedding dress.

Fallera Women in Las Fallas

child fallera

typical costume in valencia

And it doesn’t end there – each casal elects a fallera mayor, who plays the part of hostess and attends to a court d’honor. This means food and fresh flowers for twelve people, much like entertaining in a caseta – and just about as costly.

Night was falling as L’Ofrena ended. Firecrackers sizzled under our feet as we looked for a tapas bar with room to squeeze into. It was drizzling and the center of town was packed with revelers. Dessert was a classic farton, a spongy cake made from sugar, milk, flour and eggs.

Valencia city center

The night’s main attraction was surprisingly not pyrotechnics. Emily’s friends took us to an outlying neighborhood, Benimcalet, for a charanga. I confess: I have a soft spot for cheesy brass bands and Spanish wedding music. A small square was packed with people swaying back and forth to a rock band, and the old man bar anchoring the plaza served up cheap cubatas whose alcohol content was barely balanced out by soft drinks. By this point in time, I’d been up for 18 hours, and we danced and drank until the sun began to peek through the trees at 6am. I collapsed onto the couch, fully clothed.

A ripple of fireworks – the mascletà – rang through Ruzafa the next afternoon at 2pm. I was groggy, a product of both the deadly gin tonics from the night before and the crackle and pop from the rifles. I could already see smoke rising from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

I pulled on my boots and gulped down the coffee Em had made for me.Emily had already done her homework for the evening and had mapped out a route to see some of the city’s best ninots and lights displays before they’d meet their fiery end that evening. We spent the better part of the afternoon ducking out of the rain between visiting the city’s best ninots.

Tourists at Las Fallas Valencia

valencia festival las fallas

ninots las fallas mermaids

Popular lore says that the festival began as a way to burn off excess firewood on the spring equinox, eventually coinciding with the Feast of Saint Joseph, the carpenter. A typical piece of furniture burnt was the parot, a structure from which candles were hung. Over time, the primitive parots morphed into the effigies we see today, from rag dolls to elaborate, whimsical art pieces.

Like the chirigotas of the Cádiz Carnavales,  the majority of the ninots poke fun at politics and current events. We saw quite a few Rita Barberás, the former mayor of Valencia who was indicted for fraud in 2016, as well as ponytailed Pablo Iglesias, Belén Esteban and the King.

The rain meant we spent time drinking vermouths in Ruzafa’s trendy bars and watching the light shows on Calle Cuba. More than half a million colored bulbs glitter every hour after dusk, more than making up for the cancelled Cavalcada del Foc, a fireworks parade from Porta da Mar down Gran Via de Colón.

Light shows at Las Fallas

For hours, we powered walked, hand-in-hand, all over the center of the city, pushing past crowds and peeking into casales. The marquees were stocked end to end with tables and folded chairs, and scraps of food remained, untouched, in the centers. Falleras strolled in and out, often followed by a video crew.

As it neared 10pm, we were faced with a choice: nab a spot in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to see the city’s falla be burnt at the very end of the night, or catch a falla infantil and one of the neighborhood fallas. We were at Convento de Jerusalén, just in front of the Estació de Nord.

the ambience of las fallas

This casal is part of the Secció Especial, amongst the most prestigious in the city (if you’re in Valencia before the Plantà on March 15th, you can visit all of the ninots and vote which two to save. They’re at the City of Arts and Sciences, and the expo is 3€ for adults and 1,50€ for children).

Just before 10pm, the casal’s fallera mayor and her pint-sized counterpart stood in front of the smaller, satire-free ninot. This close, you could see the fireworks-laden base that made up the whimsical, storybook creation. At 10 o’clock, the fallera infantil was introduced to the local media. She had a long string in her hand and tears in her eyes as a band made up of trumpets, drums and dolçaina – a reed instrument – struck up. She tugged on the rope, sending off a pinwheel of firecrackers that would eventually spark the effigy – something out of a bedtime story – in flames.

children's falla in valencia

I fingered the earplugs in my jacket pocket, not sure if they’d do me much good against the deafening sound of firecrackers being lit across the city. My face burned from the intensity of the flames and the black smoke rising from every corner in Valencia, turning my camel-colored jacket a dingy grey. The small-scale puppet burned quickly, fizzling out with the help of a firehose in less than 10 minutes.

