There’s always something going on in Spain, whether it’s a religious occasion, prompted by one of the country’s many traditions, or simply by a more modern wish to party – something the Spanish do very well. Easter is an important period on the Spanish calendar, and it’s taken very seriously. Every town and district will have Holy Week processions, with all churches being represented. Semana Santa, this year running from 10 to 15 April, is marked with processions, penitents and passion plays, particularly in Andalucia.
In the same region, the Feria de Abril comes to Seville in mid-April for 6 days. Starting in 1847, the fair has always been an opportunity to dress up, sing, dance, drink and generally to have a good time, whether on horseback, in a carriage or on foot. Men wear wide-brimmed hats and short jackets, while women flaunt brightly-coloured gypsy or flamenco dresses, accessorised with flowers or large combs in their hair.
The Feria del Caballo, or Horse Show, takes place in Jerez de la Frontera from 13 to 20 May. In a tradition reaching back over 500 years, the finest horses are put through their paces at the Gonzalo Hontoria Fairgrounds. Both steeds and local people are dressed in colourful decorations and costumes.
Spain has the ideal climate for outdoor music festivals. From 31 May to 4 June Barcelona’s Primavera Sound showcases indie rock, with electronic music taking over at the Sónar Festival from 15 to 17 June. The Benicassim Festival (13 to 16 July) puts on international acts over 4 days on the coast at Valencia, attracting fans from all over the globe.
From mid-June to early July, Granada’s well-established International Festival of Music and Dance brings in artists from around the world. Classical music enthusiasts will plump for July’s Trujillo International Music Festival in Estradamura and further north, the Basque Country hosts Jazz de Vitoria-Gasteiz from 18 to 22 July.
The Mystery Play of Elx is an important cultural event held at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Elche, Alicante, every 14 and 15 August. Backed by a moving score and a first-class amateur choir that comes together especially for the occasion, it’s the last regularly-performed play of its kind. Every year, it closes the celebrations for the town’s patron saint, the Virgin of the Assumption. Public rehearsals take place for three days beforehand.
As well as hosting performances that UNESCO has declared to be a masterpiece of World Oral and Intangible Heritage, Elche’s El Palmeral or Palm Grove consists of over 200,000 trees and is a World Heritage Site.
Saint George is the patron saint of England, so it’s a surprise to learn that Catalonia (and a few other places) also claims him for its own on 23 April, in the form of Sant Jordi. Balconies and streets are adorned with the region’s flag, turning the region red and yellow. An added twist here is that 23 April is also Barcelona’s equivalent of Valentine’s Day, when the custom is for a man to present a woman with a rose, in return for a book.
Spanish cities love to honour their patron saints, and from 12 to 16 May, Madrid joins the party with the Fiestas de San Isidro (the use of the plural gives some idea of its scope). Madrileños need no excuse to don period costume and to promote local cuisine. Proceedings kick off with a parade of giants and caezudos wearing outsize carnival heads, with a speech in the Plaza Mayor, where all great pronouncements are made in Madrid. The city then abandons itself to music and dancing in the form of latin, zarzuelas and flamenco.
As a change from conventional religion festivals, the Night of San Juan is pagan and celebrates the Summer Equinox from 20 to 24 June. Bonfires and barbecues spring up on the beach, and after a few drinks participants jump over the fires, waving to make a wish. Locals bring their own food and firewood, and settle in to wait for sunrise. The best parties are claimed by Valencia and Alicante, and go on for days. At the end, giant papier-mâché figures are burned.
The country’s biggest Gay Pride week runs from 23 June to 2 July in Madrid’s Chueca barrio. Concerts, art events and other activities will end with a colourful carnival parade.
The Feast of St. James on 25 July marks the life of the patron saint of Santiago de Compostela, who is said to be buried in the cathedral there. It’s a public holiday in the Basque country and Galicia, prompting street theatre, music, dance and of course, religious events. Pilgrims and walkers flock to the world-famous Camino de Santiago at any time, and to plan a trip along the pilgrim’s way to coincide with this celebration would be a memorable experience.
