My experiences of carnivals had been confined to the sort of thing one sees on a wet Saturday afternoon in England. I remember one such event in Suffolk where the parade consisted of one float advertising a local electrical retailer. The float's theme was lost in a mass of soggy crepe paper, bursting balloons and a general air of indifference.
By the look of the Carnival Queen and her attendants the contest was based on personality alone. No attempt had been made to tailor the costumes which was unfortunate as last years incumbent was a rather stout girl. It all gave a fair impression of a perambulating laundry pile followed by a lorry delivering bulk paper mache and old inner-tubes. Those that lined the route were there by accident and paid little attention other than wondering who wanted so much paper mache.
The afternoon and evening events lasted two days, which was a bit of overkill considering the attractions on offer. The venue, a field had been carefully chosen for its mud content. A tent which had seen many better days housed what passed for a bar. This was an arrangement of what appeared to be three wallpaper tables placed end on end with crates of beer bottles stacked behind.
It wasn't an inviting place. Drinking overpriced lukewarm beer in a draughty leaking tent erected in a muddy field. The drinkers consisted mainly of those who had lost the will to live after watching the Morris dancing. Food was catered for in the shape of a foul smelling hamburger van operated by an unshaven villainous individual. His appearance didn't reflect the affluence implied from his prices.
There were a couple of carnival rides of such diminutive size that they couldn't have raised the adrenaline levels of a two year old. Nearby a trick cyclist demonstrated his inability to ride a motorcycle. A dog handling display and a sullen troop of drum majorettes more or less completed the entertainment. The dogs at least did as they were instructed unlike the drum majorettes. One left the carnival with a mixture of emotions, a sense of complete deflation coupled with a strong feeling of being expertly mugged.
I don't believe this description to be too far from the collective truth associated with such events nationally. It is a sad fact that we only pay lip-service to such occasions and view them simply as charitable fund raising exercises. Consequently people feel obliged to attend and the extortionate prices are justified on humanitarian grounds. Enjoyment is secondary.
This is how I viewed all carnivals as I set out for southern Spain, the Costa del Sol and Fuengirola. I was to attend the October Feria.
I collected a map of the town and a timetable of events from the Tourist Office in the Paseo Jesus Santos Rein then headed for the nearest bar to study the itinerary. The first thing I noticed was that the Carnival was in fact a religious affair. At least it was in the honour of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, Our Lady of the Rosary.
The main church, Parroquia de Ntra Sra del Rosario located at the northern end of the Plaza de la Constitución was the focal point of the Feria. Speeches in the Plaza began what turned out to be six days of extreme noise, tantalizing aromas and strength sapping fun. It was a feat of stamina as everything and everyone continued in the carnival's supercharged atmosphere until the early hours.
The young ladies of Fuengirola squeezed themselves into figure hugging flamenco dresses and paraded the streets and shopping centres. The massed effect was breathtaking as regiments of raven haired and impeccably made up señoritas wiggled and giggled their way through the streets. The young men dressed in short jackets and Sevilla Hats rode on horseback through the town with their resplendent ladies side saddled behind them. The more elderly opted for sedate carriages which were pulled by teams of well groomed horses and ponies. Just to be in Fuengirola is to be involved in the Feria.
The carnival ground itself is centred on the Plaza Hispanidad. As one approaches the first impressions are of dazzling light of an intensity which hurts the eyes while the volume of noise is so great that the generated percussion waves can be felt on the cheeks. Rides which could effectively be used for astronaut training fling, hurl and spin their screaming captives through the warm evening air.
Aromas from the eating venues can only be resisted by the well sated. Huge dishes of paella and slice potatoes slowly baking in olive oil tempt the would-be diner. The sticky desserts and sweets solved a question that had bothered me for some time. Why there are so many dental surgeries in Spanish towns. The sugar content of just one could keep the occupants of a good sized kindergarten hyperactive for days.
There were over thirty peñas at the carnival ground. These are club houses, motoring, hiking, football etc. Each has a bar long enough to do credit to a Workingman's Club in north eastern England. Each peña vies for drinkers by offering entertainment. The noise is incredible as popular music mingles with the hypnotic beat of flamenco. Male baritones compete with Latin American rhythm.
The confluence of sounds was so disorientating I found it necessary to do something familiar to compensate. This usually involved visiting a bar and having a not too quiet drink. It was a good technique and became more effective as the evening went on.
The entertainment offered by the Peña Futbol Sala Los Beliches was of particular note. Here two girls and a lad, Tatiana, Estíbaliz and Angel entertained. The brunette Tatiana, took the lead, the blonde Estíbaliz supplied support and the eye-candy while Angel played the electronic organ and generally organised things. They started their turn at eight-thirty in the evening and continued through to the early hours. They covered most musical genres and sang along with the audience who copied their hand and body movements. The Ritmo Andaluz Show as they are known certainly earned their money and even found time to talk and pose for my photographs.
The noise was inversely proportional to the smallness of the hour and increased as dawn approached. As I was getting increasingly disorientated so my visits to the bar by necessity increased. This further increased my sense of bewilderment. I decided
enough was enough before I has to avail myself of the service offered by the resident paramedics. By some miracle I found my way safely to my bed.
This routine continued for five days by the sixth I was a complete wreck. Mentally and physically dissipated. As the sixth night was the last I got an early night falling easily into a dreamless sleep. Not for long however. There was the most tremendous din. I thought the Americans were recreating the Palomares Incident, this time with live devices. It was the closing firework display. I swear I could see the walls shaking and hear shrapnel hitting the roof, perhaps it wasn't really that dramatic but it certainly lit up the night sky. I was past caring and managed to sleep through the remainder of the pyrotechnic display.
As I sat wedged in the seat of my low-cost flight back to the UK I wondered at the sheer stamina of the average Spaniard. This was not an isolated Carnival, many more were planned over the coming months. I remembered that cold damp field in England with its miserable beer tent. I think I'll give the carnival in Suffolk a miss this year.