Running of the Bulls in Pamplona may be Spain’s most iconic festival, but this fun-loving and deeply religious country has a year-round calendar of festivals from the spiritual to the hilarious that everyone can enjoy.
The city of Valencia is transformed mid-march each year, for the annual Fallas extravaganza that ends in fire. Every day firecrackers explode, and every night fireworks light up the sky. Gigantic statues and figures called ninots fill the city’s squares and streets. Some are several stories high and can take a year to construct as well as a $75,000 investment. Others are inexpensive, often hilarious constructions. Most ninots commemorate and satirize politicians, pop culture icons, and current events.
On March 19, the day of La Cremá (burning), townsfolk stuff firecrackers in the ninots . At midnight streetlights go off, crowds cheer, and the ninots are set ablaze. One is spared by public vote and is displayed in the city’s Museo Fallero (Museum of the Fallas).
Festival days are filled with parades, bullfights, paella cook-offs, concerts, floral displays, and beauty contests all around the town. The tradition may date back to an ancient spring equinox celebration, but the first written record of Las Fallas is from the second half of the 18th century. UNESCO named the festival an event of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Throwing tomatoes at people and whatever is within range is so much fun, this town’s tomato splattering tradition is more than 70 years old and has gained worldwide fame. It is held on the last Wednesday of August and is limited to 20,000 registered tomato warriors. Tickets sell out in a flash. Thousands more converge on the town to watch the fun. Many eyes focus on a ham on a high greased pole where challengers try to reach the top to grab the ham. Red hats mark non-competitors but do not spare them from “collateral damage.”
La Tomatina is believed to have started in 1945 when a man was shoved off a parade float; In a rage, he grabbed tomatoes from a produce shop and threw them at everyone in sight. Others joined in and just like that it became an annual event that authorities tried to stop a few times. In 1957, it became an official festival now known as the world’s largest food fight.
La Tomatina marks the end of a week of parades, parties, fairs, competitions, and street markets in the little town of Buñol, population 9,000. Many out-of-town participants and party-goers stay in nearby Valencia and travel to the festival by bus or train.
Cordoba bursts into bloom in celebration of spring beauty for the entire month of May. It begins with a Battle of the Flowers Parade that launches the May Crosses Festival the first week of May. This is followed by Patio Contests during the first two weeks of May and concludes with the annual town fair at the end of the month. The locals offer a host of entertainment throughout this celebration, and some of the best names in flamenco add color and sound to this lively spring scene.
The Patio Competition dates back to 1918 and reveals the courtyards hidden from street view in private homes, public houses, and religious institutions. The patios have historically been filled with plants to help cool surrounding buildings. Patio design became a point of pride and beauty for homeowners.
Expect colorful flowers, stone mosaics, fountains, and ceramic decorations artistically arranged. Along with the classic scents of Cordoba, jasmine and orange blossom, mingle with a myriad of scents from other flowers and plants. In addition to public courtyards, more than 50 private courtyards are open to the public during the festival.
The Crosses Festival lasts four days with about 40 Catholic brotherhoods and neighborhoods competing for the prize. Preparations take place in secret and the crosses are all unveiled at once. The crosses are about 10-feet high and are decorated with flowers and foliage. The competition began in 1953, but the tradition of decorating the crosses dates back to the 18th century.
Each Catholic brotherhood or neighborhood association sets up a bar next to its cross, lights it up at night and serves drinks and tapas. Local women dance in gypsy dresses, live band performances rock the neighborhoods, and the festivities continue far into the night. The tourist office provides visitors with maps to participating neighborhoods.
This is one of Seville’s most important festivals. A million people visit the city during the festival week that begins on Palm Sunday each year. Each parish church puts on a solemn procession of up to 3,000 people in pointy-hooded costumes and floats with artistic, life-sized, often gruesome statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus representing some part of the Passion story. Some statues are more than 300 years old. The Virgin Mary figures wear velvet robes embroidered with gold thread; floats are decorated with fresh flowers and flaming candles. The floats are carried by church members.
Some floats are flanked by Roman soldiers and a person dressed as Pontius Pilate. Brass bands with wailing trumpets and slow drums inspire plaintive songs from balconies to the Virgin as she passes below. Imagine prayers set to flamenco music.
There are eight or nine processions a day, each beginning at the parish church, processing through the basilica, and then returning to the church. Thanks to city-wide coordination, the processions do not bump into one other. Some processions take up to 14 hours to complete the round trip. If you do not have access to a balcony, good vantage points are wide avenues that lead to the basilica.
This festival, which dates back to the 16th Century, goes way beyond the religious events. The Semana Santa is a fantastic time to be in Seville. The city is an exotic mix of Mudejar palaces, baroque churches, and medieval lanes. Flamenco clubs keep this ancient dance alive. Andalusian cuisine is deeply influenced by Arabic dishes and is based on raw ingredients of the Mediterranean diet. Examples of these healthy, hearty dishes include huevos a la Flamenca (fried eggs served with vegetables and sauce in a clay pot), fried potatoes stuffed with ham and cheese, and a huge selection of hot and cold tapas.
If you have your heart set on the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, the San Fermin Festival takes places every July. Join an international crowd of thousands for the week-long party that you’ll never forget.