As we turned the corner from one picturesque Sitges street into another we came face-to-face with an Aztec horde. Gasping, we turned and bolted back up the street we’d just come from. With a blood-curdling cry, the Aztecs swarmed after us, shaking their spears with glee at having found some prey to sacrifice.
After a few metres we gave up on running and turned around to greet them, laughing. It was all just part of the Sitges Carnival fun, a crazy fiesta which dominates the small Catalonian town for a week every year.
Because while some countries – like my own – prepare for the impending deprivation of Lent by eating pancakes for dinner the evening before, it seems others require a week of festivities, feasts and debauchery before they’re willing to relinquish the pleasures of the flesh for forty days.
Around here, the festivities start with the feasting and cooking contests of Fatty Thursday and last through the weekend until the symbolic “burying of the sardine” parade on Ash Wednesday marks the end of the fun. For visitors in Barcelona during this time, expect bizarre things to happen like being pelted by candy or encountering a parade of people in orange.
But in this neck of the woods, everybody knows the wildest party is in Sitges, a beautiful old town on the sunny Mediterranean coast. During the harsh Franco regime, Sitges emerged as a bastion of creativity and counter-culture and since then has been cultivating its free-thinking, fun-loving ways and has over time evolved into something of a gay mecca (which brings me back to those woods.. it’s best to know what to expect before you decide whether to venture into them!).
We had heard that it would be hard on the popular party nights to find space on the train there and back from Barcelona so we made a last-minute booking at Hotel Liberty and decided to make it into a weekend getaway.
Saturday night is one giant costume street party when all the bars host parties and everybody congregates on Carrer 1er de Maig and the surrounding streets to dance the night away in an explosion of colours and big hair. Almost everybody puts a huge amount of work into their costumes and the people, like us, who had just made a token effort were in the minority.
Amongst the crowd we spotted Psy, a patient on a drip, Barbie complete with her box, babies, lego police, luchadores, innumerous drag queens towering over us on precipitous stilettos and some costumes that could only be described as outer manifestation of the wearer’s kookiest dreams.
My favourite was a shady-looking older guy wearing a trench coat. He looks like a flasher, I thought. We made eye contact and suddenly his coat burst open revealing an arm coming from his groin that fisted violently upwards before he cloaked it back up again. I covered my mouth in mock-horror.
Group costumes were popular too. We encountered a palette of metallic Pantone swatches, a team of paramedics with a shopping-trolley ambulance, the Witch King with and a complement of Nazgûl, a sixer of Heineken, and a set of billiards balls and one of bowling pins. I could see how the group theme would be useful to help keep friends from getting lost in the crowd and the genius of the Aztec costume became evident when, later in the night, we saw a line of spears bobbing up and down over the heads of the throng.
Using her umbrella, a drag queen ushered us into a bar – I was afraid if we didn’t go in she might use the umbrella against us – where I was served by easily the most tightly muscular barman I’ve ever seen, wearing nothing but a sequinned g-string and an eye mask. His brown skin was impossibly smooth and I fought down the urge to ask him for shaving tips. We stayed for a drink then wondered back out into the madness.
It was clear the bars knew what to expect. They were all serving drinks in plastic glasses and blasting music out into the street for the benefit of the dancing masses and to lure people in. Most had blocked off their toilets and it became increasingly hard to find bladder emptying opportunities. Some had completely closed their doors and were just serving a limited menu of drinks from a window. I showed off my shocking lack of Spanish by asking for a “cubata” from one of them – the equivalent of going to a bar and ordering “a mixed drink”. To his credit the beautiful, baby-faced barman didn’t laugh at me.
As the night wore on and the street predictably became progressively more clogged and drunken.
By 2am we found ourselves dancing outside a bar that was playing one crowd-pleaser after another. I say dancing, but it was more like wiggling amongst a crush of bodies and being pinballed around. Barbie’s box was proving more and more cumbersome and she soon shed it. I looked over in time to see her sticking on moustache instead.
A slightly worse-for-wear sailor danced up to us. He looked at me then gently shoved me away and leaned in to try and snog Stacker. Stacker dodged and the sailor backed off but he only had to turn around to instantly find a more willing target. Shortly after, a cross-dressed man in a black wig and polka dot dress sidled up to me. “Am I beautiful woman?” she asked me. I wanted to say yes but her fake teeth and googly-eye glasses had thrown me off for a second. She pressed her chest into my hand and I gave the stuffed bra a squeeze. “Am I beautiful woman?” she repeated, looking dejected. “Yes, you are beautiful!” I asserted, hoping I hadn’t hurt her feelings with my hesitation. She wandered off to get a second opinion.