We rushed through the throngs of people back to Ruzafa. The streets had been difficult to traverse during the daytime, but the proximity to the main attraction – La Cremà – meant that we were pushing through crowds staking out a prime viewing spot. We’d wanted to see one of the Secció Especial ninots, but couldn’t push through all of the people quickly enough. Ducking onto a side street, we got a front row view to one of the neighborhood fallas, a wizard holding a key with a devil on the side. No one seemed to know the significance.

political irony at las fallas

Emily snaked her way through the masses to a street vendor and got some snacks and a couple of cans of beer. Like Semana Santa, there was a degree of waiting around during Las Fallas.

Just before midnight, half a dozen firemen placed their helmets on their heads and stood poised to put out flames, lest they get out of control. The metal gates surrounding the sculpture were pushed back, leading festivalgoers to be crammed into doorways and even scrawl their way up light posts. I saw kids with firecrackers in their hands, ready to toss them at the open flames.

I glanced at my watch. At promptly midnight, the murmur reached a fever pitch and the firemen grabbed their hoses. I couldn’t see over the shoulders of the revelers in front of me, but heat rose from the bottom of my boots and up my legs. One of my greatest fears is dying in a fire (…and jellyfish), but stepping back from the flames was not an option. I had arms tangled in mine, elbows next to my ears and even a child underfoot!

Festivals in Valencia Las Fallas

Ninots burning in Valencia

The Cremà in Valencia

As quickly as it had gone up in flames, the statue burnt to the ground, a mass of smoldering ashes in mere minutes.

We tried to get close to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to catch the city’s gargantuan falla, which is burned after all others have met their fiery demise. From the front of the train station, we only caught a sliver of the multi-story statue of a faceless man’s blaze of glory.

I found it disappointing that every single ninot was set ablaze at exactly the same time. I likened it to having to choose a bunk on the first day of summer camp – you never really knew it if was the best one, if your friends were nearby, or if you’d be stuck next to the kid who talked in his sleep.

ninots in valencia

The whooping and hollering in the streets lasted until the following day’s mascletà. My head was swampy, a mixture of warm beers and smoke inhalation. I’d spend another day with Emily traipsing around the Jardines del Turia before stopping by the Quixotic windmills in Castilla-La Mancha and the UNESCO World Heritage cities of Úbeda and Baeza.

Like the Tomatina, Las Fallas was a festival I was glad to see once, but it didn’t spark (sorry, I am the worst) enough interest in me to go back another year. It felt like waiting in a long line only to be slightly disappointed when you had something shiny and new in your hand.

Perhaps we didn’t do it right. Perhaps the rain hampered the festivities. Perhaps I just didn’t feel the true emotion, my senses dulled after a long car ride and the inability to shake the damp. And as someone whose favorite holiday is the 4th of July, even Valencia’s fireworks and fanfare weren’t enough to move it to my top-of-mind when it came to Spanish festivals. It was a lot of fun, laced with beers and laughter and smoke.

a first timer's guide to

If you go: Las Fallas is one of Spain’s coolest festivals and happens during the first three weeks of March, culminating with the Cremà on March 19th. Book ahead and consider staying in Ruzafa or L’Eixample, where you’ll be within walking distance of public transportation and all of the major casales. Also bring cash – lots of street vendors won’t accept cards. You can find an official 2017 schedule here as well as a map to all of the city’s ninots.

Valencia is a city I love more and more with each trip. Check out their crazy ice cream flavors, the UNESCO lauded Lonja de la Seda and the famous tomato slinging festival, La Tomatina.

Have you ever been to Las Fallas or Valencia?

Five Reasons Why Andalucía is the Place to Be in May

Andalucía in springtime is perhaps the closest I can get to nirvana. Yes, the azahar flowers met an untimely death in April and my allergies are rampant, but even the short bursts of rain seem more poetic and more welcome now, because I’ll soon be slurping down snails or sneaking in a beer before work. The sky is blue and the temperature is perfect; the beaches are uncrowded and tourists have yet to choke city centers and my favorite tapas bars.

