The council’s leaflet says that the parade begins at 5.30 but the town guide says 5.00. Suspecting that, even if the latter is right, it won’t start on time, I drive down to town around 5.15 and park near the 5-ways crossing on the edge of the old quarter – the one where there is no apparent right of way. I cross the road - carefully negotiating the traffic which is carelessly negotiating the junction - and head up a narrow street alongside a family group which contains a young girl dressed as Minnie Mouse. The mother asks whether anyone else felt the drops of rain so I retrace my steps to get my umbrella from the car. I am now laden with a camera, a dog on a lead, a dictaphone and a book with which to while away the inevitable discontinuities of a Spanish event.
I pass a young man gaudily dressed as a drag queen. I know this because the previous evening I had zapped briefly into the nadir of Spanish TV, the annual national drag queen final in which 35 hopefuls dressed in eye-popping costumes mime to some aggressive pop tune or other. Atop the obligatory boots with huge soles and 9 inch heels, the young man is making slow progress. But at least he is staying upright, which is more than one of the contestants managed the previous evening, providing the only moment of interest in the 5 minutes viewing I could stomach.
As I approach the town square, I notice that the spectators alongside the designated route are still sparse. The locals are clearly even more sceptical than I am about the time things will kick off. By now I have seen a large repertoire of characters – cardinals, witches, smurfs, red indians, Arab sheikhs, nuns and even a pope or two, one of them arm in arm with an abbess. I consider taking up an early position on the steps of the church but I know this gets very crowded, making photography difficult, so I seek a more promising alternative. Just past the church there is a raised terrace in front of an elevated house but it is surrounded by railings and the entrance gate is padlocked. However, as there are already a few people on the terrace and as the fence is only a couple of feet high, I climb over it and encourage my dog to do likewise. Having briefly considered the challenge, he squeezes between two of the railings. No-one on the terrace looks at me as if they might have proprietorial rights so I move to the entrance steps of the house and position myself on the top of these. I am now above my co-spectators and at the same level as the people on the balconies of the houses across the road. And my view is relatively unimpaired. My dog is doing his best to lie on one of the steps but he is distracted by a young boxer bitch which has dragged its owner over to us and which is trying to engage him in play. My dog adopts his normal approach of pretending not to even notice the boxer but when she puts two playful paws on his back, he swivels his eye balls towards her and curls his lip, letting out a low but vicious snarl. The boxer’s owner drags her back in some alarm. I act as if I have seen nothing and make some adjustment to the camera lens.
It is now 5.45 and there is no sign of the parade. Loud music is coming from a stage in the main square, where a group is practising for the ear-shattering show that will begin around one in the morning, or perhaps as early as midnight. The large LCD screen I can see at the entrance to the square says that it is 12 degrees but then changes to 11. I am feeling a little cold. Every now and then there is a sprinkling of rain and the umbrellas go up in unison, doing nothing for my view. One by one, they then come down again. The light is fading and I wonder whether I will be able to get any pictures at all, with or without umbrellas in the foreground. I try to read my book but it is more interesting watching the toddler wriggling in its mother’s arms on one of the balconies opposite and wondering whether it is going to fall into the crowd on the pavement.
The crowd grows and more fairy tale characters appear – Pinocchio, Robin Hood [or at least one or two of his merry men], Mickey Mouse and many others. Several men wear rubber face masks and are dressed in suits with a sash across one shoulder. I wonder whether these are meant to be local – or even national – politicians and whether there is a satirical intent. Most impressive are the couples in rich regency costumes, many of whom have their faces covered by a sort of yashmak. I ponder whether this is a relic of a Muslim past or a way to disguise the sex of the wearer. There is a great deal of cross-dressing during these festivals and the streets are full of men in Day-Glo wigs, false breasts and mini skirts. This rather lends support to the view that, in a society where the male and female roles are so well defined, it is ironic how fascinated the Spanish are by transvestism
The boxer bitch is becoming irritating. As well-disciplined as any Spanish child, she ignores the exhortations of her owners to sit still and strains to get close to my dog. Every now and then, one of her pseudo-handlers looks at me rather imploringly and I ask myself whether they are trying to suggest that I leave the terrace so that they can get some peace. But I ignore them and the husband finally takes her off. I hope that he is taking her home but he merely walks around the terrace a time or two. This achieves nothing except a few minutes’ respite. My dog, meanwhile, lies on one of the steps with his face in his paws. He starts to shake like a black jelly. I know that he isn’t frightened and, with his thick coat, he can’t be cold. So I decide that this is his – sarcastic – way of telling me that he is bored rigid. I ignore him too.
Some time after 6, the faint sound of a band arrives from the direction of the parade and a shiver of anticipation runs through the crowd. Faces turn, umbrellas waver and a gentle murmur rises to our terrace. and then… the first float. To my astonishment, this is a small truck draped in the EU flag and decorated with pictures of Euro coins. Very festive, I think. Not something that would go down well terribly well in the UK. But at least it means that things can only get better. And they do. A float containing the carnival king and his retinue appears and small bags of goodies are thrown to crowd. These contain something soft like pastry, which is just as well as I am hit on the head by one as, in the rapidly failing light, I try to focus the camera. This seems to please my dog. Then a troupe of dancing girls appears and stops below the terrace. They are dressed in wonderful costumes but no one smiles. They remind me of their bonneted, thigh-slapping equivalents in the biennial midsummer carnival of my home town in the UK. But at least their skin is not blue with cold. In unison, they dance – if that is the word – on the spot, to the frenetic rhythm of a drum band on a float behind them. As ever with these parades, the participants are stationary for long periods, awaiting the whistle that will tell them to move on for a few yards before coming to another halt. No wonder they look bored. I can’t help wondering – with some sympathy – whether they don’t practice all year just so that they can spend 80 per cent of the parade going up and down on the same spot.
