For six days in February, Vilanova i la Geltrú, a small port town located just an hours drive from Barcelona, comes to life. The music of 100 competing Spanish bands from around Catalonia fill the packed town square. A half dozen parades wind up and down the towns main boulevards and thousands of locals and international tourists throng the busy streets. They come together to celebrate one of the oldest festivals in Spain. It is a festival that combines great music, grand balls, fine food – which during Merengada is not always eaten – and lots of alcohol. To get to the festival itself there are a number of ways, including flights offered by numerous companies like SkyScanner, First Choice and, Thomas Cook to name a few.
The festival ends on one of the most important dates in the Christian calender, Ash Wednesday.
The origins of the festival of Vilanova i la Geltrú dates back more than 250 years to medieval Spain, a time where the rich traditions and conservative rituals of the Catholic Church still held sway over much of the country. In its original form, the festival of Vilanova i la Geltrú was a simple carnival where jugglers musicians and street performers entertained the small population of the town.
The first major addition to the festivities, which can still be seen today, was the result of an inspired troupe of street performers. To attract the public to their play, two men were placed in boxes, which were paraded through the streets, while a third person announced that he wanted to sell a great bird. Once he had attracted a large crowd of people, the two performers in the box were released. One of the performers, naked, smeared in honey and covered in feathers ran through the streets chasing the second man who was wearing a dress covered in dried figs. The man who was covered in feathers ripped the dried figs off of the other mans dress and gave them to the children in the crowd. The act was so successful that it was repeated the next year attracting even more people. It was the first of many traditions that woven together has become the festival of Vilanova i la Geltrú.
The festival of Vilanova i la Geltrú occurs over six distinct and fun filled days in february. This year, the festival starts on February 15th and ends on March 5th. The Merengado, one of the highlights of the festival, is on February 27th. Below is an overview of what to expect should you decide to visit.
Sábado de Mantones/ Saturday Shawls
The first celebration associated with the festival is held on a Saturday, a fortnight before Ash Wednesday. On the Saturday a formal ball with an orchestra is held. The ball – known for some reason as the Dancing Thugs – is a chance for the women of the town to show off their beautifully embroidered Manila Shawls.
Jueves Lardero/ Maundy Thursday
The Thursday before Ash Wednesday has in recent years become one of the biggest highlights of the celebrations held in Vilanova i la Geltrú. Known as the Merengada, this is the day when everyone in the town gets a sweet meringue surprise. In fact, you should come prepared with a change of clothes, because you will be participating in one of the largest and sweetest food fights in the world (you will get covered from head to toe in meringue). The food fight lasts all day and ends in the evening when people eat a traditional meal from the area called Xató.
Viernes de Carnaval/ Friday Carnival
Friday is Carnival day in Vilanova i la Geltrú. People dressed in satirical fancy dress costumes crowd the streets of the town to watch the huge parade as it makes its way along the main streets of the town. The costumes worn are often satirical and depict local politicians and influential figures from the area. On the final float of the parade is the King of the Carnival. Once the parade reaches the central square, the king, along with his servants and concubines recite tracts from the New Testament and give a critical and satirical sermon to the gathered crowd. The evening finishes with dances that are held in a large marquee, which is erected in the square.
Sábado de Mascarotas/ Magical Saturday
Saturday is one of the busiest days of the festivities in Vilanova i la Geltrú. There are a number of events that happen in the town that last from the early morning to late into the evening.
In the morning, sporting events are held around the town. The king of the Carnival also visits nursing homes and the towns markets.
The afternoon begins with another parade that marks the arrival of the King of the Children. The parade, with floats, finishes with a huge celebration at the central market. You can join the thousands of school children and families for free sweets, dancing and live music from the Aquarium Orchestra.
Moixó Foguer – a man or woman lathered in honey and covered in feathers – is paraded through the town in a partially see through box. It is possible to see the silhouette of the naked figure in the box, but if that is not enough, you can catch the Moixó Foguer and his or her entourage walking the streets late at night. While Moixó Foguer parades through town, a Magical Ball is held on the streets. People dress up in costumes and drink and dance late into the night.
Domingo de Comparsas/ Sunday Troupes
Sunday is a day of parades and music. This is when more than 100 brass bands take to the streets and bring the inhabitants of Vilanova i la Geltrú to their feet. The parades start at 9am and ends in a final war of the candies, which occurs in the town square. In the late afternoon, once the musical battles have finished, people dance in the square.
Lunes de Carnaval/ Carnival Monday
There are three parades held on Carnival Monday and each of them finishes at the town square. The parades are held for the children of the town, who participate in the parades with their parents, before the children perform traditional dances to the assembled crowd. In the evening groups of carol singers roam the streets singing songs that celebrate the history of Vilanova i la Geltrú.
Martes de Vidalot/ Shrove Tuesday
On Shrove Tuesday , brass bands and performers hit the streets for another series of parades. It is also a day where friends and relatives come together to celebrate the religious holidays. In the evening another large party is held with live music and plenty of alcohol, which lasts until six in the morning.
Miécoles de Ceniza/ Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday is the final day of the festival of Vilanova i la Getrú. In the morning there is a production in the main theatre followed by a parade through the city. The final celebration of the day is the lighting of a large bonfire in the city center.
Getting to Vilanova i la Geltrú
Vilanova i la Geltrú is a short 40 minute drive down the coast from Barcelona. The easiest way to get to the town from is either catching the express train from Barcelona or hiring a car and driving to the city. You can catch a direct train for €2.50 from Barcelona el Prat Airport to Vilanova i la Geltrú. The journey is approximately 30 minutes.
As neither Reus or Girona Airport have a train station, you will need to take a bus from the airport to the local train station. A direct train from Reus to Vilanova i la Geltrú costs €4.25 and the journey takes 45 minutes. A one way ticket on a regional train costs €3.60 and the journey takes 90 minutes.
The trip from Girona Airport to Vilanova i la Geltrú is the most expensive and complicated option. A bus to the local station takes 30 minutes and costs €2.50. From the train station, you need to take a regional train to Barcelona Passeig de Gràcia Station, which takes 90 minutes and costs €9.50. Once there you need to change platform for the final 45 minute leg of the journey to Vilanova i la Geltrú. A ticket costs €3.50.
This post was brought to you by First Choice.
Some really great choices! Spain has so many of them that it is difficult to keep a track!
It looks like an incredible festival. Will have to try and do it next year 🙂