Even with flight deals to foreign destinations, staying close to home in Andalucía is my first choice when it comes to weekend plans and city breaks. From ferias to romerías, my social calendar is already packed with ideas!

Things to do in Andalusia in May

While I’m busy preparing for my sister’s wedding in the US along with the crazed end-of-term tasks, please grab a cervecita and enjoy some of these festivals for me this month!

Jerez de la Frontera: La Feria del Caballo

May kicks off with La Feria del Caballo, a smaller more welcoming version of my local Feria de Sevilla in little sister city Jerez de la Frontera. A city renowned for its sherry production and Andalusian horses, the festivities revolve around just those things. Head to the recinto ferial on the north end of town to dance Sevillanas and gawk at horse carriages, glass of fino in hand.

Feria de Jerez

And no need to wear a traje de gitana, chicas – this feria is way more laid-back!

2016 dates: April 30 to May 6

Córdoba: Cruces de Mayo, Festival de los Patios, Feria de Córdoba

Seville’s big month is April, but May is totally Córdoba’s time to shine. While it may not be as grandiose as its westerly neighbor, the Ciudad Califa has THREE festivals of national touristic interest.

calleja de las flores córdoba

Cruces de Mayo, which typically takes place during the first weekend of the month, sees large flower crosses set up in city plazas as offerings (and, rumor has it, there are small bars selling food and drink). Next up is the Patios Festival, where locals open their homes and gardens to the public, their walls and wells draped in beautiful flowers. If your wallet hasn’t burned a hole in your pocket during your stay in Andalusia yet, the cordobés version of a feria closes out the month.

2016 dates: Cruces is April 28 to May 2, after which the Patios are open daily until May 15th. The Feria will be held from the 21st and 28th of the month.

Málaga: Noche en Blanco

Málaga is an up-and-coming touristic epicenter, and the city has responded by offering 20% more activities, openings and gatherings for their annual White Night. Fashioned after its American counterparts, the museums, galleries, expositions and tours here will operate until 2am.

You can see the full program here.

2016 dates: May 14th from 8pm until 2am.

Huelva: La Romería de El Rocío

My first trip to El Rocío – a mere hour’s bus ride from Seville – was one for the books. Straight out of the American Wild West, I was surrounded by people from all over Spain who were devoted to an effigy found near the marshes of Doñana National Park. From parades to enormous corrales housing groups of hermandades, this is certainly quite an event!

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I call her the lushy Virgin Mary, as her party on Pentecost Sunday is also characterized by hedonism. After the long walk to the Aldea from various parts of Spain, the statue “jumps” over the altar and is passed around town on the shoulders of her followers. The best part of the Salta de la Reja is that it happens at a different time every year, meaning Sunday night reaches fever pitch proportions.

2016 dates: the carrozas leave their respective hermandades on various days leading up to Pentecost Sunday, which is May 15th this year.

Granada and Almería: Moros y Cristianos

This long-standing festival, reenacting the Christian Reconquest of Spain during the 8th to 15th centuries, isn’t limited to Andalucía – many locals in southwest and south central Spain have their own version of the event. Imagine full-scale battles, costumes and an enormous medieval fair (meat on a stick!). And given that Andalucía – Granada specifically – was the last stronghold of the Moors, the region takes pride in their rendition.

2016 dates: Dates vary by municipality, but count on late May or June; check local websites.

come and drink

As for Seville? It’s still recovering from Semana Santa and Feria! I’ve been drinking in the temperate weather, the sunny bike rides to work and the longer evening light. Well, that and draining my wallet on gas and bocadillos.

Even if you’re visiting Andalusia on an all-inclusive holiday or cruise, make time to experience these visitor-friendly festivals – they will give you an insight into Andalusian culture and tradition in the wonderful region I now call home.

Curious about events taking place in other parts of Spain? Madrid’s local festival, San Isidro, is marked by bullfights and events around the city, and Girona is famous for its Temps de Flors. Devour Spain covers the ins and outs of San Isidro, and Jess’s photos of the flower festival are gorgeous! And my apologies: I should have pushed publish on this article two weeks ago – oops! 

