Last February, we stumbled on the carnival in Cádiz. It is an experience I will never forget. This month I strongly urge you to grab your carnival masks and go see it for yourselves.
On arriving in the old town of Cádiz for the half-term break, we were immediately struck by the party atmosphere. Crowds of people were gathering in the large tree-lined piazzas while young and old stumbled through the windy cobbled streets, drinks in hand, wearing colourful costumes, a hat or blowing a horn. Of course, we knew that in Spain and Portugal this was the carnival holiday, but what we didn’t know was that Cádiz hosts one of the craziest and most entertaining parties you will ever have the pleasure to attend.
At first, this presented itself as an inconvenience. Most of the restaurants, having been packed all day, were shut while their staff took a break before they reopened again later in the night. With two hungry children, fortunately, we stumbled across one of those hole-in-the-walls, sawdust-covered floors, hams hanging from the ceiling, tapas joints that I love. Having commandeered a table, we had only just ordered some calamari rings and a couple of beers when three elderly gentlemen accosted us. They had obviously had a fun day and were determined to befriend us and explain the concept of the carnival (carnaval in Spanish and Portuguese). Their friendliness exemplified the Andalucian carnival spirit of mass participation, where locals not only want to have fun themselves but wish others to have fun as well. This played out with them buying me a shot of a powerful spirit!
As this was 2022 and the tail-end of COVID, they told us this was nothing compared to the normal event. The authorities had not allowed the floats to enter the city this year to keep the number of people in the old town at a minimum. This had not dampened the party spirit. Whole families, from young children dressed in Disney costumes to their grandparents, were either standing on the streets or filling the bars and restaurants with tables leading the procession through an intricate maze of streets. Alleyways gave an intimate atmosphere for revellers before they opened out onto small squares adorned with fountains where more people were gathered, talking, laughing and singing.
Occasionally a performer in costume would set up on a street corner and begin to perform a song which would have the gathered crowds in stitches. As I was unable to understand the ditty, I researched the concept of the Andalucian carnival. It differs from our idea of a carnival in that it centres around singing and satire.
The gaditanos (Cádiz locals) are known throughout Spain for their wit, jokes and amusing one-liners. Cádiz’s inhabitants put their hearts and souls into making their carnival the most entertaining and fun-filled in Spain. Carnival here is about having a good time with people who love to laugh and love to make others laugh. Stages are put up all over the town for shows and musical performances.
Fancy dress is obligatory at Cádiz carnival. It is one big costume party. Everywhere we looked, we saw people dressed up, from little girls in Disney Princess costumes to a group of stormtroopers eating tapas. While some carnivals elsewhere in the world stress the glamorous and exhibit scandalous costumes, Cádiz distinguishes itself with clever and imaginative costumes more along the lines of a fancy dress party. It is traditional to paint the face as a humble substitute for a mask. The most significant events in the carnival are two giant parades where the crowds often participate, creating a huge street party.
The following day, we ventured out of our hotel with the streets littered with the remnants of the party the night before and took the ferry from Cádiz across the bay and up the Guadalete River to El Puerto de Santa Maria. Here we were lucky enough to witness the choirs (coros). These are larger groups that travel through the streets on open flat-bed carts or wagons, singing with a small ensemble of guitars and other instruments. They alternate between a comical and serious repertoire, with special pathos as they sing homages to the city and its people. Their colourful costumes and decorated floats filled the streets as beautifully as their singing. I was utterly blown away by their performances, which were incredibly professional, joyful and passionate, with fabulous voices singing a dazzling array of harmonies to the accompaniment of guitars.
We wandered into a restaurant on the water’s edge to enjoy a sumptuous fiesta of tapas, including clams in garlic sauce, chocos and jamón to the accompaniment of a male quartet of singers accompanied by a drum and percussion instruments. It would have been rude not to sample the sherry that the town is famous for.
Cádiz carnival is a festive gift of days of laughter, quirkiness and mass participation! A unique cultural experience. People who are lucky enough to experience Cádiz Carnival get to participate in a tradition of fun and frivolity that you will never forget.
The first parade is called Gran Cabalgata (Great Parade) and takes place on the first Sunday of the carnival (this year on 19 February). It attracts more than ten thousand visitors. There will also be a firework display from the city’s famous beach La Caleta.
From Lagos, it is a 390 km drive via the A22 and A-49. It will take approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes.
The Cádiz carnival is believed to date back to the 15th century when Italian traders came to live in the historic seaside city to form a trade route between Africa and Europe. Homesick and nostalgic for the traditional Italian carnival, these traders greatly influenced this tradition by bringing masks, confetti and sweets to the party.
In 2023 the carnival will take place from 16 to 23 February. For more information and a full programme of events go to: