Fiestas, ferias and romerías are part of the Spanish culture and there is invariably something going on somewhere – any excuse for a party! Over 3,000 fiestas are celebrated each year in Andalucia alone!
New Year’s Eve
Christmas may be a generally very quiet and subdued celebration in Spain, but New Year certainly isn’t and is definitely something to be experienced.
New Year’s Eve, referred to as either ‘nochevieja’ or ‘fin de año’, traditionally begins with a family meal, either at home or, more often these days, at a local restaurant. This tendency to eat out means, of course, that booking a table is fairly essential and generally needs to be done quite some time in advance. The more popular the local restaurant, the earlier it becomes advisable to book. It is not unknown for people to reserve their table twelve months in advance, but that is a bit extreme. There are quite a few restaurants nowadays offering a sort of ‘package’, which includes a meal, midnight grapes (more about those later) and in-house entertainment.
New Year is a time for dressing up, suits and evening dresses being a common sight wherever you go in town, although, it has to be said, far less so with the foreign residents. Red underwear is the order of the day, or night, as this is said to bring good luck! Right then. You’ve had your meal, or not as the case may be, and the hour approacheth. Suitably attired, complete with red knickers, it’s off to the Balcón de Europa. Looking elegant, but suitably silly, the countdown to midnight begins.
The idea is to eat one grape and take a sip of champagne with each chime of midnight, and let me tell you it’s no easy feat! If you manage it, then it is supposed to bring you luck for the coming year. Taking your own seedless grapes can assist in the task!
The origin of the twelve grapes lark goes back to 1909, when the grape growers in Alicante thought it was a great way to get rid of their huge production surplus that year. The idea caught on and now, almost every Spaniard observes what has become a tradition.
Midnight is the signal for a firework display as everyone wishes each other a Happy New Year and then the party, or parties, really begin. There is ‘live’ music on the Balcón de Europa and dancing until the early hours, pubs and discos are full, and a good time is had by one and all.
The next morning, as the revellers begin to make their way home, the traditional breakfast is hot chocolate and ‘churros’, a sort of fluted, curly, deep-fried pastry/dough thing. Delicious. The Spanish way is to dunk the churros in the hot chocolate.
Throughout the day, certainly well into the afternoon, you will invariably see people wandering around town still dressed to the nines, maybe even still wearing funny hats or false noses, although by this time looking a little dishevelled and more than a trifle worse for wear. We love a good party, and why not?
Fiesta de los Reyes/Three Kings
On January 5th, the people of Spain celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings from the Orient, symbolising the arrival in Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus, of the Three Wise Men – Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar.
This is the time when Spanish children receive their Christmas presents. On the evening of January 5th, the three kings from the Orient bring the presents to the children. There are generally processions in town with three men dressing up as the kings and riding about the town scattering sweets to the children.
On the night of January 5th, before going to sleep, children put some milk and biscuits next to the Christmas tree for the Three Kings and some water for their camels. They also leave out their best pair of shoes to be filled with presents.
The next morning, children wake up and see how many presents they have received. If they have been good, they will find a lot of presents, but if they have been naughty they will find coal. These days, however, the coal is actually made of sugar, but it was originally real coal. However, I doubt there are many parents who would actually dare to give their kids coal these days, even if it is made of sugar!
A traditional nibble on Three Kings Day is a piece of roscon, a sugar-coated fruit-filled bread. January 6th is a public holiday in Spain.
Fiesta de San Antón
The Fiesta de San Antón takes place in Maro on January 15th, 16th and 17th each year with fireworks, processions, the lighting of traditional bonfires, musical performances and the sampling of local delicacies.
This fiesta, in honour of the patron saint of Maro and protector of animals, San Antón, has its roots in the 17th century and begins with the lighting of the traditional bonfires or ‘lumbres’.
Carnival is celebrated just before the 40 days of Lent. Most Andalucian towns stage some kind of parade with dancing, firework displays and a “Carnival Queen” contest. The Carnival centres around Shrove Tuesday and most towns celebrate the carnival with processions either the weekend before or after. In larger towns and cities, the festivities can last all week. Cádiz, which copied the famous Venice carnival of the 16th century, is one of the most lively and colourful in Spain.
The Entierro del Chanquete – Burial of the Sardine – has become an integral part of the Carnaval celebrations and takes place on the final Sunday. The traditional procession is accompanied by much wailing from the widows.
Dia de Andalucía
February 28th is Andalucía Day – Día de Andalucía – and on this public holiday, many places celebrate with, amongst other things, the Día del Pedal – Day of the Bicycle.
Up to a couple of thousand people of all ages and abilities tend to participate in a gentle pedal around town.
Semana Santa, Holy Week, is still very much celebrated throughout the country and the ancient rituals, celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are a sight not to be missed. Often to the solemn, persistent beat of a single drum, men wearing pointed hoods (capirote) parade through the streets bearing huge crucifixes, whilst women dressed in black stand in silence and watch. The pointed hoods, reminiscent of those worn by the Ku Klux Klan, represent penitents (nazarenos) too shamed by the crucifixion to show their faces.