What’s your favorite springtime festival in Spain?

Vía Crucis de Santiponce: Semana Santa Lite

Torches lined the gravel path, which inclined ever-so-slightly upwards. Mari Carmen had taken hold of my arm and was pulling me forward through the crowds as pebbles rolled out of place, causing me to stumble – no joke – three times. Up ahead, a procession showing Christ carrying the cross was reaching the top of the hill.

Via Crucis Santiponce

When my friend invited me to a Saturday night out at a small-scale religious procession, I hadn’t been skeptical or searching for something better to do. After turning 30, some sort of chip clicked on, and I have been determined to switch up my weekend routine ever since. Because, #thisis30 and my stamina is not what it used to be. Attending one of the Aljarafe’s most celebrated fiestas locales with an American friend’s Andalusian mother-in-law was going to be a new experience.

Santiponce traditional festival

Accompanied by a somber three-piece woodwind band, we were able to sneak around the gold-laden paso and slip into the crowd next to the local cemetery. Close to 50 brothers, torches and cruces de guía in hand, had taken up rank across from the cemetery’s western wall as Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno sliced through the masses of people. Even on my toes, I couldn’t see but as he passed through the gate, the speakers crackled to life with the Our Father.

Growing up Catholic, I’d learned many prayers by heart, but even working in a Catholic grade school hadn’t prompted me to learn the words in Spanish. I bowed my head so that Mari Carmen wouldn’t see that I couldn’t say more than Padre Nuestro, que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre

What is a via crucis

As the procession backed up and headed down the hill towards Itálica, an ancient Roman town that saw prosper and the birth of two emperors, I could finally ask Mari Carmen why she’d invited three guiris out to a procession. The Vía Crucis of Santiponce is one of Spain’s most revered Lenten activities, and draws the participation of brotherhoods, called hermandades, from around Spain.

Following the old Roman road through Itálica, we stopped and waited near the entrance to the ampitheatre. Inside, fourteen brotherhoods would line up along the oblong-shaped walls with their cruz de guía, or the crucifix that heads up each procession in its respective hermandad. No pointy hats here. The Cristo would stop at each one as an hermano would read passages from the Bible and pray an Our Father fourteen times.

Via Crucis Spain

Just as the paso passed into the amphitheater, the clouds broke and a drizzle began to fall. Umbrellas went up, blocking my view. Even the threat of rain keeps most Cristos and Vírgenes at home, safe in their temples, but the 25 year-old tradition wouldn’t let the damp weather spoil its journey. Instead, a poncho was placed around the veneration’s shoulders and the first station – Jesus is condemned to death – was completed.

Torches burned and the crowd thinned out at Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno made his way through the last moments of his life. We followed him as he passed the stone walls of Itálica’s most famous ruin as he figuratively prepared for his death and resurrection.

hermandades en un via crucis

Via Crucis Spain Italica

Brotherhoods participating in a Via Crucis in Spain

Altarboys Spain

Santiponce Via Crucis

A tí te gusta la Semana Santa, Cat? Mari Carmen asked, again clutching my arm as we heard the grunts and shoe scoffing of the costaleros under the float as they approached 11th station, the crucifixion. Like Semana Santa, a Vía Crucis a moment of reflection and meditation, a plead for forgiveness or piety, but without the crowds and the pushing come Palm Sunday.

I answered her no, that the raucous celebration of the Feria de Sevilla were far more my pace.

If you go: The Vía Crucis of Santiponce is celebrated yearly and of touristic interest. It is held on the first Sunday of Lent, typically in late February or early March. Admission is free and parking is ample, or you can take the M-170A from Plaza de Armas. 

Via Crucis Santiponce2

Have you ever been to a religious celebration? Have any cool events to share in Spain? If you liked these photos, check out last year’s Palm Sunday processions photo diary!

Photo Post: La Hermandad Rociera de Triana and the Pilgrimage to El Rocío

“No, no, no,” Lucía shook her head fiercely as curls of white smoke escaped from her lips. “You shouldn’t be in Cerro de Águila by yourself. Crime is rampant over there.”