Bilbao’s Aste Nagusia (Semana Grande in Spanish or Big Week in English) is northern Spain’s largest festival. Starting on the first Saturday after 19 August, a rocket (txupinazo) blasts upwards, and the festival’s mascot Marijaia pops up on a balcony at the Arriaga Theatre. For nine days the city is filled with celebrations of Basque culture with music, dance, fireworks, food, drink and parading giants. Stone carrying, wood chopping and strongman contests vie with each other, and it all ends with the burning of Marijaia.
Spain’s most prestigious film festival is held in the Basque capital of San Sebastián, this year between 22 and 30 September. Showings and week-long screenings take place at several locations, with retrospectives a big draw. This year it features Joseph Losey, the North American film director who settled in the UK to avoid persecution for his political beliefs in the U.S.
Barcelona commemorates its patron saint of Our Lady of Mercy (La Mercè for short) from 24 September. The plazas ring with the sound of free concerts of all types, with Plaça de Catalunya and Plaça Sant Jaume being favourite locations. Visits will come across folklore characters such as gigants (giants) and cap grosses (fatheads), marvel at the castellers or human towers, and get the chance to dance the tradional Catalan sardana. A pyrotechnic display, together with the scary correfoc – firework-waving ‘devils’ and dragons – make up the finale.
The importance of the grape harvest leads to commemorations across Spain in late summer and early autumn. The Jerez Sherry Festival, Las Fiestas de la Vendimia y Otoño, starts on 2 September for three weeks of tastings, flamenco and horse shows. Catalunya has a Cava week in October (date to be confirmed), while Rioja’s wine festival happens during the third week of September. Earlier in the year on 29 June, the same area puts on the Haro Wine Festival, which climaxes with a wine battle ending in an alcoholic soakings for all participants!
Christopher Columbus first landed on the soil of the Americas on 12 October, and it is remembered every year throughout Spain with a public holiday, El Día de la Hispanidad. The Spanish military forces lead a parade in Madrid’s Plaza de Colón (Columbus Square), followed by the Spanish King, the Royal Family and many dignitaries. The military also takes to the air for an aerobatic display, producing pictures in red and yellow smoke, the colours of the national flag.
The annual Mallorca Walking Event from 6 to 9 April gives walkers the chance to take planned hikes and to explore paths and trails around Paguera, close to the stunning Tramuntana mountain range, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If we think of tennis and Mallorca, Rafael Nadal and Carlos Moya spring to mind first, but a new tournament on the island is the WTA Mallorca Open. However, there is a connection with Rafa because his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, is involved with the project, which will put on its first tournament in June. Staying with women and sport, the 261 Women’s Marathon and 10K will light up Palma de Mallorca on Sunday 2 April.
The much-loved annual Tango Festival will burst onto the scene on Gran Canaria in the Canaray Islands, delighting dancers from 6 to 12 March. Enjoy the sunshine and learn about the island between lessons, seminars and guided tours.
Still in the Canary islands, on 10 June the CajaMar Tenerife Bluetrail mountain race in Tenerife promotes five different levels, so can truly claim to provide trail running for all. It can be adapted for those with disabilities, and for athletes and mountaineers of varying physical fitness and experience.
Over on Lanzarote with its three hundred volcanic cones, on May 20 the Iron Man contest will be fought on a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and consists of a swim, a steep bike ride in strong winds and a 3-lap run along the seafront.
Still on the island that lies on the northern edge of the Canaries, the Pilgrimage to Los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows), also called the Virgin of the Volcanoes after she halted the eruption of Timanfaya, sees traditionally-dressed pilgrims come to give their thanks on 15 September.
Head to Fuerteventura on 19 September for the Feast of La Virgen de la Peña (Our Lady of the Rock). One of the oldest of the Canary Island festivals, it pays homage to Fuerteventura’s patron saint. Music and local food are provided to help pilgrims on their way to her shrine.