Palm Sunday – Domingo de Ramas – is the start of Holy Week and most churches will organise a parade to mark the arrival of Christ into Jerusalem. Huge, leafy palm or olive branches, blessed in the church, will be carried through the streets. Many towns and villages will host parades every evening, starting at the local church.
Each procession is preceded and followed by penitents clad in tunics of varying colours, some also wearing a mask (antifaz) to hide the identity of the penitent. Huge images and statues depicting the story of Holy Week are carried on heavy floats (tronos) by groups of bearers (costaleros.) They are led by the capataz, whose duty it is to direct their steps as they wend their way through often narrow, crowded streets.
The floats sway from side to side, and the smell of burning incense and candles fills the air. Some parades are accompanied by music, some by a single, hypnotic drumbeat, and some maintain an eerie silence. The processions (pasos) are the responsibility of the various religious brotherhoods (cofradias) and some may organise as many as three pasos, representing Christ, the Virgin and a scene from the Passion.
Rituals vary from one region to another, some being unique to a particular town, some being quite extreme in nature. In San Vicente de Sonsierra in Rioja, a form of flagellation is still carried out on Good Friday by one of the religious brotherhoods . The ritual is technically outlawed, although that doesn’t seem to bother anyone and it draws crowds of curious onlookers every year.
In Valverde de la Vera, in Caceres, men wearing crowns made out of thorny branches walk in bare feet along a symbolic path to Calvary, their arms tied to a wooden bar onto which heavy swords are hung. In Madrid, people dressed in the medieval garb of penitents, including iron shackles, carry one of the images from the church around the city.
Sevilla is where one of the most famous Easter celebrations takes place. Sevilla has a total of 52 religious brotherhoods whose members take part in parades starting at first light each day and continuing until three or four in the morning.
The origins of these brotherhoods dates back to as early as the 13th century when they were bands of men organised to rescue the wounded from battlefields during the re-conquest of Spain from the Moors. Each brotherhood has its own penitents’ garb, varying from rich satin and brocade to plain black.
Ornately carved wooden floats, many dating back to the 17th century and weighing up to 2000 kilos, are carried through the streets by costaleros. Drums and trumpets accompany the procession until, arriving at the Gothic cathedral, the journey ends in solemn silence. Easter Sunday sees a change in mood to one of jubilation.
The floats are covered with flowers, traditional sweet cakes such as monas, torrijas and pestihos are eaten and the final parades are played out to triumphant music.
Día de la Cruz/Day of the Cross
The Día de la Cruz (Day of the Cross) – Fiesta de las Cruces (Festival of the Crosses) – Cruces de Mayo (May Cross) is a holiday celebrated on May 3rd in many parts of Spain and Hispanic America.
Groups of people, often linked to the the religious Brotherhoods, get together and decorate a cross with flowers. The area around the cross is also decorated with traditional items, including such items as guitars, earthenware and brass objects, old sewing machines, fishing paraphernalia and woven shawls. Local and traditional foodstuffs and drinks are often served as the celebrations take the form of a street party.
The crosses and displays are for everyone to come and admire and in many places there are prizes for the best cross/best food etc.
On the religious side, the festival is apparently rooted in the search by Byzantine Empress Saint Helena for the cross on which Jesus died. Other aspects relate to pagan traditions brought to the Iberian peninsula by the Romans.
Romería de San Isidro
The Romería de San Isidro takes place on May 15th each year. San Isidro (Saint Isidore) is the patron saint of farmers, and many villages celebrate with processions through the fields/streets and a grand fiesta.
The statue of San Isidro normally resides at the Nerja Caves. However, for the San Isidro celebrations, the statue is brought to the town just before the event and then makes its ceremonial journey back to its home in the company of thousands of ‘pilgrims’.
In Nerja, it all starts on the evening of May 14th with a big party at the Nerja Caves, near Maro, which tends to go on until the next morning! There’s music, dancing, (temporary) bars galore and stalls and stands selling food of all types. On May 15th, proceedings begin with a Mass at the El Salvador church (around 11:00) on the Balcón de Europa. After homage is paid to the farmers of the area, the procession begins its long, slow journey up to the Nerja Caves. It can take over four hours for the stragglers to reach the caves, with the procession snaking back for up to four kilometres.
The procession is made up of horse riders, clad in traditional costume, carriages, carts pulled by teams of oxen (magnificent beasts), floats of all shapes and sizes and thousands of people on foot. The horse riders are not only locals, or tourists hiring a horse for the day from one of the riding schools, but also from the surrounding area, some regulars riding down from Competa to take part in the procession.