That following morning at the Novio’s new house in Cerro, I was woken up by the fourth-floor shaking as what sounded like a loud pop boomed throughout. I ran into the bathroom and slammed the door behind me.

Turns out the potential guns from the ‘crime capital’ of Seville were actually noisemakers of the neighborhood’s religious brotherhood.

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Fifty days after Resurrection Sunday, those faithful to the Virgen del Rocío (which is practically all of Southern Spain) make a pilgrimage towards La Aldea, a small hamlet full of stately mansions and dirt roads. The striking hermitage – a grandiose white mirage set at the southern edge of la Aldea with views to the marshes of Doñana National Park – was first built on the supposed spot where Alfonso the Wise found an effigy of the Virgin Mother. Today, it’s popular for its most raucous fiesta in the middle of the springtime. 

Seville counts five hermandades – Savlador and Triana are the most famous – whose numbers are staggering. On the Wednesday before Pentecost Sunday, covered wagons pulled by oxen, horses or even tractors set out towards the Almonte and la Aldea, following a silver-laden carriage with an image of the Rocío known as a simpecado. For many of the devout, this spiritual cleansing, characterized by sleeping and eating outdoors, song and dance and prayer, is the most important part.

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When I worked in Olivares, many of my students went missing in the days leading up to El Rocío and the days surrounding Pentecost. I had a handful named Rocío or Paloma in homenage to the Virgin Mary who, quite possible, is the most revered in Andalucía. 

Few things get me out of bed before 8am, but today I was already out the door at that time, Camarón fully charged and ready to shoot (the cohetes would have woken me up regardless). Mass at the chapel on calle Evangelista began at 7:30am, and the simpecado, preceeded by horses and pilgrims, left shortly thereafter. In the past, the carretas that carry supplied for the ten-day pilgrimage were allowed to traverse Triana, but city ordinance now mandate that the wagons start from Plaza Chapina at the northern end of the neighborhood.

romeros ready for El Rocio

Devout pilgrims at el Rocio

Romeros on Calle Pureza Triana

I followed the crowd to Calle Pureza and the door of the Esperanza de Triana church. Here, in one of the most emblematic monuments of the barrio, the simpecado would pass, the devout would pray and the pilgrimage would truly begin.

Perched on the curb just opposite the gleaming white temple, itself a nod to its marisma counterpart 70 kilometers west, I watched as romeros – the name for pilgrims around these parts – flooded the streets. Men wear straw hats and women don flamenco dresses that are easier to walk in, all clutching medals that bear the Virgen del Rocío.

Rocio Fashion 2015

carretas of El Rocio

Gitanas El Rocio

A three-piece band led the procession. Sevillanas with a twist, rocieras use a cane and a bass drum instead of cajas and flutes in place of guitars, and singers belt out songs proclaiming the glory of the Blanca Paloma. Behind them came romeros on horseback and the image of the Virgen herself.

music of el Rocio

prensa en el rocio

Triana to El Rocio on horseback

romeros
Romeros de Triana 2015

Calle Pureza during El Rocio

El Rocio passing by the Esperanza de Triana

Once the simpecado had reached the door of the church, pulled by two oxen, a man on horseback removed his had and, red faced, began to rally.¡Viva La Virgen del Rocío! ¡Viva la Blanca Paloma!¡Viva la Marismeña! Each battle cry was followed by a hearty ¡Viva! 

“¡Y Viva Triana! ¡Viva Triana! ¡Viva Triana!”

Salida del Simpecado Rociero

 

Everyone around me erupted into song as petals were thrown from the roof of the church. While El Rocío has a steady dose of hedonism, the true root of the festival lies in soul-stirring devotion. I felt moved in the same way that Semana Santa touched me. People stopped shoving and began to cry, crossing themselves as they proclaimed that only in Heaven is the Virgen del Rocío more loved.

Want to read more about the festival? I attended the Pentecost Sunday activities –¡vestida de gitana! – in 2012.

Photo Post: the Chirigotas of the Carnavales de Cádiz

How to do the Carnavales de Cadiz

Pá qué quieren ir ha Chipiona shi aquí tenemoh Caí?

