What to do in Seville during the December Puente – and over Christmas

navidad, navidades, Christmas, Christmas lights

Typically understated lights on Avenida de la Constitucion.

Christmas, Navidad

One of the fabulous bell-stars (not to be confused with the 1980s all-girl pop group) on Calle Sierpes.

This weekend is a bank holiday in Spain – a double one, with two (legitimate) days off – today, Friday, and Monday. First, Dia de la Constitucion (6 December), celebrating Spain’s Constitution; then Dia la Concepcion Inmaculada (8 December) – a Sunday, which is carried over to Monday 9 December.

Traditionally, the Christmas buzz gets going after this puente, but in Seville it’s already happening now thanks to a broad range of events – some regular annual ones, and some new. In any case, the Christmas lights are already up, so make sure you make at least one visit in the evening to get the full festive effect.

Here I will list my pick of the markets and other attractions this puente, and in most cases, throughout the Christmas season until Reyes – 5 January.

MARKETS AND FAIRS

I love a good browse – especially when there’s so much variety on offer. You can get all your Christmas presents here – books, handicrafts, food, wine. Chatting to the owner/designer/maker of a piece is all part of the experience.

dulces, claustros, dulce, navidad

Convent pastries, made by nuns in Seville province.

Convent pastries market in the Alcazar – 6 – 8 December.
Get your Christmas yemas and lardy goodies – mantecados and polvorones – made by nuns from nearby convents. Some are available in vegetarian versions too. An essential part of the seasonal diet for many Spanish.

Antique book market – Plaza Nueva – until 9 December
Great for quirky presents for hispanophiles; as well as books, you can find postcards, prints, maps, posters and comics.

belen, belens, nativity scenes, nativity figures, nativity, feria del belen

Fish stall at the Feria del Belen (nativity scene fair). They’re half the size of your finger.

belen, belenes, nativity scenes

Colourful Mexican belen. Stand 14, Oscar Lazarte. He also has some wonderful Cuban and Peruvian figures, including Noah’s Ark.

belen, belenes, nativity

Houses for your nativity scene.

Feria del Belen – Nativity scene market – Avenida de la Constitucion – until 23 December
Come here for figures for your belen (nativity scene) – most homes, offices and shops have their own. Rivers with flowing water, all the complementary figures including the cagon (pooing man), and foodstuffs – mini-fish and legs of jamon (widely available in Jewish Bethlehem in 0AD), to complement Jesus, Mary and Joseph with the animals, shepherds, and three kings.

Christmas market – the Alameda – until 5 January
This market features children’s attractions, ponies, dromedaries, and a Grand Flea Circus. Slightly apprehensive about the animals’ treatment; have yet to see.

NAvidad, Christmas

The super-sparkly Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) in Plaza Nueva, where the book and handicrafts markets are held.

Handicrafts market – Plaza Nueva – 13 December – 5 January
Great for unusual Christmas and Reyes presents – stalls mostly belong to designer-makers. Good buys (though less portable) include handmade ceramics and wooden toys.

Gastronomy and Handicrafts of Seville Province Fair – Diputacion de Sevilla – 12- 15, 19-22 December
Find gifts here for foodie friends and family – look out for Ines Rosales tortas de aceite, Colonias de Galeon organic wines from the Sierra Norte, and extra virgin olive oil from Estepa (Oleoestepa) and Carmona (Basilippo).

Independent designers market – Muchomaskemarket – El Arenal – 14-15 December
This two-day event takes place at a co-working space in Cuesta del Rosario 8 (4o) and features 29 stands of fashion, gastronomy and interiors, including recycled materials and cakes. Also workshops – learn how to make baby shoes out of felt, and how to print textiles.

Christmas market with live Nativity Scene – Plaza Encarnacion – until 6 January
Go skating, buy some presents, visit the animals at the Belen Viviente.

SPORT

Whether you’re a wobbler like me, or an elegant glider, skating is fun. And when it’s in such beautiful surroundings as these, even more so. And when it’s followed by a well-earned copita or three with friends – well, that’s a top evening in my book.

