Carnival arrives and many Catalan towns launch the largest street party of the year

Carnival time is here and Catalonia is ready to let its hair down. From the 12th to the 18th of February many Catalan cities and towns will be submerged in an explosion of colour: ‘Carnestoltes’. The origin of this eagerly awaited tradition goes back to the early Middle Ages, when Christians enjoyed a few days of debauchery leading up to Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and pious behaviour. Despite conflicting views about the etymology of the word ‘Carnestoltes’, credit usually goes to the Latin form ‘carns toldrem’ (‘farewell to flesh’). One of the biggest carnivals in Catalonia is held in Sitges, a coastal town with about 30,000 inhabitants 30km south of Barcelona, which expects nearly 300,000 visitors during the parades next Sunday and Tuesday.

The 'Carnestoltes' King of Sitges (by G. Sánchez)
The 'Carnestoltes' King of Sitges (by G. Sánchez) / ACN / Marina Force Castells

ACN / Marina Force Castells

February 13, 2015 03:56 PM

Barcelona (ACN).- Carnival is all about setting aside doom and gloom and the Catalan people are ready to have unrestrained fun. From the 12th to the 18th of February, Catalonia will be submerged in a blaze of colour: ‘Carnestoltes’. This old and eagerly-awaited tradition could not be more historically loaded. If we trace this pagan feast back, it will transport us to the Middle Ages, when Christians spent a few days gorging themselves on meat and having fun before the beginning of Lent. Indeed, ‘Carnestoltes’, from the Latin form ‘carns toldrem’, means ‘farewell to flesh’ and refers to the restraint on eating rich food during the Lent period. Despite Carnival being held almost everywhere in Catalonia, one of the most remarkable celebrations is in Sitges. This coastal town of about 30,000 inhabitants, 30 km south of Barcelona, expects 300,000 visitors during the parades next Sunday and Tuesday.

Traditionally, carnival kicks off when the King of ‘Carnestoltes’ proclaims the beginning of debauchery on ‘Dijous Gras’ (‘Fat Thursday’). From that moment on, people engage in the kind of behaviour that is frowned upon during the rest of the year. Social upheaval, however, does not last long. On ‘Dimecres de Cendra’ (‘Ash Wednesday’), the King of the Carnival, replaced by a straw doll, is burned on a pyre.

Once the hero ‘Carnestoltes’ is dead, Lent arrives in the form of an old woman with seven legs made from wood. ‘La vella Quaresma’, with a battleaxe appearance, is hung from the balcony of some City Councils and works as a calendar. Her legs take Catalan people towards Easter. Indeed, each week she has a leg amputated until there are none left. Then, Holy Week has arrived.       

Between the proclamation of the king of ‘Carnestoltes’ and the ‘Burial of the Sardine’, when he dies, there is plenty of time to celebrate. Carnival fills the streets with outlandish activities, such as bed races. Large crowds turn out to see the Debauchery Parade, taking place next Sunday, and the Extermination Festival, on Tuesday.

‘Carnestoltes’ is the perfect excuse for social gathering. The ‘comparses’, groups of people dressed up in similar hand-made outfits, enliven the festivity with dancing steps they have been training for months. Besides this, people ranging from all ages disguise themselves and join the party, turning everything upside-down. 

Sitges, the busiest carnival

For the ‘Carnestoltes’ parades, Sitges expects 300,000 visitors, 10 times the number of inhabitants of the town. Thus, Renfe, the public Spanish train operator, will enhance its commuter service from Barcelona to this town with 38 trains and 45,000 additional seats.

Fitting so many people in such a small place presents particular challenges. That is why there will be a record 1,000 police officers, firefighters and health personnel on duty. Furthermore, for the first time ever, stands with seating capacity for 500 people will be set up.

Almost 2,500 people and 50 floats will participate in this the 40th edition. Last year, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley were the Kings of the festivity. This year’s Majesties remain unknown...What is for sure, though, is that Sitges will live up to the expectations of those who will visit the town during the ‘Carnestoltes’, which will stretch far beyond one weekend.

Vilanova i la Geltrú: 250 years of tradition 

The capital town of the Garraf coastal county, Vilanova i la Geltrú, is also well known for its Carnival, located between the cities of Barcelona and Tarragona, near Sitges. Their citizens leave no stone unturned when it comes to celebrating this festivity. Indeed, ‘Carnestoltes’ has been held there for more than 250 years uninterruptedly, even when the event was taken off Catalonia’s streets during the Francoist dictatorship.

Carnival there begins with the traditional meringue battle on ‘Dijous Gras’ and the satirical parade ‘rua’ on Friday night. People living in Vilanova i la Geltrú usually brag about having one of the most grotesque and phallic ‘Carnestoltes’ with sharp criticism on. Saturday is the rest day, although there are some activities for children and concerts.  The major highlight, however, takes place on Sunday, when the ‘colles’ dance to the rhythm of the ‘Turuta’, a military march that has become kind of an anthem. Afterwards, all the groups meet in front of the City Council and get into a boiled sweets battle.  

Pau Riba, Barcelona’s King ‘Carnestoltes’

The musician and author of ‘Diòptria’, the first rock CD in Catalan, Pau Riba, is playing the role of ‘Sa Majestat Carnestotes’ in Barcelona. He proclaimed his reign on Thursday afternoon at the Born Cultural Centre, surrounded by his entourage, seven ambassadors representing him in the seven old villages of Barcelona.

This year’s novelty is a masquerade dance, called the ‘Ball del Rodolí’, taking place on Friday. In contrast, one of the oldest traditions is the ‘Taronjada’, which will engulf the square in orange balloons and streamers on Sunday.

Platja d’Aro, an early bird

Carnival has already started in some spots of Catalonia, such as Platja d’Aro. Since last weekend this small tourist town on the Costa Brava has been enjoying the anarchic spirit of the festivity, even though the Kings of ‘Carnestoltes’ (King and Queen) are yet to make their appearance.

More than 70 groups will participate in the 38th edition of the Carnival parade next Saturday and all of them have a chance of winning the €5,000 award split over four categories. This town offers fierce competition between groups, which have received €250 in funding for the floats and €3 in financial assistance for each costume.  

Regardless of the city you choose to celebrate carnival, what is sure is that this festivity is all about having fun and meeting your friends. It doesn’t matter if it rains or if it is cold outside, ‘Carnestoltes’ defies the storm.