Two more beers and a plate of chicharrones were slammed down in front of us as the bar keep expressed exasperation. Why would anyone want to head to nearby Chipiona if the peninsula’s best Carnival celebration were right here in Cádiz?

We’d braved an overcast, misty day to head to San Fernando for the Novio’s wedding tuxedo the morning, and the fried fish and carnavales celebration were calling his name. 

A view of the bay of Cadiz

Entering the barrio de Santa María just north of the old city walls, there were few signs of debauchery and partygoers. I myself have been to the nighttime festivities of the Carnavales de Cádiz twice. Two booze-soaked nights where I stepped in puddles of urine and around broken glass.

Ah, youth.

When the Novio suggested making a day trip to see a friend of his and see the famed chirigotas, I was in. Not that I didn’t have fond memories of botellones and ridiculous children’s costumes, of course.

The Plaza del Ayuntamiento, one I’d seen so full of drunk people and bottles of San David, was bright in the midday sun. As we’d drank our beers, the mist had rolled off of one side of the Atlantic and over the Bahía Sur, passing Cádiz’s skinny land mass in the time it had taken to drink two cervezas

We’d met Jorge in the tangle of streets in the old town. Cádiz is one of Europe’s largest cities, and thus there is little rhyme or reason to the layout of the peninsula. Long on one side, short on the other, I was instantly turned around in the colonial-style pedestrian streets.

Streets of Cádiz old town

Lunch was at trendy La Candelaria, owned by a far-flung relative of Jorge’s. In this city of water and industry, it sees that families have been here as long as Hercules himself, and nearly everyone who walked into the bar over our long lunch knew one another.  

But we came for more than atún rojo en tempura and never-ending glasses of wine (the good stuff, not the plastic bottle stuff). We came for the chirigotas and costumes. 

The origins of carnival celebrations worldwide are rooted in Christian tradition. Celebrated each year just before Lent, believers often used this six-week period to refrain from life’s excesses. Carnaval, a play on the Latin words ‘carne’ for meat and ‘vale’ for farewell, is a last-ditch effort to eat, drink and be merry/drunk before Lent begins. I’d taken that advice to heart all of those years ago, but today would be a far lighter – I’d volunteered to drive home.

Costumes are traditionally worn, and Cádiz’s celebration – one of the largest in Spain – makes light of the humor of gaditanos. Rather than extravagant costumes, gaditanos use their costumes as social commentary. Especially popular this year were Pablo Iglesia, whatsapp icons and the Duquesa de Alba.

costumes of the carnivals de cadiz

Funny Costume Ideas Carnavales de Cadiz

Crazy costumes at Cadiz carnavales

san esteban Carnavales de Cadiz

The chirigotas themselves are the huge draw of the daytime during the two weeks that the festivities drag on. These choruses, usually made up of men in the same costume, sing satirical verses about politics, current events and everyday life while troubadoring around the streets of the Casco Antiguo.

Small clumps of people choked the skinny alleyways as chorus members drank beer until they’d deemed that enough people had gathered to watch. They’d break into song, often asking audience members to join in. We saw everyone from kids dressed as housewives to men dressed as questionable nuns with plastic butts under their habits and plastic cups of beer in their hands.

what is a chirigota

costumes for Carnival

carnival in Cadiz chirigotas

The most famous chirigotas perform for crowds in the famed Teatro Gran Falla, but those who take to the street are often illegal – illegal as in looking for a good buzz on the street!

We wound our way from the Plaza de la Catedral to the Plaza San Antonio and up Calle Cervantes to the Plaza del Mentidero. Named not for liars but the fact that this is where town criers often announced news and events, this square has transformed into the place for rumors to be born – making it a focal point of the festivities (and closer to the Carnavales I knew – littered with bottles and half-eaten food!).

What it's like at the Carnavales de Cadiz

We were back in Seville before nightfall, thoroughly exhausted and still sporting wet shoes from the morning rainfall. Jorge took us around the Alameda park on the northern tip of the island as the sun began to set, a welcome respite from the crowds and noise.