Ice rinks – until 6 January
In the Prado de San Sebastian and Plaza Encarnacion. For opening times, see here. The one under the Setas is interesting because it’s ecological synthetic ice, made by local Sevillano company Xtraice.

CULTURE

The programme is less varied at this time of year, as the spotlight falls on seasonal concerts, but there are some star events.

Sara Baras in her flamenco show La Pepa - one of the many highlights in Seville this Christmas.

Sara Baras in her flamenco show La Pepa – one of the many events in Seville this Christmas.

Flamenco – Sara Baras – Fibes – 13 December
The innovative dancer brings her new show, La Pepa, to the Seville Conference Centre. Set in Cadiz city in 1810-1812 – the time of the historic First Constitution and War of Independence against France – it also stars bailaor Jose Serrano. More information: Fibes.

Handel’s Messiah – Maestranza Theatre – 19 and 20 December
The great choral work performed by local amateur choral associations – a “from scratch”. Humming along is positively encouraged. More information: Teatro Maestranza.

Quidam – Cirque du Soleil – Palacio de Deportes San Pablo – 18-22 December
If you’ve never experienced a Cirque du Soleil show, I’d highly recommend this – a unique combination of music, dance, theatre and circus acrobatics. Thrilling and great fun, and worth the hike to San Pablo. More information: Cirque du Soleil.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7uc9lUuJQpE&w=560&h=315]

OTHER EVENTS
Finally, two free events/experiences to round off your Christmas visit to Seville, whether it’s a quick visit of a few hours, a weekend break, or you live here and want to try out everything that’s on offer. 

EVOO, AOVE, olive oil, extra virgin oilve oil

The four types of olive oil on offer, from smooth arbequina to strong picual.

Tasting the olive oil, at the mobile catas around the city this and next weekend.

Tasting the olive oil, at the mobile catas around the city this and next weekend.

Olive Oil Tasting Carts – all over the centre – 5-7, 12-14 December
Nothing to do with Christmas, but a great initiative worth mentioning. All around the centre, from Plaza Encarnacion down to Plaza Juan de Austria, you can find 50 carts each offering four types of EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) to taste; the idea is to introduce people to the delights of distinct varieties. They’re in place from 10.30am to 2.30pm and you can see a list of all the carts’ locations here. I’m a big fan of picual, having seen it being made on a farm in Jaen where I stayed recently; you can also taste smooth arbequina, peppery cornicabra, and fruity hojiblanca. I love this mobile cata idea; you are also given a brochure containing recipes using each type of oil to try at home. I’m tempted by the buñuelos de bacalo.

Mapping – Plaza San Francisco – until 5 December
This fabulous laser show is projected onto the back of the Ayuntamiento building. Dates aren’t 100% confirmed yet, but this year’s show, “El Espiritu de Navidad” (The Spirit of Christmas), will probably kick off on Tuesday 10 December, until Reyes (5 January); last year they were every hour from 6pm to 11 or 12pm. One of the Christmas season’s most popular events, with 700,000 watching the show last year, which won a European Best Event Award. (No, I’ve never heard of them either – no matter. Awards are a Good Thing.) Here’s a taster from last year.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrHuF0Lyheg&w=420&h=315]

What do they do in your town or village at Christmas? Here’s a listing for Granada by Molly.

10 things I’ve learned I can’t live without

A few weeks ago, I reached an important milestone – both in my life, and in my time lived in Spain: it’s 10 years since I arrived here in Seville. Back in September 2003 I came to this beautiful city – via London and Quito, Ecuador – with no expectations, no idea of what I’d find (I’d never been here before), and a few names as contacts.

A decade later, I have a small, tumbledown house (literally), two dogs and a semi-wild cat, two children and a husband, lots more English-language novels, thousands of leaflets, guidebooks and novels about various aspects of Andalucian and Spain, from the Civil War to flamenco, as well as a decent collection of children’s DVDs. And one of the contacts is still a good friend, and unofficial godmother to my son.

