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As a nation, Spain is known for its love of ‘la fiesta’, which is as deep-rooted in the culture as vino, tapas and ‘la siesta’. Jo Chipchase examines why fiestas are so commonplace in España and reveals some of the more unusual events that occur annually.


hile the UK has given rise to the ‘male vertical volume drinker’ (men who stand at the bar and consume large quantities of beer) and the Criminal Justice Bill, which made unofficial raves illegal back in 1996, Spain is better known for its flamboyant public celebrations, the whole family joining in the fun, and the ‘white island’ of Ibiza, where parties are never curtailed by a noise abatement order. There is even a pop song, ‘Loca People’ by Sak Noel, dedicated to Spain’s endless partying.


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Despite the continuing impact of la crisiss (the recession), Spain does not waver in its enthusiasm for its year-round fiestas, feriass (fairs) and religious celebrations. The country has more than 3,000 such events annually. Most towns and villages, as well as some individual barrioss (neighbourhoods), have their own designated fiesta: often, this commemorates the patron saint. Some towns have multiple fiestas, with the peak month for activity being August. Generally speaking, Spaniards have a group mentality. A town’s entire population will involve itself in the annual fiesta, which can take months

to prepare in terms of logistics, performance and costumes. The events are funded by the local ayuntamiento (town hall) through taxation and, sometimes, with help from the private sector.

A long history of celebration So why are fiestas so ingrained in Spain? Gemma Rivas, who runs a 1,000-strong Spanish Facebook forum that provides event information, says, “The Spanish culture is rooted in the influences of different peoples who have inhabited the peninsula over the centuries. The history, the mountainous terrain and

CULTURE Fiestas New Year in August? Only in Berchules.

which takes place in Pamplona, Navarra region, from 6th to 14th July, is to celebrate the area’s patron saint. Every year, brave (or reckless) people run with a herd of bulls and try to avoid being trampled or gored. In the daily bull run, which begins on the morning of 7th July, the herd comprises six bulls and six steers. The 826m route negotiates the old part of the city (Santo Domingo, Ayuntamiento, Mercaderes and Estafeta). It ends in the Plaza del Toros (bull ring). The run is controlled, as well as possible, by a 3,000-part fence and a group of ‘bull shepherds’ who prevent the bulls from running in the wrong direction (ie backwards). In the evening after the run, the bulls take part in a bullfight. The bull run is, apparently, based on the history of breeders conveying their mature animals to the Plaza del Toros to fight, through the streets of Pamplona. History also has it that the run originated in northeast Spain during the early 14th century, when people transporting cattle to market would use tactics of fear and excitement to speed them along, and young men would race in front of the bulls. For more than 800 years, brave and foolish men have repeated this theme. The first part of the Pamplona run (Santo Domingo) is considered the most dangerous because the bulls are fresh and excited, while escape options are limited. The second section is considered the easiest. Annually, 200-300 people are injured in the bull runs and participants have been gored, trampled and left close to death. A fatality occurred in 2009 and, since record-keeping started in 1910, some 15 people have been killed. The event proves unpopular with animal rights campaigners.

the seas that surround Spain have contributed to the current culture. The individuality of Spain’s regions has given rise to various cultural representations. These have been reflected in different fields: art, traditions, literature, languages and dialects, music, food – as well as our fiestas.” Fernando Poyatos, a musician based near Granada, says, “Spanish religious festivals are directly related to the Christianity of the Roman Catholic line, unlike the Protestant line which is more evident in England. Spain has a character of religious iconography. Additionally, the open

character of the Latin countries, the weather, the mixture of cultures and peoples have played a part.” Some of Spain’s fiestas – whether based on traditional religious feasts or invented more recently – are quirky in the extreme. We checked out some of the most interesting events...

The town where people run with bulls... Amongst other national icons, Spain is renowned for its bulls (toros). The animal is celebrated in the Running of the Bulls – known as El Encierro (the enclosing): the highlight of the San Fermin fiesta,

Bulls run through the streets of Pamplona during San Fermín.

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ABOVE AND TOP RIGHT: Participants pay huge sums to travel in the lorries that deliver the tomatoes during La Tomatina festival in Buñol, Valencia. REMAINING IMAGES: People in fancy dress during the San Juan en Lanjarón fiesta which includes a massive water fight that begins at 1am.

