It started as a casual conversation with a complete stranger outside a restaurant. He was from Cadiz, and wanted to know if we were going to Carnaval? Hmm, not sure, bit full-on with kids, we replied. Nah, he said, you’ll be fine. I’ve always wanted to go, so the seed was planted. Cadiz Carnaval is a ten-day-long, 24-hour fancy-dress party to celebrate the start of Lent and arrival of 40 days of abstention. As a city, Cadiz has a history of invidiuality, thanks to its isolated situation on a near-island; and of anti-authority – during Franco’s regime, Carnaval was banned, but the Gaditanos carried on behind close doors anyway.
Initial plans, hatched that very night, were to go as a priest and a nun with our two children as little diablitos (my attempt at biting anti-Catholic wit). But our son loathes dressing up, so that put the kybosh on our genius idea. (He didn’t even agree to come to Carnaval until the night before.) In the meantime, we sussed out train prices, and decided driving would cost about half RENFE’s return fare. Not very ecological, but who wants to hang around a packed train station, waiting for a two-hour journey, with two small, knackered kids? Not me.
In the end, my daughter and I were hippies (headband, flowers painted on face, beads, garlands, kaftan – all ours, so no need to splash out). After a smooth journey, punctuated by sightings of Tio Pepe figures and Osborne bulls, we parked easily and headed off to the Teatro de Falla. All around us were people in costumes ranging from perennial favourites – babies, knights, chickens, bumble bees, matadors, priests and nuns - to popular personalities – the Duquesa de Alba – and lots of people wearing normal clothes, but with block-coloured mohican wigs, Venetian-style masks or outsized shades.
I had assumed that everyone would be in costume, which was one of the reasons I dressed up (apart from wanting to keep my daughter company). But many people were in mufti, and a good number wearing just one strategic carnaval item on their head or face – you can’t really call it an accessory, as it is the outfit. More a statement piece. The streets around the Cathedral were heaving with stalls selling all these colourful goodies.
Another welcome surprise was the fresh seafood on offer – I had been so busy thinking sartorial, I’d forgotten the gastronomic. Street stalls offered erizos (sea urchins), ostiones (oysters), mojama (dried tuna, like fishy jamon), teeny weeny camarones (shrimp), and one stall had a single massive shell with an animal inside the size of a small mammal. We got some oysters and camarones, which were delicious, although a drop of tabasco would have perfected the experience. (Sandwiches were the less interesting but essential part of the picnic.)
After a child-friendly detour along the seafront, with the picture-postcard view of the cathedral, we stopped off at the beach – Playa de Caleta is where Die Another Day was filmed (it’s a dead ringer for Havana), so that always gives a movie-fame frisson. As an unexpected added bonus, we saw some amazing sand sculptures, which the enthusiastic, bounding boy nearly trashed.
Wandering back past the market, we suddenly spotted the queen – Queen Elizabeth II – with some beefeaters in their scarlet jackets and bearskins, one carrying a large Union Jack. I ran alongside them like a paparazzo, snapping away, until they stopped and set up camp on the steps of the Correos (post office). Watching British soldiers raise their flag outside a Spanish state building was surreal. My son played the national anthem on his kazoo, a buzzy instrument typical of the carnival.
The group, known as a chirigota, then proceeded to sing ditties about unemployment, the King of Spain, Gibraltar and the Jubilee to the tunes of Rule Britannia and the National Anthem (click to see the videos), and introduced the delicate subject of getting Gibraltar back under the Spanish flag (to loud cheers). The lead-up to Carnaval sees a two-week competition of these singing groups – always topical, often satirical, and this year with many on the theme of los recortes and la crisis, while King Juan Carlos’s shenanigans with mistresses and elephants didn’t escape judgement either.
By then children were drooping, and we were all footsore, so (reluctantly on my part) we made our way to the cathedral, now a meeting point for all costumed revellers – a sea of colour before the mighty basilica, with groups of yellow, red and white. The drinking was just starting, and as we walked back to the theatre, we met hundreds of people ready for an evening of craziness – unusually tall babies with outsize bottles around their necks, for ease of sipping.
This was but a brief snapshot of Spain’s second-largest carnival (after Gran Canaria’s), and lacked the usual requisites, in other words darkness and alcohol; most people come at about 9pm, stay up boozing and partying all night, and then go home in the morning. But the afternoon atmosphere was fantastic – fun, friendly and above all great for families.
Next year’s Carnaval is from 27 February to 9 March 2014.