Having read Josh’s reliably excellent post on five things not to forget when moving to Spain (clue: it’s about food, and nursery food at that), it occurred to me that since I’ve been here 10 years, my anniversary would be a great excuse hook for a post on things I’ve learned that I can’t live without. Practical posts aren’t my forte, but this might be of some use or interest to a new, or potential, expat.

So here goes (artwork: Copyright Lola and Zac Flores Watson):

no1

1) Revo internet radio
If I want to dance, I find some pop tunes on Radio 2; hear the news, Radio 4; remember why I left London, Radio London; listen to some quirky tracks, Radio 6 Music. I go off into my own little world when I’m in the kitchen with my radio on. Some British expats refuse to listen to British radio or watch British TV. Balderdash and poppycock. (Confession: I do listen to RAI in the car.)

no2

2) Satellite dish
I rarely watch TV, except for the news – once the kids are finally in bed, I’m either working on the computer, eating, or asleep. We don’t even have one at the moment as our sitting room is a building site. But when we do, the reason I value it so highly is CBeebies. Have you seen Spanish children’s TV? Think, the most moronic, sexist, casual-violence American animated nonsense you can imagine, and that’s it. Brain-rot. At least Ballamory has sound ideas on racial harmony. And its theme tune is far less irritating than Sponge Bob Squarepants, FFS.

no3

3) Girls’ nights out
My best girlfriends are all English. What a cliche, I hear you say. But that cultural familiarity, the unspoken bonds, the mutual understanding of being married to a Spaniard (four of my closest mum mates are) and all the communication challenges that implies. All we need is a bottle of wine (or three) and you can leave us there till the wee hours.

no4

4) The Week
My wonderful, though sadly aging, Dad gets me a subscription every year to this weekly news mag, which distills the most interesting and important stories from British and foreign media into 60-odd pages – perfect loo or bath reading material. And it gets passed on to one of those mentioned in 3).

no5

5) Nice soap
The Spanish don’t seem to do nice soap, unless it’s made of honey and glycerin with oatmeal flakes suspended inside and costs 4 euros. Buy a four-pack of normal scented stuff from any English supermarket and you’ll be fragrant for months.

no6

6) Facebook, especially groups
I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t use Facebook. How else would I know when anyone’s birthday is? Or what their children look like now? Or what embarrassing thing happened to them at work last week? Or which Youtube video’s gone viral? I work at home, so there’s no water-cooler moment, no chat while the kettle boils (do they even have kettles in Spanish offices?) It’s like a mouthy coffee break, getting squiffy cocktail hour, and catch-up chat on the phone, all rolled into one. And the groups are indescribably useful and supportive. I’ve made fantastic contacts, found work, and received (and, I hope, given too) useful advice via Facebook groups.

no7

7) Extra reserves of patience and tolerance
The I-don’t-understand-you grimace, the “you don’t need that form”, “you only need one copy”, “you don’t need the original”. Ignore, push, insist, ask again, request clarification (you did need the form, four copies, and the original). If in doubt, start again from the beginning. Be firm and try to stay calm. Spanish administration is hell, but at least make sure that the bolshy jobsworth funcionario (civil servant) who’s trying to deny you that essential document – because she wants to go and have her coffee break – does her job properly. (Although in my case, I don’t think they get off scot-free either – I need everything explaining at least four times, which must have its less endearing qualities.) And if they’re being really obtuse, officious or offensive, just picture them in their underwear.

no8

8) Chutney
Cebolla caramelizada doesn’t quite cut it. In fact, Spanish jams in general are sub-standard. English fruit and vegetable chutneys, however, especially spicy ones, have this strange power of making an ordinary cheese sandwich into a thing of wonder.

