When most people hear the word “Carnaval” they probably think of Brazil. In fact, Carnaval is celebrated the world over, and traditions vary from continent to continent, city to city. What you see in Africa may be very different from what you see in Europe. And then of course there’s Mardi Gras, celebrated fondly in U.S. cities like New Orleans and St. Louis.
In 2008, I was studying abroad in Spain for a semester. My program was based in Madrid, but we spent a couple weeks in Barcelona at the very beginning of the program to give us a taste of another Spanish region. One of my goals for the semester was to take any cultural opportunity that came my way. So it was a no-brainer, of course, when someone suggested that we should head to a town called Sitges for a huge Carnaval celebration. We were told to expect parades, costumes and a giant party. Forget the cultural undertones for a minute, and let’s be real: it really doesn’t take much convincing to get a bunch of college students to go to a party in the streets. But really, we had no idea what we were in for. We cobbled together costumes and mapped out our route.
The train we took to Sitges was so packed, we barely had room to stand. When we got off the train, we entered a different world. Sitges is a beach town to the southwest of Barcelona whose economy depends on tourists. But Carnaval season is a special one, and the influx of people greater than ever. Tourists, Barcelona-area locals and Spaniards from other parts of the country meld together to form a massive fiesta in the streets. There are tons of parades, parties, and special festivals throughout the Carnaval season. We went to the biggest parade of the season, and it was quite the scene. Costumed people everywhere, massive crowds, noisy partiers. The parade seemed to last forever: float after float after float. Each float had some sort of theme, and the people on the float dressed accordingly. But the themes were all over the place, from an Irish Pub to barn animals. Costumes were very elaborate, with feathers and headdresses and coordinated shoes. Many of the floats even had their own bars so float-riders could stay “hydrated.” Never seen that on a Rose Parade float!
After a couple of hours of watching the parade and wandering along the parade route, we decided to hit up some bars. Sitges is known for its nightlife, so we had no shortage of options. We ambled from bar to bar for a bit. Then, based on a tip from someone we met in the bathroom, we went off in search of a nightclub located in a former movie theater. When we walked inside, we realized that we’d just entered an official after-party for parade participants. We felt like we’d hit the motherlode of Sitges fiestas. But the best part of all of it? The song playing when we entered the room was a Spanish cover of “Achy Breaky Heart.” Yes, that exists.
At some point we decided it was time to head back to Barcelona, and made our way to the train station. The train getting home was just as packed as the train we took to get there. One of the girls in our party even lost her shoe in the mad dash to get on the train and snag a spot. When we got back into Barcelona, we shuffled to our hotel and called it a night. But what a night it was!