Want more Spanish fiesta? Read my posts on the Feria de Sevilla | La Tomatina de Buñol | The Feria del Caballo de Jerez 

My Five Favorite Feria de Abril Moments

The horses are still clip-clopping in my head, the piercing cascabeles echoing throughout the street. At the first hint of azahar and Spring in the air, my feet find themselves marking out the steps to sevillanas, and I start making plans for Seville’s fiesta más alegre.

Every experience at the Feria de Abril is different, and each year I live it in a different way.  It has to be said – the feria isn’t for everyone. Several other blogging friends of mine cry out about the private casetas, open by invitation only, about the inflated prices of food and drink, and even about the dusty alberothat gets onto their dress ruffles.

But I love it. I’ve been to other ferias in other cities – Córdoba, El Puerto de Santa María and Jerez de la Frontera – but nothing quite compares to first time you see the portada lit up, or the feeling of waltzing into a caseta without a word to the door guy. I adore Feria during the day and I rock out at el Real until the wee hours of the morning.

As the date of the alumbrado gets closer, the ganas I have to dress up and dance seem to skyrocket exponentially. At no other point in the year do I feel more sevillana or ready to drink it all in (and I don’t just mean the rebujito).  You know what they say: Yo quiero cruzar el río para bailer sevillanas!

5. Watching the Alumbrado at Josele’s house (2010 and 2011) For several weeks leading up to the fair, workers construct a huge wooden gate, erect temporary houses and string paper lights up on streets named for bullfighters. Ya huele a Feria, y olé, ya huele a Feria.

When I gave class at Edificio Presidente, which sits just in front of the main gate, during my first few years in Seville, I would watch out Javi’s living room window as the Recinto Ferial began to take shape. “Javi, do you like living so close to the Feria,” I asked him one morning before he went to university classes nearby. 

“It’s the best during the alumbrado and when you want to stumble home, but you can get so crazy with the sevillanas music.”He had a point, but I made a mental note to find a friend with a house close to the portada to watch it light up – I’d previously seen it while being crunched between a million other people.

The following year, my friend T was dating a sevillano whose family lived in the building next to Javi’s, and Josele invited us to bring a bottle of fino, plastic cups and 7-up to have a few drinks before midnight. I watched in awe as the larger-than-life NO8DO was lit up, piece by piece. People cheered and bands struck up all at once. I gulped down the rest of my rebujito and went to join the party.

4. My first ride in a horse carriage (2010)

I waved at Leonor from across Gitanillo de Triana street. I would never forget the address of her caseta, as she’d texted it to me half a dozen times and repeated it over and over again in the months leading up to the fair. As it turns out, she and her family were across the street and one door down from Los Sanotes.

It must have been six o’clock and just after lunch when I went over with TJ, who was visiting from Aragón. Leonor disappeared in the caseta and came out wielding a plate of jamón, a jar of rebujito and a few plastic cups. I reached my hands out for them, threatening to drop them into the albero, but she nudged me away with her hip.

“I called Jaime, he’s on his way to pick you up.”

Jaime was my student and just 14 at the time. He came with a sleek horse carriage and climbed down to help me into it in my traje de gitana. Tim followed, and Leonor handed us the food and drinks. I tried to refuse the plate of ham, but she insisted, saying we would need it to reverse the effects of the sherry and 7up mix.

Jaime and his two horses took us along the official carriage route, which snakes its way around the fairgrounds from noon until 8pm. From this vantage point, we could see the whole party comfortably while snacking. Taking a spin with them is something I do yearly, but I’ll never forget how cool it felt to be sitting high up, close enough to touch the farolillos that line the streets.

Plus, I saw the Duquesa de Alba and FLIPPED out. 

3. La Noche Más Larga (2010)

I’ve had my fair share of tipsy moments during the fair. Ha, oops. Even those “Oh, I’ll just go for dinner and come back at a reasonable hour” days seem to stretch on forever.

There was the time Fernando’s nephew took Kelly and I around the fairgrounds for 12 hours, or when I was invited into the largest caseta of them all, or when my students treated me like a princess (as in, they fed me jamón and beer for a few hours). The same day that I rode in a coche de caballos for the first time, I went from classy to trashy in what is, without a doubt, the best night of Feria in my six years going to the Real.