no9

9) Regular trips back to the motherland
We go about twice a year – I need to be among people who speak my language, literally, and may not be as warm or friendly as the Spanish, but who won’t frown at me when I mumble because I’m too knackered to en-un-ci-ate clear-ly. Where supermarket shelves overflow with a heavenly array of cakes, biscuits and naughty puds, and crisps and chutneys (see 8) come in 359 flavours. Where friends who’ve known me for years can tell me what I need to be told. And where I, and especially my children, can spend precious time with aforementioned aging parents.

no10

10) My family
Well, obviously. I’m hardly going to dump them by the roadside and go gallivanting off to the Algarve for a week on my own, now, am I? (Well, actually, there was talk of a girls’ weekend away – see 3) The biggest change for me since arriving in Seville, apart from giving up smoking, designer clothes and poncy cocktail bars, has been having my children. They’re half-Spanish, or half-Andalucian as their Dad would say, bilingual, and comfortable in both cultures, thanks to 2 and 9; and 1 helps too. My husband, for his part, keeps our shoddily-built bungalow standing, tending to plumbing, electrical, structural and countless other problems, and is a bear-ish sort of bloke who is useful around the house and garden (great veg patch) – just as well, since he doesn’t have a job. Anyway, they’re the bees’ knees and I love them to bits. I managed without them for three days recently, on a very nice trip in Andalucia, but that was quite long enough, thank you. I can’t go without hugs for more than three days. Ni pensar.

What can’t you live without?

 

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Noche de Fuego: African drums, fire-jumping and pagan madness

Noche de Fuego

Fire has both life-giving and cleansing properties and is often an element of pagan rituals.

Darkness, fire, moonlight, warmth… there’s something magical about midsummer night celebrations. Every year, on the closest Saturday to the solstice (21 June), there’s a candela (bonfire party) in a park in our village. Parque de la Gallega is on the edge of the hill overlooking Seville, so the view is of a sea of twinkling lights down below in the distance, while a gentle breeze ruffles the olive trees.

But it’s not just about the primeval, life-giving force of fire and the sultry air – there’s music too. Senegalese sabar drummers. The hypnotic beat of the West African drums, the crackling of the bonfire, the “ululululul” of the musicians singing, the low murmur of people talking – every table around the winding paths of the park was occupied by 10pm, as people settled in to have their dinner before the music started; now they’re enjoying the electric energy of these four Senegalese musicians. A semicircle forms in front of the band, who sit in a row behind their drums, their teeth and eyes glinting in the darkness.

The band -Senegalese drummers

The band – Senegalese drummers Super Tam Tam.

band front view

band laughing

band side rear view

The band members take it in turns to leave their seats and dance in the space in front of the crowd. Their wild spirit and abandon fires up the crowd, who perform their own brand of leaping and shimmying – one, the recently retired jueza (lady judge) of our village, admits happily she is borracheta - a little drunk. Even without alcohol, the atmosphere is intoxating. As the tempo speeds up, so the urgency of the movements increases. Everyone is swept up in the faster-beating drums, carried away by the chanting voices and insistent rhythms.

dancer jumping

rasta dancer

rasta dancing 2

judge

At the candela del solstice, traditions of the Noche de San Juan, the Night of St John the Baptist, only a night later (23 June), blend in with the ancient pre-Christian pagan rituals on which the Church’s festivals are based – writing your wishes on slips of paper and throwing them into the fire, and jumping over the fire too. The latter appeals to show-off macho Spanish boys. San Juan is celebrated with special fervour in seaside towns, where people run into the sea at midnight to wash away their sins.

fire jumper 2

fire jumper 1

groups bonfire

Papi kids city lights

Our kids have long since crashed out, tucked up under blankets, just a few feet away from the drummers but without stirring, and I find a friend, Diana, whose daughter is a mucker of Lola’s. We listen to the music and watch the dancing, both happy to observe rather than release our pent-up frustrations and desires in physical form, as others are doing. It looks both therapeutic and Bacchanalian.

kids asleep

me and Diana

In the darkness, I don’t recognise many people in this village where I’ve lived for nearly six years now, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a happy and inclusive vibe, where everyone is caught up by the rhythms, and once the Senegalese quartet has finished, flamenco songs start up. Naturally – how could they not?

