Spain is a country famed for its' fiestas and in the region of Murcia alone there are almost 40 different festivals of varying shapes and sizes throughout the year. Never known for doing anything by halves, the Spanish throw themselves headlong into their festivals to create a veritable explosion of sights and sounds, as well as mouth-watering scents and flavours. A Spanish fiesta is something to be experienced at least once, offering the ideal way to get a taste of the real España.
The season kicks off with La Fiesta de las Cuadrillas on the last weekend of January in Barranda. This very Spanish of celebrations is set in the city centre and shows off the culture of the Murcia region, with a special highlight on the local folklore music. Groups with violins and other string instruments perform and even do play-offs against each other in the street with the aim of keeping this musical tradition very much alive.
January is also when the two month long city-wide exhibition of modern art begins with viewing spaces set up in cathedrals, churches and outdoor squares as well as regular art galleries. Expect lots of outlandish, conceptual art and outrageous displays, although guided tours are offered to help make sense of it all.
With the start of February comes the carnival season with parades, costume contests and dance performances held throughout the areas of Mar Menor, Cartagena and Cabezo de Torres, festivities that are steeped in over 200 years of tradition. The town of Aguilas is said to have the wildest carnival in the country which is on the week before Lent, which falls towards the end of the month.
Slightly up from Murcia, but possibly worth the trek if you have your own hire car, is Las Fallas de San José in Valencia. Held between 12-19 March it is one of the biggest and most important festivals in Spain and costs an approximate €1.2 million to stage. As well as bullfights, music performances and firework displays, the finale on the last night, Nit de Foc, bares witness to a carnival of grotesque and outlandish papier-mâché and wood effigies which are set on fire.
April sees some of the most important festivals of the region with week long colourful processions in Lorca and Murcia to mark Holy Week. There is also the three-day festival of Las Incursiones Berberiscas in Los Alcazares which begins on the Friday of the start of Semana Santa (Holy Week). There is plenty music and fun and games to be had but despite the medieval theme, the event was only actually started in 2000.
After Holy Week comes the Fiestas de Primavera or Spring Festivals which celebrates nature's produce and gives locals the opportunity to show off their regional clothes. The streets are full of locales in their embroidered skirts and zaragüelles trousers. It starts with a blessing to the patron of the city, the Virgin of Fuensanta, and is followed by a week of flamenco dancing, eating and parades of wildly adorned floats, stilt walkers and brass bands.
The streets are lined with stalls selling traditional dishes and many feature the local game such as rabbit, hare, partridge and quail. Possibly the most bizarre highlight of a festival though comes on the final Saturday with the El Entierro de la Sardina. This is a procession through the street where toys are distributed to the children and ends with an effigy of a giant sardine being burnt.
In May the Three Culture International Festival takes place in Murcia, an event set-up to help overcome racism and xenophobia. It brings together cultural examples of art, literature and more from three of the major religions - Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The mix is quite extraordinary and ranges from Arabic dancing to Jewish song evenings and book readings to cooking demonstrations and jazz evenings.
The beginning of this month also sees the Festival of the Holy Cross in Caravaca de la Cruz. On the second day of this 5 day fiesta, the race of the "Wine Horses" (caballos de vino) takes place where horses adorned with brightly embroidered coats are raced through the streets, although they have no riders. Instead two people lead the horse, one either side, as fast as they can up to the finishing point, the Castle de Santa Cruz, cheered on by the crowds. Dating back to 1250, this tradition is based on actual practice when the Templar Knights used to sneak across Moor territory to bring wine to the guarders of the True Cross (Vera Cruz).
If you love jazz then the San Javier International Jazz Festival is a must. The programme runs through the whole of July with performances on most nights with artists from around the world.
For something more Spanish however, visit the town of Castrillo de Murcia where they definitely get the award for the most imaginative festival. Known as the The Baby-Jumping Calacho Festival (or El Colacho) the clue is in the title. To celebrate the Catholic festival of Corpus Christi, grown men dress up as devils and leap over babies who are lain prostrate on the street, the belief being that this cleanses the children by drawing the evil from them.
Fortunately there are also plenty of other activities such as processions and mystery plays to keep the crowds amused, although the pagan theme reappears again the following Sunday when the organisers - the brotherhood of Santísimo Sacramento de Minerva - chase and goad people through the town.
July is the time when the region's flamenco season really gets underway as some of Spain's top artists converge on San Pedro del Pinatar for the Festival del Cante Flamenco de Lo Ferro. Held on the first Saturday in July it really gives spectators a chance to see this most traditional of Spanish dances performed at its' best.
For another visually spectacular event there is the maritime procession held in Sabinillas in honour of the patron saint of mariners, Virgen del Carmen. Here local sailors decked out in their white uniforms carry an effigy of the virgin from the church to the beach. It is placed on a boat and taken across to the nearby beach of lo Pagán, accompanied by a flotilla of decorated boats. In the evening the Virgin is brought back under a candlelit procession, followed by a fireworks display.
During August (from the 2nd to the 11th) the Festival del Cante de las Minas gets underway in La Unión and comprises a competition where aspiring flamenco dancers and singers battle it out in the Public Market to win the coveted trophy. This has been declared a festival of International Tourist Interest.
As in Spring, Murcia absolutely bursts at the seams with fiesta spirit in September as the city's patron saint, La Virgen de la Fuensanta, is paid homage to once again during the Autumnal Feria de Murcia. Everything from pageants to parades to bullfighting and pop concerts go on in locations all over Murcia city, while the ubiquitous funfair and stalls of confectionery, food and drink set up residence for the duration.
September is when Cartagena holds one of the biggest festivals of the region, The Carthaginians & Romans Fiesta which goes on for 4 days. Around the outskirts of the city Roman campsites are erected and hundreds of people dressed as either Roman soldiers, Cartaginians or barbarians and march through the streets, staging events.
For something a little less intense there is always the Romería de la Santísima Virgen de la Esperanza in Calasparra where you can see "caballeros" (men on horses) in their traditional garb and sample plenty of rice-based traditional dishes served. As always there is plenty of singing and dancing to watch and drinking to be done.
The Fiestas de Moros y Cristianos takes place in Santomera between 1st and 15th October. This popular festival sees both Christian and Moorish armies put on parades and host a number of open-air parties with performances from flamenco to belly-dancing.
In November the San Clemente festivities are held in Lorca, an event named after the town's patron saint which celebrates its' history and its' many different influences through parades and music.
Finally in December on the 8th, 9th and 10th there are fiestas in Totana in honour of Saint Eulalia. This is a moving, religious festival which begins with the pilgrimage of Santa Eulalia; an effigy of the saint which is brought down from a retreat in the mountains accompanied by people singing religious chants. The night before, people from the region converge at the foot of the mountain to enjoy a night of wine and 'migas' (a local dish consisting of fried breadcrumbs).