A glance at my light meter tells me that it would be hopeless to try to get any good pictures now. Which is a shame as down below me there is a bizarre group dressed in what seems to be an exaggerated version of the Galician peasant’s wet-weather garb of thickly plaited straw. One woman is ringed with enormous pine cones and I wonder whether they are genuine or not. The group is accompanied by the first bagpipe players of the evening, who are less well protected from the intermittent rain. They are not smiling either.
A school of mice goes past, eating huge corn cobs. Inexplicably, they are led by a man cross-dressed as a mini-skirted tart. Maybe he is their class teacher – and someone who would die rather than appear eccentric, or even unorthodox, outside the confines of a fiesta. Especially in this conservative town.
The rock music from the town square is now deafening but no-one seems to mind. A troupe of gaudily-dressed maracas players goes past, followed by six or seven Pierrot-type dancers in silky blue top hats, doing what I think is a sort of samba. Some of them are smiling. Then comes a little Dutch girl, complete with false blonde plaits under her white bonnet. She looks just like my sister did when she wore the same outfit for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation party in the field behind our house almost exactly 50 years ago. I look for the equivalent of me dressed as a Dutch boy in baggy pants and cardboard clogs but he doesn’t make an appearance. I am a little relieved as I would have hated to miss the photo opportunity because of the poor light.
Given the huge variety of colourful characters filing past me, it dawns on me that it is a little odd that I haven’t yet seen anything resembling an Inca or an Aztec. Or even a Mexican. But, then again, perhaps it isn’t so strange. As I ponder this, we are joined by a man with what looks like an ultra miniature Yorkshire terrier inside his coat, possibly a puppy. Inevitably, the people around him become all maternal and I feel like vomiting. I recall my brother’s comment that it’s amazing what you see when you don’t have your rifle with you.
A man passes, pushing a fish stall with what appears to be real fish on it. At least they don’t mind the rain. And then a weaving Chinese dragon, whose occupants are similarly care-free, being very protected from the elements. And then a truly huge penny-farthing bike which is supported by what were called stabilisers on the kids’ first bikes. My hand holding the dictaphone is getting colder and colder and I wonder whether to move on, possibly home. A man leans down to stroke my dog’s head. My dog completely ignores him. It is looking less and less of a good idea to have brought him. He’s well past the stage of being impressed by any interest in him, especially when he wants to demonstrate how bored he is. I am beginning to have some sympathy for him. But decline to show it.
Some parents just below me hoist kids on their head and look back at me on the steps, as if to ask me to give up my prime position. I adopt a Spanish - or canine - approach and ignore them. The young boxer tries to chew my umbrella. and gets smacked for her trouble.
I decide that it would be a good idea to leave my perch and walk towards the end of the procession, in the general direction of home. I raise my umbrella and take a short cut through the town’s newly pedestrianised centre, which the mayor assured us was going to be finished for Christmas but wasn’t. And, with Easter round the corner, still isn’t. My dog seems immeasurably happier, especially as I let him off the lead so that he can sniff the piles of rubble. Heady with pleasure he walks right into the path of an oncoming car. I suppose he thought that, this being a pedestrianised area, he was safe to wander. I rescue him and try explain to him that this is Spain but it seems to make no difference. It being way past the time of his evening feed, he ignores me and, with some success, proceeds to scour the pavement for food scraps.
In an electrical goods shop a woman is shaving her face in one of the TV screens and it strikes me that this is an ad – I suppose – that I have not yet seen. I walk on and emerge on the main street to find that I have been watching the supporting acts for the past hour or two. Here, at last, are the big floats – Eskimos emerging from igloos, a gallows enactment, a cabaret scene from the 30s, complete with Nazis, Sherwood forest [or something similar], a host of Elvis imitators, and many more. Infectious humour and great ingenuity on display. I realise that this is the way to do the parade – to compensate for the dreadful discontinuity of the event by walking along the pavement in the opposite direction to the floats. And suddenly I am no longer thinking ‘Rio or New Orleans this surely ain’t’ but ‘Well, this may not be quite Rio or New Orleans but it is certainly impressive’. I am helped by the fact that, while the rain may not be dampening the spirits of the float occupants, it has driven the spectators under the shop awnings, leaving the pavement free for me and my dog.
Fittingly, the last float depicts an Andalucian bullfight and is bedecked with Spanish flags. And a few metres behind this, two small machines are already hoovering up the considerable debris. An unexpected demonstration of civic efficiency. More content than I feared I would be, I cut through the old quarter – a place I love – in the direction of the Roman bridge that gives the town its name. I notice that there is a modern art exhibition in one of the old mansions recently converted into a branch of the town museum and I resolve to come back tomorrow to take a look. Being rather peckish, I am tempted to call in at my favourite tapas bar for some seafood. But, as I will have to leave the dog outside, I press on towards the compensatory meal of egg and chips I have been thinking about for the last hour. Quite why, I don’t know. It’s not something I eat much these days. Perhaps it’s the ‘Gras’ in ‘Mardi Gras’.
Being even more peckish, my dog is looking forward to the same dry food he gets twice a day every day of the year. It’s a dog’s life. But what can he expect? At least he gets out from time to time.