The Noche del Fuego is organised by the Associacion Los Dolmenes.

You can watch some videos I shot here, here and here – the drummers and the dancers.

The Andalucia Show: from Almeria to Seville

Flag, fan and pennant in the regional green and white to celebrate Dia de Andalucia, 28 February.

My children with their flag, fan and pennant in the regional verde y blanco to celebrate Dia de Andalucia, 28 February. My daughter is proudly showing off her mixed heritage.

Children here in Andalucia are inculcated with a strong sense of regional pride right from the word go – they are Andaluces first, Spanish second (which leads to a sense of confusion about their identity, in the case of my Anglo-Andalusi children). They learn all about the culture, history, fiestas, famous figures, cuisine and geography of their region, which varies from desert to snow-covered mountains, from cork-oak forests to olive groves, from tidal marshes to sandy beaches, via Moorish cities and ancient sea ports.

This year, to celebrate Dia de Andalucia (28 February), my children’s school put on an exhibition about the entire region, province by province. Sections of corridors were magically transformed into colourful casetas in the Feria de Abril, patios in Cordoba, Cadiz beaches and Almerian hothouses.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the eight provinces of Andalucia as represented by three to 12-year-old Andaluzes, in products and pictures.

I haven’t captioned each photo – partly through sheer laziness and Alt Tag burnout; but also it means that you can try to guess each one’s contents (or, if you live here, ask your kids to) before reading the text for that province, which comes below its corresponding set of pictures. First up: Almeria.

Almeria invernadero

Almeria veg

Almeria skeletons kids

ALMERIA: Polytunnels, vegetables, spaghetti westerns and one of Spain’s most important archaeological sites.

Cadiz - atun de almadraba

Cadiz carnaval

CAdiz carnaval table

Cadiz entrance

Cadiz food 2

Cadiz piconeras

Cadiz playa

CADIZ: blue-fin tuna caught in the Atlantic and Mediterranean using the traditional almadraba system of nets and boats; the Teatro de Falla and the Carnaval in Cadiz city (a masks and two kazoo: the one on the left is my son’s, from our recent trip); sherry, seafood and cheese; fishing nets; piconero/as (coalmen and women – new to me, that one) and, of course, La Playa (yes, that’s real sand)!

Cordoba -cruces, patio ,feria

CORDOBA: Las Cruces de Mayo (the cross of red flowers) and the Patios Festival (the little pots with their blooms on the wall).

Malaga food

Granada

Granada  Lorca

Granada Arabic stuff

Granada food

GRANADA: The Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra; bit foxed myself as to the second picture – possibly Conquest Day, commemorating when the Reyes Catolicos recaptured the city from the Moors, and the royal banner of Castille is carried through the city; Federico Garcia Lorca, with some books by the poet and playwright; Arabic clothes and objects; Granadan pastries.

Huelva

zHuelva- El Rocio

HUELVA: A jamon (don’t miss the piggies on the front of the table); fish, prawns and other shellfish; El Rocio: dress, tambor (drum), mini-carreta, leather chaps, and the all-important leather riding boots to protect from mud, dust and wading through river fords.

Jaen

JAEN: Land of liquid gold – olives, olives, and more olives.

Malaga food (2)

 

Malaga people  Banderas

Malaga sardinas

MALAGA: Pastries, olive oil and sweet wine; famous people, including Picasso and, the “Father of Andalucia”, Blas Infante, bottom left (but not Antonio Banderas, strangely); sardines on sticks.

Cordoba Sevilla

Sevilla Feria

Sev Feria table

Sev Betis baby

Sev cathedral model

Sev incense

IMG_4998

Sev paso

Sev tapas list

SEVILLA: Inevitably, our provincial capital takes a starring role, both in the exhibition itself, and in this blog post. First we have the Feria caseta, complete with entrance (each one has its own name, number and design); the traditional painted table and chairs, plus jewellery, castanets and dress; a creepy-looking Betis baby, for the youngest football supporters; the cathedral; then we’re into Semana Santa, coming up in a few weeks: incense (smells very strong; my daughter hated it), nazarenos with a small cardboard DIY model of the Setas in front of them: more nazarenos, with their paso (float with statue of Jesus); and finally a list of tapas on a blackboard.

