Carnival is annual festival which is celebrated all over the world. There are many theories regarding the origins of carnival but the most commonly believed is that carnival began hundreds of years ago when the Catholics in Italy started the tradition of holding a costume festival before the first day of Lent.
Because Catholics aren´t supposed to eat meat during Lent they called the festival carnevale which means “putting away the meat”. The carnivals of Italy became quite famous and eventually the practice of celebrating the last day of Lent spread to other Catholic countries in Europe such as France and Spain. As these countries began to take control of other countries the tradition of carnival spread to their colonies. It is now known under many names, such as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) in the United States and Carnaval in Brazil, but they all serve a similar purpose, which is to enjoy a grand celebration before the beginning of Lent. The celebration typically occurs during the week before Ash Wednesday which this year falls on February 17.
Carnival in Spain (known as Carnaval) has a long history and it´s celebrations date back hundreds of years. During the dictatorship celebrations were banned by Franco because he felt that it had anti-authority themes. The ban lasted over 40 years but since the dictatorship ended in 1980 carnival in Spain has enjoyed a rebirth and is now considered by many to be one of the most important celebrations of the year.
The most famous carnival celebration in Catalonia takes place in Sitges, which is half an hour down the coast from Barcelona. The Sitges carnival normally has over 300,000 attendees from all over the world. It is known for being the most popular destination for gay attendees, although it is very popular for both gays and straights. Sitges is also famous for having the most spectacular costumes, and many of the men come in drag.
This year it will begin on Thursday, February 11. The festivities begin with the arrival of Sa Majestat Carnestoltes (the King of Carnaval) and ends with the l’Enterro del Carnestoltes, when an effigy of a sardine is carried to the beach and buried, signaling the end to the festivities. The Rua de la Disbauxa (Debauchery Parade) takes place on Sunday, and you won´t want to miss the Rua de l’Extermini (Extermination Parade) which is held on Tuesday and is one of the most popular events of the Sitges carnival. Due to its popularity the trains get extremely crowded during these days, and hotels and hostels are generally fully booked, so if you want to attend you should plan ahead.
Vilanova i la Geltru, a small town between Sitges and Tarragona, is famous for being one of the only places in Spain where Franco´s ban on carnival was defied, which means they have managed to maintain most of their traditions. One of the most popular takes place the Thursday before Lent, on Jueves Lardero (Fatty Tuesday) with a meringue war known as La Meringada. Another popular tradition is the Batalla de Caramellos (the candy war) in which locals of all ages partake in a food fight using only sweets which takes place on Saturday. As you can imagine, this event is particularly fun if you have children.
Tarragona is known for having one of the most traditional carnival celebrations. One of the most exciting events this year is a concert by Melendi, a popular Spanish singer. The concert will take place on Friday, February 12, and tickets can be bought for 16 euros in advance and 20 euros at the door. Other rituals include parades, live music, and fireworks. This year the Tarragona carnival will take place February 6-17th with the main events taking place on Saturday, including the Capçalera de la rua, which is one of the biggest and most traditional parades. The carnival is officially over on Ash Wednesday when a barrel filled with effigies of the King and Queen of the Festival is set on fire.
Carnival in Barcelona is not nearly as popular as the celebrations of Sitges or Tarragona, but there will still be many organized events. In Barcelona the biggest event is La Grand Rua de Carnaval, which is a parade that will take place on Saturday, February 13 at 8:30pm. There are also many activities organized by individual neighborhoods. On Friday and Saturday you will also see many people in costume at various clubs and discos. As in Sitges, the Enterrament de la Sardine (Burying of the Sardine) on Wednesday signifies the official end of the carnival.
No matter where you decide to celebrate carnival make sure to check train schedules and book accommodation beforehand, and you should be aware that the trains to and from Barcelona during this time, particular on Friday and Saturday, can get quite full. For event schedules, you can check online and at the local tourist offices. And of course, make sure to go in costume so you won´t be left out of the fun!