Nick Butcher on Fiestas and Foods of Spain.




Shortly before the start of the period in the Catholic calendar known as Lent, Spain embarks on its annual silly season, the brief flourishing of madness, licentiousness and sexual ambiguity, the widespread loss of all sense of decorum and respect for authority, known by all of us as Carnaval


When witnessing or taking part in these goings-on, the adjective that may spring to mind to best sum up the experience is baccanalian, and it's thought that the Carnival has its origins in pagan winter festivals such as the notorious Bacchanalia held in ancient Rome to celebrate the god Bacchus.

Various theories exist to explain the name of the festival: it could mean 'farewell to meat' (because Lent is coming, and the eating of meat used to be forbidden at that time); it could be interpreted as 'meat is permitted (but not for much longer); or there may be a connection to a Celtic goddess, Carna. Nobody knows with any certainty, but central to Carnaval is the idea of saying goodbye, prior to a strict time of penitence and mortification, to what were considered by the Church to be the basest passions and pleasures of the flesh.  

   Traditionally, the period of Carnival finishes on the last day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday, known also by its French name Mardi Gras. This means 'fat Tuesday', referring to the pork fat you would no longer be able to consume in the period starting the next day, Ash Wednesday, and which lasted for forty days, until Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.

   Carnival is celebrated in one way or another in many places in Spain, and of course beyond, but the two cities most reknowned here for their versions are Cadiz and Santa Cruz de Tenerife, though Badajoz in Extremadura also celebrates in spectacular fashion. The style of these carnivals is one of no-expense-spared costumes, huge, noisy street parades, and satirical songs, sung by groups of friends and associates, poking fun at figures of authority or those in the news.

    Carnival was actually banned for many years during Franco's rule, but has enjoyed a resurgent popularity since then. Here in Nerja it now basically takes the form of a three part drama. On the first day, the Friday, there will be a children's fancy dress competition followed by another contest to discover certain important figures who will be required to take a prominent role over the rest of the carnival. They are the 'ninfa infantil', the 'momo infantil' (a male version of the young nymph) and the 'ninfa del carnaval', who will be queen of the Carnival. All will wear spectacular costumes that often defy gravity.
   There usually is a contest to find a grown-up 'dios momo', the god of the carnival celebrations.

   The first day's events draw to a close with a 'pregón', an address given by some local worthy or celebrity, followed by a variety of musical groups singing their self-penned satirical songs. These groups range from the very small (the 'cuartetos') to larger groups called 'murgas' or 'comparsas' or 'chirigotas'. The exact differences between them vary from place to place, though in Cadiz, where there is a month-long competition to find the best groups, the categories are clearly defined in the rules of the organizing committee. The groups will, of course, perform in fancy dress, and music will be provided by a range of guitars, drums or other percussion, whistles and kazoos. The most ambitious groups sing in three-part harmony, and all will have been rehearsing for weeks if not months.

   The next day is the Carnival's centrepiece, the 'desfile' or parade, when in the late afternoon half the population of the town turns out to watch the other half cavort past in fancy dress. The costumes range from the basic to the outrageous to the wonderfully imaginative. Those in the more skimpy numbers will hope the weather isn't too chilly, and plenty of people will have their own supply of warming liquid refreshment to hand.

   Prizes are awarded for the best large groups, small groups, and couples in both grown-up and children's categories. To get these prizes, however, you have to take part in the the final act of the Carnival on the Sunday, the Entierro del Chanquete. This is a bizarre funeral procession, featuring a pack a mourners dressed in widow's weeds or other appropriate clothing, who weep, wail, and beat their breasts inconsolably, sometimes even collapsing to the ground in transports of grief. To the rear, the town band plays a weird medley of funeral marches and jolly dance numbers. The cortège is there to bid a riotous farewell to the Carnival. This is represented by the corpse of a large fish, the famous Chanquete (a minuscule creature in real life) on a bier carried by sombrely-dressed and hatted coffin-bearers.

Goya   They carry their sad burden at the head of the procession around the town. Then, as night falls, they reach their final destination, formally the beach next to the Balcón, now the river. There, fuses are lit, and fireworks preceed the final explosion which blows the fish to smithereens. Then there are prizes, music and dancing, and that's it for another year, as everyone staggers home, nursing blisters and wondering if they'll ever get all the make-up off.

   Elsewhere the fish involved in the ceremony is a sardine, but nobody is really sure why a fish should be the centrepiece of such an odd ritual, only that it goes back a long way: Francisco Goya painted one such 'Entierro' in the early 19th century.

One word of warning: the Carnival proceedings are notoriously unpunctual and start times given in official literature should be seen as a very rough guide only.

   The end of the month brings us a regional holiday. The 28th February is 'El día de Andalucía' and commemorates a referendum held on this date in 1980. The new constitution of 1978 allowed for regions to become 'autonomous communities' if their voters so wished. Andalusian voters were duly asked to approve the idea, which they did, and were rewarded for their pains with an annual day's holiday on that date.

You can listen to the episode below