The definition of carnival could be: “A holiday for everyone, celebrated with feelings of joy and cheeky mischief”. With the exception of hotels and restaurants, the whole of Cadiz is paralysed for ten days while it welcomes the massive influx of visitors looking for laughs and non-stop fun. People dress up to watch the best chirigotas (comedians that perform satirical pieces about everything from politics to current events), coros (singers, often comedic, that wander the streets accompanied by stringed instruments), comparsas (Classical singers who often sing about tragedies or arias) and cuartatos (singers that are most often accompanied by nothing more than a kazoo and beating sticks), in places like la Viña, El Pópulo and la Plaza de las Flores.
Carnival usually takes place during the first two weekends of February. More specifically, carnival starts the weekend before the beginning of Lent (forty days before Maundy Thursday). In the days leading up to carnival you should try the delicacies at the ostionada , such as live oysters and sea urchins served in the street.
Carnival is like a religion for those who live in this southernmost city of Europe. The party takes place on the streets which are overrun by people in unique satirical costumes (those who take part are inclined to make fun of everything from politicians and artists, to nobles and aristocrats). The whole city joins in along with the thousands of tourists who sign up to sample the local humour. Every February the noise levels in this city reach new heights for ten days. But the biggest carnival fans start preparing their costumes, satirical lyrics and music as early on as August or September.
The streets are full of groups of amateur musicians called murgas or chirigotas ilegales who carry around a guitar, drum, whistles and a wicked sense of humour. There are also more professional groups who are in search of fame, prizes and recognition in the official competition that takes place in the Gran Teatro Falla. These groups start to compete amongst themselves from the beginning of January until they reach the grand final which takes place the day before the carnival officially begins. A panel of judges considers the ingenuity of the lyrics and the quality of the music, before catapulting the winners into fame and stardom as they go on tour and hopefully enjoy financial success. The judges’ decisions often split the carnival audience.
The official competition includes four different categories with their own very different styles. The chirigotas are the most derisive. From the King of Spain to Z-list celebrities, nobody escapes unscathed. The coros alternate between serious and light-hearted, and are made up of several singers, guitars and mandolin-like instruments. They perform in the open air carrusel de coros in the centre of the city for all to see. The comparsas sing about sadness and longing and all the problems and virtues associated with that. These arrangements are a little tedious for some. And finally, the applicants in the cuartetos category are all about pure, unadulterated humour. Their performances are often legendary although most tourists outside of Cadiz don’t really get their witty jokes!
Historians believe that the carnival started in the 16th Century when Cadiz was still a very important port. One of the main influences in developing the carnival tradition came from the powerful city-state of Venice. For centuries, the carnival in Cadiz has survived numerous dictatorships and attempts to bring it to an end. It is so popular that even the Church forgives those who aren’t able to attend mass during carnival.
Como un cochino en un charco (Like a Pig in a Puddle) by José Lorenzo Benítez
A tongue in cheek guide on how to find inner peace and happiness at the Cadiz Carnival. Like a Pig in a Puddle is an Andalusian saying meaning to feel really well where one is.
1.Get into the mindset:
“At this year’s carnival I’ll be as happy as a pig in mud. I’ll be going out into the street dressed as a piglet of the celebrated Iberian variety, all fattened up having been fed exclusively on acorns, with a polystyrene trough strapped around my waist. I will confidently act out this role with enthusiasm and I will not listen to those who say I am making a fool of myself. I won’t be embarrassed about my appearance. It is what’s on the inside that counts and what’s under the costume that is important. Like a flask full of whisky for example.”
2. The weather
“‘It’s not cold in Cadiz, it’s just humid” goes the old saying. We are just a small particle in the vast universe but particles also catch colds. When the wind blows in from the west it is freezing and no one feels like partying anymore. Don’t try and put a brave face on it. If your costume calls for bare legs then have some tights at the ready just in case. Although it’s not something that us pigs think about very often.”
“This state is reached after many hours of singing carnival songs and drinking. Normally, the party continues into the small hours of the morning without anyone even realising that they have reached enlightment, what with so much excitement going on. By that time I should try and stop drinking before I end up looking like a filthy pig.”
4. A love for nature
“During carnival I will love all living creatures in Cadiz, even more than I do at Christmas time. I will especially love all female creatures. I will open my chakras to the essence of carnival and try and understand the lives of others. I will be a chivalrous pig and make sure I look after all the Iberian sows I meet. Especially in the Casa Manteca bar. I will avert my gaze if I see couples doing it in dark doorways, in the middle of a square or on car bonnets. Love can happen anywhere at the Cadiz carnival and interruptions are not welcome.”
5.The Teatro Falla
“If you want to go to the grand final of the official competition for carnival groups at the Teatro Falla, you have two options: try and get into Cadiz’s grand theatre or see it live on Canal Sur television. If you aren’t lucky enough to get a ticket before they’re all sold out, then you have the option of paying hundreds of euros from a local tout (ask at bars around the theatre) or look for a generous patron who can get you in for free. This last option has become more difficult over the years but the tradition hasn’t completely disappeared. After twenty-something days of competing, the carnival really kicks off on that morning. The finalists will sing in different kinds of bars and clubs but rarely in the streets. Pigs like me have more fun in alleyways than in theatres anyway.”
6. The illegal spirit
“I won’t be hurrying though the hustle and bustle of the carruseles de coros, romanceros (solo acts that roam the streets and entertain visitors and locals) and chirigotas ilegales, in la Viña, El Pópulo, la Plaza de las Flores and Mercado de Abastos. I will be listening to the amateur singers, with their conspiratorial and sarcastic winking, from about half a meter away while standing in a doorway somewhere or halfway up a church facade. These are often families gathered together or large groups of friends. I will try and mix in by laughing at all their jokes, joining in their nonsense and adding to their singing.”
“Mind your balance. It is actually quite easy to end up like a pig in mud. The old part of town fills with people and its best to avoid the massive outdoor drinking parties that take place on Saturdays. What will happen now that these kinds of gatherings have been made illegal? I guess partying will now be better on Sundays and on any other night during the week.”
8. Universal language
“If you don’t understand the lyrics of the groups, don’t worry. Just ask the person next to you, as long as they are from Cadiz of course. Ideally you will have a native friend from Cadiz who can translate all the local turns of phrase, expressions and references to local life for you. If you don’t know anyone like that then just laugh your head off like the rest of the audience, that way you won’t look out of place.”
9. And finally…
“If you meet anyone dressed as a pig, give them all your love and all your food, invite them to a bottle of muscatel and give thanks to San Anton, the Spanish patron saint of animals. This is an important tradition in Cadiz and will inevitably bring you good luck. And remember, the secret to enjoying the carnival is to get into character!”
Gran Teatro Falla
Theatre and home to the official competition between the many carnival groups. This is where to see the best chirigotas.
El barrio de la Viña
The stars of the show are out on the street. This traditional neighbourhood is a great place to hear the chirigotas. Try the tapas at the bar El Manteca.
La Plaza del Mercado
Next to the Plaza de las Flores
The place to be on Sunday and Monday of Carnival. Don´t miss the open air carrusel de coros
Restaurante El Faro
Although this is a pretty swanky place, most people give in to the luxury of a visit, even if its just for a quick tapa at the bar.
C/ San Félix, 15
- • Official site for the Cadiz Carnaval
- • Videos and photos of the street groups
- • Recommended listening for the uninitiated
- • Cadiz Travel Notes in Tertulia Andaluza