Not unaware of the irony of it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t really belong. It was obvious, from the beautiful barmen and muscular male pole dancers, that this street in Sitges is the domain of vacationing gay men and I was but a visitor for the night. Still, we couldn’t deny that it was a great party. And we did have a good laugh at a girl we saw waiting at a bar – a stunning girl who was clearly used to getting served first – get increasingly more frustrated as she was passed over by the barmen time and again despite the workout she was giving to the arch in her back.
By 3am the party was in full swing and,while we suspected that things were only just getting started, we retreated back to the hotel, exhausted. We’d made the rookie mistake of going out at 8.30pm and had run out of steam already. The Spanish schedule is impossible unless you’re 21 or in the habit of taking siestas!
Parade of Debauchery
We spent the next day recovering, visiting the town and gearing up for another long night. On the Sunday of Sitges Carnival, thousands of people turn out to see the rua de la Disbauxa – the Parade of Debauchery. We watched the long line of people and floats file past, all decked out in different themes but with a common thread of lots of sparkle and plenty of feathers.
Catalonian themes were rampant with lots of floats featuring traditional Catalan clothing, such as the distinctive red cap, or music and many were draped with Catalan flags.
Some seemed to make a statement like the one featuring what looked like Franco and a bloody-horned bull. I also couldn’t help but wonder if the abundance of tartan was a subtle nod to another separatist movement and wasn’t sure that the group dressed as rednecks and waving Confederate flags would have gotten quite the same reception had they been in the U.S. In general though they were mostly innocuous and fun – Ghostbusters, sexy cops, zebras..
It being billed as the Parade of Debauchery, I did expect a little more, well, debauchery. Yes, there were lots of skimpy costumes but nothing as risqué as the ones I’ve seen coming out of Carnaval in Brazil. Admittedly, the temperature here is decidedly nippier!
Perhaps the most shocking thing to an outsider was the number of school-aged children taking part who were wearing sexy costumes and parading with a beer or cigarette in hand. When I was in school we at least had the decency to hide our short skirts and contraband until we were out of sight of our elders.
It was only at the end of the long parade that we finally got a taste of the anything-goes spirit, presumably because many of the parents with kids had already given up by then. All of a sudden, a surreal cluster of people rushed past in a cloud of prosthetic genitals and thrusting hips. There was a man wearing a vagina fondling himself, a man on the toilet with a porno mag and enormous hard-on, babies with boners, a nurse boinking an old man on a drip, another bedridden old man jacking off, a flasher with all sorts of craziness under his coat and a number of other costumes that went over my head, like the couple on a tandem with a basket full of pigs.
The parade closed out with a troop of glittering mermaids and mermen. They had been waiting in a side street behind us, practicing and larking around for an hour beforehand and so we’d gotten a close up of their dance moves, closely directed by a man in a blue sequin jacket. When they finally got the go ahead they jumped into formation and sparkled past us, closely followed by a colourful float bearing a waving drag queen in a huge billowing dress – the Carnaval Queen I can only assume.
We’d been watching the parade for three hours from its start point and only then did we see the first of the floats coming back around and ending their loop in the village square with explosions of confetti. Down on Carrer 1er Maig the party was only just beginning again. If there’s one thing you need in order to enjoy the Sitges Carnival, it’s stamina.
Sitges Carnival Tips
- The main party nights are Saturday (costume parties all over town), Sunday (Rue de la Disbauxa) and Tuesday (rua de L’extermini). In terms of parades Tuesday is generally said to be more spectacular. Although people dress up on all of these nights, Saturday is when most people go all out on their costumes and is when you won’t be upstaged by the parade costumes!
- Unless you’re impervious to cold or it’s a particularly warm winter, choose a costume that you’ll be warm in as you’ll be outside the whole night.
- You can get to Sitges from Barcelona on the R2 commuter train. It runs regularly from the Passeig de Gracia, Estacio de Franca and Sants stations. Timetables. Stay overnight or be prepared for long waits and packed trains on the way home.
- The center of the action is generally on and around Carrer 1er Maig
- Eat late in the evening (around 9.30pm) and pace yourself or you’ll be done and dusted before the night gets going!
- If you have your heart set on a restaurant, make reservations as these will be really busy nights.
- On parade nights, look up the route on a site like Visit Sitges and pick your spot. The beachfront will be less hectic because there is much more space but it’s fun to watch from the smaller streets as you’re closer to the action. If you watch from the small streets, arrive early because it will get crammed quickly.
- If you want to take pictures choose your spot carefully or risk them becoming a Santander commercial!
- If you decide to wait at the end of the parade, you don’t need to get there until at least two hours after the parade start time.