As soon as Jaime had whisked us around, I called to meet up with my guiri girlfriends. Meag, Jenna, Bri and Tiana were all at the same caseta, where the socios was one of T’s friends. There were no sevillanas playing when we arrived – instead, people were doing body shots off of one another in something more reminiscent of Spring Break Acapulco than the Feria de Abril. I resisted the body shots, but we were given mixed drinks for only 3€. For the rest of the night, we bounced around from one tent to the next, chattering away, sharing plates of food and  passing around jars of rebujito.

Around 4 or 5 in the morning, just as the tents were closing down, Meag, TJ and I strode to the churros stands at Calle del Infierno. Exapserated, Meag wished for “la penúltima” beer, a common Andalusian phrase when your real plan is to keep drinking all night.

The carny who was coiling the fried dough of the churros smiled. “I have a six-pack,” he said, “and I’ll sell you each can for a euro.”

We drank down the cold beers with the greasy churros (yeah, I know, ick), bought some gummies and started the slow procession home. Slow in the sense that it took us TWO HOURS to walk a kilometer back to my apartment in Triana.

I blame Joey the Little Chicken for such antics.

2. The birth of Club Social “Aqui No Hay Guiris” (2008)

Susana handed me another beer and asked if I was enjoying my first Feria. Despite dressing like a complete fool, I was enchanted and thrilled to have a place where I was welcome, regardless of whether or not I was a socio.

Llama a unas amigas,” she said, “so that they can see what Feria is like.” I pulled out my archaic mobile phone and sent a few messages around. Lindsay responded and said she’d be on her way shortly.

I finished my beer and asked Isra for another. He made yet another tick on the Novio’s tab and gave me a wink. “A que esto de mola, eh guiri?”  Thirty minutes later, an exasperated rubia sidles up next to me at the bar.

Tía!” Lindsay was sucking in air as I order her a beer. “I’ve tried calling you! I kept telling the guy at the door that I was a friend of the guiri inside!”

I glanced at my phone, which had not been plastered to my body to feel it vibrating. She gulped down some Cruzcampo and related, “He said there weren’t any foreigners here. You know, waved his hand and said ‘Aquí no hay guiris.'”

And thus, the greatest social club of my fellow extranjeros was born. We’re considering putting our names on the list for a caseta just as soon as the fairgrounds are expanded to Charco de la Pava. No more chico frito or tortilla – we’re stocking that tent with chicken fingers and hamburgers!

1. “Tu, que eres, de Chicago de la Frontera?” (2009)

My most memorable Feria de Abril moment came from a drunk socio of Los Sanotes, who has forever immortalized me – at least to my sevillano friends – and still makes my students laugh when they ask me to retell it.

Late one night during my second fair, I asked Manolo at the bar for another beer. “Should I add it to your boyfriend’s tab?” he asked, winking.

Not a second later, a drunk, balding socio who reeked of whisky and fried fish was offering to pay for my drink. He looked me up and down and made kissy noises while the Novio snickered behind me.

Oye,” drunken socio cooed, “I don’t know you. Are you from around here?” I tried hard not to laugh the beer right out of my nose as he shimmied and answered, “No, I’m from Chicago.” 

Olé, from Chiclana, right near the beach. That’s nice. Olé.” Drunk socio had confused my hometown with a beachside resort town called Chiclana de la Frontera, thousands of miles away from my beloved Sevilla.

I could see the Novio and his friend Alfonso making a slow exit to leave me to my own devices. By now, I was wedged in between the bar and one of drunk socio’s sausage arms. Avoid his gaze (and whiskey breath), I answered: “Nooooo, de She-cah-go!” I corrected him.

“Ya, ya, ya. De Chicago de la Frontera, quilla.”

And that’s how I became known as the gitana from the American town with the most rate, a nickname that sticks with me to this day.

Feria begins officially on May 5th at midnight when the mayor switches on the main gate’s 10 thousand plus lights. Don’t be fooled by the local name – Feria de Abril – we stick to tradition and start partying two weeks after Easter Monday. If you’re going, remember to dress sharply and bring enough money to cover your food and drinks. For more, check out my Dos and Don’ts of Feria, or how to buy a flamenco dress and its accessories.

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