The town that throws tomatoes On a messier but less dangerous front, the town of Buñol in Valencia has an annual fiesta that involves a mass tomato fight. Taking place on the last Wednesday of August, La Tomatina has grown phenomenally after attracting international press coverage. This fiesta originates from a children’s food fight that occurred during a Buñol fiesta parade in August 1945. Befittingly, a Tomatina Infantil (kids’ event) has recently been introduced to the fiesta. These days, some 20,000 people – including many from Australia, Japan, the UK and the US – visit Buñol for the tomato-throwing spectacle. At 11am on the day of La Tomatina, six trucks pass through the town and dump 120,000 kilos of tomatoes along the route. When a horn sounds, the hourlong fight begins, with many participants wearing goggles to protect their eyes from the stinging juice. Afterwards, some head to the town’s river to wash off the red, soggy mess. To help with crowd control, which has become increasingly difficult, Buñol has recently introduced a charge of €10 (£8.60) for access to the ‘Tomatoes Area’. The price rises to €750 (£647) to ride on the trucks that spread the fruit. In 2013, around 60 per cent of tickets were sold to adults aged 18-35. The oldest ticket buyer was 82. The entrance fee will help the cash-strapped ayuntamiento – especially as the annual event costs €140,000 to stage.

The town that has a mass water fight Attracting almost as many Spaniards as La Tomatina – but which is not as well-known


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internationally – a mass water fight (carrera de agua) takes place on the night of 23rd June in Lanjarón: a spa town located in La Alpujarra region of southern Spain. The water fight is part of the celebration of San Juan en Lanjarón and the town’s Fiesta de Agua y Jamon (water and ham). At the stroke of midnight, a horn sounds and thousands of people wearing swimwear or fancy dress hurl buckets of water and shoot water pistols at each other, while simultaneously being soaked by municipal fire hoses. The event finishes at 1am. Up to 30,000 participants attend the water fight, and numbers are always highest if the event falls on a Saturday. A more moderate 18,000 attended in 2013, when the event fell on a Sunday. Before the proceedings begin, local store, hotel and bar proprietors seal their doors and windows and lock clients inside for the duration! A relatively recent conception, the water fight began in 1980 and stemmed from an old tradition of splashing water from the spring on to the faces of young people. Before then, the town had religious fiestas but not a public one. The new San Juan en Lanjarón, with its water fight and flamboyant parade (known as la publica), filled the gap perfectly. According to Toni Romero, tourism representative at the Ayuntamiento de Lanjarón, although the water fight is difficult to control, problems of aggression or violence never occur. In 2012, some residents complained about water being thrown before midnight, especially in bars and residential streets. She advises, “If you don’t want to get wet, stay in the house!”

CULTURE Fiestas The town of Bérchules is in the High Alpujarras, and attracts around 10,000 visitors to its unusual ‘new year’ celebrations.

A children’s water fight takes place annually on 23rd June at 1pm. This daytime event is gaining in popularity: the afternoon sun makes it all the more attractive.

New Year’s Eve in August Remaining on the quirky front, the Spanish village of Bérchules, in the High Alpujarra, has taken the unusual step of celebrating New Year’s Eve (Noche Viejo) on the first Saturday of August. This has happened since 1994, when a power outage caused the traditional celebration to be postponed on 31st December. The resulting fiesta, featuring a cavalcade of the Three Kings and the mass consumption of grapes, attracts up to 10,000 people. In 2013, around 8,500 people joined the town’s existing 9,000 inhabitants. The fiesta begins on the Saturday afternoon, with a foam party followed by the parade. Other attractions include the drinking of anis (a clear spirit, similar to Greek ouso), giant cookies and nativity scenes. At the stroke of midnight, the ‘new year’ is welcomed by the crowds in the plaza. Laura Puche Martinez, president of the association that organises the fiesta, says, “Before the 2013 event, we prepared 9,000 boats of grapes

and 1,000 kilos of nativity sweets (polverones de estepena) to be handed out during the celebrations.” She adds, “It can be difficult to control the crowd but it passes okay. Everyone in the town likes the fiesta. The dancing went on until 9am during 2013, and many people were still out on the street. We had many grapes to clean off the ground afterwards... and then the neighbouring village has its religious fiesta the weekend afterwards!”

