Lavender fields in Spain: the Brihuega Festival de la Lavanda and what you need to know

You don’t need to travel from Madrid to Provence to see lavender fields in bloom this summer.

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Brihuega, a blip of a village in the Guadalajara province, has come to produce close to 10% of the world’s lavender. My parents had a few scattered plants in the backyard of my childhood home, and, along with lightening bugs and scrapes on my knees, the lavender bloom was the true sign of summer. During a rare weekend without my kiddo or the Novio, I stumbled across the Festival de la Lavanda, a touristic initiative in Brihuega to celebrate the town’s most famous resident.

Open road, the scent of lavender hanging over a village and a muggy afternoon ahead of us, Danny, Inma and I headed northwest on the A-2 motorway shortly before lunchtime. “¡Ponte algo blanco!” Inma urged, reminding me that the soft purple would pop more if I wore something white or light-colored. The two-lane highway was crammed with cars descending into a town of barely 2400, and the bars were much the same. In a province where fields are often tinged yellow by the sun and heat at this time of the summer, the lavender fields shone a vibrant violet.

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Lavender is huge business in this little town – half of the shops are dedicated to selling products made with the flower, from cosmetics to lavender-infused cakes to handkerchiefs embroidered in violet. Although Brihuega has only been producing for around three decades, the festival has gained national and international attention in Spain – in fact, it has only been celebrated for seven years!

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The story goes that the village and the pedanías surrounding it relied heavily on the Real Fábrica de Paños, or a linens producing facility, for work and commerce. When production was reduced, farmers in the area began to look for different business avenues to help keep Brihuega from becoming a ghost town. Andrés Corral reputedly went to France and, upon discovering that his hometown’s agricultural conditions were ideal for cultivating and harvesting lavender, began to plant.

To date, there are around 1000 hectares of lavender in Brihuega and Villaviciosa, and Spanish haute fashion house Loewe derives many of its perfumes from Brihuega’s aroma. Who ever said the Spanish weren’t innovative or took risks?

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While in town, there isn’t much to see but the winding, narrow streets open up to small, cozy plazas. Since the bars were packed with other tourists, we ate most of our lunch a base de tapas – snacking on the morsels bars give you with your drink order. Apart from the lush Jardines de la Antigua Fábrica de Paños and old city ramparts, you can visit a smattering of old churches and convents, as well as the city history museum.

Post-coffee and souvenir hunting, the lavender fields were waiting. The sun was still high enough when we left that we beat most of the crowds and were able to park just a few feet off of the fields, which rolled over knolls with exposed earth, each hump bursting with violet blossoms. I went to Provence as a 16-year-old on the tail end of the lavender season, but this time, I was intoxicated by the smell and the stark way the color popped against the sky and the soil.

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When is the Brihuega Lavendar Festival?

The typical bloom time lavender is in the summer, from late June through July. This, of course, depends largely on the climate during the spring, but it’s safe to assume that the booms are at their fullest around the second and third week of July.

The 2019 Festival de la Lavanda in Brihuega will be celebrated the weekend of July 19th with a series of outdoor concerts (you get seated among the rows of plants!), guided tours and street decorating contests. You can purchase concert tickets on the official website as well as reserve a spot on the guided tours for 4€.

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How to visit the lavender fields in Brihuega

The best time of day to see Brihuega’s acres of lavender crop is around sunset, though this is the busiest time. There are designated parking areas if you travel by car, and the tourism office offers limited spots on chartered buses for 4€ during weekends in July at 7pm and 8:30 pm, just as the light wanes.

There are no facilities, so be sure to bring water and a fan if it’s hot. There are also swarms of bees, in case you’re allergic. Uh, and sandals are not the way to go because you’ll be jumping over the bushes and walking on uneven terrain.

Getting to Brihuega, Spain

It’s easiest to reach Brihuega via car – the pueblo is about 90 kilometers northwest of Madrid. From the A-2, take exit 73 and follow signs towards the village or the other town attraction, Mad Max’s miniature museum. This will also allow you to visit the lavender fields at your own pace.

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If you’re coming from Madrid or Zaragoza, connections through Guadalajara offer regular bus service to Brihuega through Autocares Samar. You can find hours and prices on the village’s tourism page. The village is surrounded by over a dozen lavender fields (over a thousand hectacres of the beauties!) but also sunflower fields you should stop off at, if you have the time.

Summertime is rife with festivals in Spain, ranging from traditional to bizarre to well-known fètes, like La Tomatina or Los San Fermínes.

Brihuega Lavender Festival

What are your favorite small town festivals in Spain? Share them with me in the comments!

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, to find my friend’s place via portable wifi in Spain. 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

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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 

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