All morning you will see riders making their way into town for the start of the procession. However, for some strange reason, the mustering point for the riders changes each year and always seems to be the best kept secret until the very last moment. Even the Local Police don’t know what’s going on half of the time, hence there are always riders in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it’s all part of the fun, probably part of the tradition by now, and the riders just accept it with a bemused smile and a shrug of the shoulders.
Fiesta de San Juan
The actual Noche de San Juan takes on the night of June 23rd/24th and is a time when everyone goes to the beach, many camping overnight.
Despite municipal efforts, people begin staking their claim to a spot on the beach several days in advance, and by the time the actual fiesta day arrives, the beaches can be a sea of canvas. Tents, awnings and bizarre constructions cover the sands, quite a sight. There are bonfires, fireworks and at midnight it is traditional to dip ones feet (or swim!) in the sea to ‘wash away one’s sins’ and bring good fortune for the future.
Burriana beach normally hosts a few organised events, concerts and the like, and sardines, cooked on open fires, are available to anyone who wants them. El Playazo beach, which gets absolutely packed, is less formal and the entertainment is more ‘home grown’, individual parties all along the length of the seashore.
June 24th is a holiday in Nerja, so most people stay on the beach all day (and night), maybe even the next day, too!
La Virgen del Carmen
La Virgen del Carmen is the protectress of seamen, and on July 16th the coastal towns and fishing villages celebrate with parades and festivities in her honour. Statues of La Virgen del Carmen are carried through the towns to the water and then taken aboard a gaily adorned boat.
The procession in Nerja leaves from the El Salvador church on the Balcòn de Europa and proceeds through the town and then down Avenida Castilla Perez to Torrecilla beach. The image of the Virgen Carmen is loaded onto a fishing boat at dusk and then, accompanied by a veritable flotilla of small craft, the boat makes its way up and down the Nerja coastline before coming back to shore at Calahonda beach where there is a big fireworks display.
The celebrations actually begin the night before, July 15th, with a floral tribute at the El Salvador church on the Balcón de Europa. On the evening of July 17th, in Plaza Fabrica del Cangrejos at the bottom of Avenida Castilla Perez, the fires are lit and sardines are cooked over the coals and handed out free to anyone who wants them. There is usually a bar, live music and dancing until about 2am.
Verbena de San Cristóbal
The Verbena de San Cristóbal (July) is a small, very local Nerja celebration held in the Barriada de Los Poetas area of the town which is just below San Juan de Capistrano. There is entertainment for all ages, concerts and usually free paella.
August 14th is the annual Fiesta Blanca, which usually takes place on El Salon beach, Nerja, from 21:00 to 03:00. There have been a few occasions when alternative locations – Burriana, El Chucho and Torrecilla – have been tried with varying degrees of success or, in one case, abject (and laughable) failure. Torrecilla beach, although not technically tidal, displays all the attributes of being tidal, the sea seriously encroaching upon the sands, so it surprised, nay stunned, everyone when some bright spark in the local authority decided to place a stage on the sand and at the end which suffers the most. Needless to say it ended up under water and the fiesta had to be cancelled! Gave us a good laugh anyway.
The basic idea is to dress all in white and have a good time on the beach, with music and drink to help things along. It was originally added to the festive calendar in 2007 merely because there was not much else happening fiesta-wise during the month of August. A good a reason as any.
Feria de las Maravillas
Maro Feria – Feria de las Maravillas – takes place in September each year. Maro may only be a small village, but they take their celebrations seriously and many people also travel from Nerja and other towns to join in the festivities.
The feria lasts for three days. with most of the action taking place in the evenings.
Fería de Nerja
Nerja Feria – Feria de la Virgen de las Angustias y San Miguel Arcángel (2nd week in October) – is one of the big celebrations of the festive calendar in Nerja, 4 or 5 days of eating, drinking, dancing and general enjoyment. There are firework displays, processions, concerts and all sorts of activities.
The Nerja Feria always includes October 10th, Fiesta del Virgen del Pilar (patron saint of the Guardia Civil) and October 12th (Dia de la Hispanidad) and both days are holidays in Nerja.
Part of the Feria de Nerja celebrations in October are the Carrera Urbana Feria de Nerja (Urban street race) and the Trofeo Marcha Feria de Nerja (Urban walking race), competitive events which attract athletes from all over the country in addition to local participants. There are numerous categories for the races and 2022 was the 65th edition of the event. There was no race in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Fiesta de la Castaña (chestnut) y el Boniato (sweet potato), which dates back to 1878, takes place at the end of October, normally the 31st, although dates can vary from town to town. In Maro, the fiesta is on October 31st and is a well attended event. The atmosphere is very ‘cosy’ or ‘friendly’, probably due to the fact that it is a small community, and it is an event which should definitely be on your list.
Since a few years ago, the Fiesta de la Castaña y el Boniato has been combined with the Halloween celebrations under the name ‘Maroween’. Two festivals in one, what more could you ask? Not only do you have the traditional chestnuts roasting on an open fire but also a horror parade through the streets.