Fiestas symbolise the very essence of Spain and the Spanish people. They're colourful, vibrant, usually extremely noisy, often chaotic and always great fun.
The origins of many of the country's countless fiestas lie in religious feasts, often honouring a patron saint. It's the same in northern Europe where many public holidays were born out of religious “holy days”.
But northern Europe simply can't compete with Spain when it comes to turning a religious celebration into a riotous round-the-clock knees up. Perhaps it's the warm weather or maybe it's the exuberant, uninhibited nature of the Spaniards who just love to party. One thing's for certain: when it's fiesta time, no-one does it better than the Spanish!
Every day throughout the year there are fiestas taking place somewhere in Spain, either at a local, regional or national level. These may revolve around the major religious festivals such as Christmas, Easter and All Saints (Halloween) or they may be highly localised events, with their origins in obscure local folklore.
The nature of each fiesta depends on its origin. Some involve serious, even mournful religious processions but most are accompanied by street parties with marching bands, firework displays and much general merrymaking. The Moors and Christians fiestas which take place all over Spain hark back to the centuries of Moorish domination which made a major impact on the country's culture, cuisine, language and traditions.
The bigger towns and cities often organise a series of bullfights in the local “plaza de toros” at fiesta time while smaller villages without a bull ring opt for bull running in the streets. One of Spain's most famous (and most dangerous) fiestas is the San Fermin festival in Pamplona which brings thousands of daredevils from all over the world to run with the bulls through the cobbled streets of the old town. The week-long fiesta, which takes place from July 7th-14th, dates back to 1591 and has been attracting world attention since Ernest Hemingway wrote about it in his 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises”.
Even the tiniest and most remote mountain villages organize their own bull running as part of their annual celebrations in honor of their patron saint. Participants are killed and injured every year but despite protests by safety campaigners and animal rights activists, the Spanish show no signs of abandoning this age-old fiesta tradition.
Fire, fireworks and fire crackers feature strongly in many festivals and there's no fierier fiesta than the famous Fallas of Valencia. This is one of the biggest and most spectacular street festivals in Europe – one of those extraordinary and unique events that everyone should experience at least once in a lifetime. Fallas means “fires” in the local Valencian language and on the night of March 19th each year the whole city appears to be ablaze when more than 350 beautifully made statues are burnt to the ground. The world-renowned five-day fiesta has its origins in pagan rituals which over the centuries have become integrated into the religious festival honouring St Joseph.
Many towns and cities hold their own versions of the Fallas but nowhere can hold a candle to Valencia which is without doubt the home of Spain's hottest party!
Other famous fiestas include the mad, messy Tomatina which takes place in the village of Buñol, about 30 miles west of Valencia. It's the world's biggest tomato fight involving tens of thousands of people being pelted with several truck loads of tomatoes.
And if you think that's a bit weird, wait till you hear about the “Burial of the Sardine” fiesta held in Madrid and various other locations each year. It takes place on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent, and involves revellers in fancy dress costumes attending the funeral of a sardine! The sardine in question may be a real one in a coffin though sometimes a plastic or cardboard effigy is used. The origins of this somewhat freaky fiesta are in dispute but one theory suggests that it dates back to the 18th century when rotten sardines were delivered to King Carlos III who promptly ordered their destruction.
One of Spain's most impressive fiestas is the April Seville Fair (Feria de Abril) when the achingly romantic capital of Andalucia is transformed into a fairytale world of tented pavilions, costumed equestrian riders and flamboyant flamenco dancing. The elaborate week-long event started as a humble livestock market in the mid 19th century and now attracts more than one million visitors a year from all over the world.