I never fail to be astonished and humbled by the huge amount of work which goes into these school shows, projects and exhibitions. The teachers and children obviously spent many hours preparing, assembling and presenting it (we had been asked to provide items from Seville and Cadiz provinces, hence the kazoo) and the finished effect looked quite spectacular.

Happy Andalucia Day, and congratulation to the staff and students!

Carnaval de Cadiz, family style

Cadiz, Carnaval, fiesta, Spain

This sign is above the gate in Cadiz’s city wall where you enter the old town – to let you know you’re now in Carnaval-land.

Carnaval, Cadiz, Fiesta, Spain

My daughter and I dressed as hippies for the Carnaval de Cadiz.

Carnaval, Cadiz, Carnaval de Cadiz, family

Bumble bees are always a popular outfit at Carnaval.

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.

Teatro de Falla, Cadiz, Carnaval, Carnaval de Cadiz

The Teatro de Falla, where the singing groups competition takes place in the weeks before Carnaval.

nuns, monks, bishops, catholic, religious, religion

This was the reaction when three nuns happened upon some bishops – an ecstatic reunion.

bishops, nuns, chruch, catholic, Carnaval, Cadiz, Carnaval de Cadiz, family

Note the attention to detail – what is the priest on the left being fed?

cadiz, carnaval

Knights on the seafront.

Duquesa de Alba, Carnaval, Cadiz, Carnaval de Cadiz, family

My favourite Spanish aristocrat, the Duquesa de Alba – in triplicate. The girl on the right spoils the effect by not adopting the pose – party-pooper.

cadiz, carnaval

For some reason, Spanish men love dressing up as babies. This one’s a lloron (cry-baby). His friend is an aging hippy with a sneaky seafood snack.

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.

Carnaval, Cadiz, Carnaval de Cadiz, family, mohicans

You’re never too old for a mohican.

shades, sunglasses, outsize, Carnaval, Cadiz, Carnaval de Cadiz, family

A pair of outsize shades will transform any normal person into a mad geek.

masks, carnaval masks, Venetian masks, Carnaval, Cadiz, Carnaval de Cadiz, family

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.

erizos, sea urchins, erizo, sea urchin, Carnaval, Cadiz, Carnaval de Cadiz, family

My son (the one not in fancy dress) checks out the spiky erizos (sea urchins).

erizo, sea urchin, Carnaval, Cadiz, Carnaval de Cadiz, family

The inside of sea urchins – mind those spines.

Mojama (dried tuna) and camarones - typical Cadiz fare.

Mojama (dried tuna) and camarones – typical Cadiz fare.

oysters, camarones, shrimp, seafood, Carnaval, Cadiz, Carnaval de Cadiz, family

After much deliberation, we decided on the oysters with a side of camarones – 4 euros for the lot.

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.)

beach, Playa la Caleta, sand sculpture, Carnaval, Cadiz, Carnaval de Cadiz, family

This amazing sand sculpture took two weeks to make. I love the way its texture and colour perfectly complement the stone wall.

sand sculpture, Carnaval, Cadiz, Carnaval de Cadiz, family, beach, Playa de Caleta

This train-themed sculpture caught my children’s imaginations. Poor deprived creatures.

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.

carnaval, cadiz

The Queen with her retinue of beefeaters by the market.

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.

cadiz, carnaval

The chirigota (singing group) performs its British-themed songs, led by The Queen.

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.

cathedral, cadiz, carnaval

Carnaval revellers start to amass in front of the cathedral, as the evening’s celebrations get going.

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.

rumba, carnaval, cadiz

This rumba outfit is probably what put my son off fancy dress: he had to wear one on stage (and dance in it) for his end of term show, aged 3. Can you blame him?

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.