The fiesta that became a world music festival With the Spanish always ready to party, some local fiestas have – over the years – become full-scale festivals. For example, the town of Alcalá la Real, in Jaén province, has put itself on the map by creating the Etnosur world music festival that attracts 40,000 people annually. Etnosur was conceived in 1996 when the then mayor of Alcalá la Real, Juan Rafael Canovaca, approved the idea for a collaborative event that would feature a circus, workshops, forums, exhibitions, narrators and world music. The first event took place in July 1997 in the town centre. Afterwards, what had started as a town project expanded and won support from public and private organisations. The festival is now

The Etnosur world music festival attracts 40,000 people annually.

funded by tourism authorities and banks, as well as the ayuntamiento. It is run with the co-operation of the townspeople, who show a warm welcome to the mass-invasion of revellers who have often travelled hundreds of kilometres for the event. Etnosur can be a place to join debates and attend workshops, or a place to dance until the early hours of the morning, and then seek out after-parties on the outskirts of town. These can include anything from cars fitted with sound systems to people playing classical music on clarinets. Etnosur succeeds in being a diverse event, while remaining free of charge.

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Medieval markets – the old with the new In different regions of Spain, what began as a mercado (market) with a medieval theme has quickly turned into a fiesta that grows in popularity every year. The Mercado Medieval is based around a feria with entertainments and artisan stalls. These touring events are run by private organisations, in conjunction with local ayuntamientos, and attract up to 15,000 people over a weekend. One successful event is operated by Medievo del Sur. This organisation started in 2011, when the spa town of Lanjarón wanted a second annual fiesta in August, to follow on from San Juan in June, and needed help with co-ordination. Drawing upon Jewish, Arab and Christian traditions, the resulting Mercado Medieval features street theatre, fire acts, period characters, workshops, falconry displays, sword-fighting and wooden children’s rides. Guests may witness everything from snake-charmers to wandering town barrachos (drunks) who interact with the crowd. Thanks to the input of cheap taverns, the Mercado Medieval involves drinking and revelling until the early hours. Guests can also enjoy medieval banquets. Lorenzo Peñalver Martín of Medievo Sur says, “The medieval market is growing in popularity among all people. We offer various recreational activities for children and parents, immersing them with décor and activities in an atmosphere of that time. Every year we can offer the public something different and attractive.” He adds, “As the event lasts a whole weekend, medieval markets are a small party that can be enjoyed with all residents and visitors to the town!” The event, organised by Medievo del Sur, visits Salobreña on the Costa Granada, Montijo in Badajóz (Extremadura), Macael in Almería, and Seville. Similar medieval markets operate in other regions of Spain (see

Could we party like this in the UK? When considering the staging of a mass bull run, tomato or water fight in the UK, these events would be unlikely to happen. Too much could go wrong. Health and safety officials would ban the event at risk assessment stage. If it went ahead, participants would sue the organisers over minor injuries if they slipped and fell over. Possibly, mounted riot police would be called to dispel groups of bottle-hurling drunks. Or, local residents would issue a writ over noise pollution. Toni Romero says, “In August, here in Lanjarón, there’s an activity every day and the ayuntamiento


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pays for it all. The number of fiestas depends on individual town halls. For example, a tourist destination such as ours may have many events.” The fiestas may, in fact, extend throughout the whole year, with religious days, Halloween, Christmas, New Year and Semana Santa (Easter) all providing grounds for public celebration of a sometimes raucous nature. Toni adds, “People here never complain about the fiestas. If people don’t like the noise, they leave. In Spain, la fiesta is no problem!” Re-enactment is alive and well in Spain too, with Mercado Medievals visiting different towns and organising events.

Pamplona Bull Run Date: 6th-14th July, 2014 Website: Facebook: bullrunpamplona Nearest airport: Pamplona La Tomatina in Buñol, Valencia Date: Wednesday 27th August, 2014 Website: Facebook: LaTomatinaOficial Twitter: @LaTomatinaInfo Nearest airport: Valencia Lanjarón Water Fight Date: Monday 23rd June, 2014 Website: Nearest airports: Granada (flights from London City Airport), Málaga New Year’s Eve in August, Bérchules Date: Saturday 23rd August, 2014 Nearest airports: Almería, Granada, Málaga Etnosur, Alcalá la Real Date: 18th-20th July, 2014 Website: Facebook: FestivalEtnosur Twitter: @FestivalEtnoSur Nearest airport: Granada Medieval Market of the South Date: various – visits different towns Website: Airports: Granada, Málaga, Almería, Seville

Spain's Non-Stop Fiesta  

Jo Chipchase on some of the more unusual Spanish fiestas that take place each year...

Spain's Non-Stop Fiesta  

Jo Chipchase on some of the more unusual Spanish fiestas that take place each year...