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Giants, carnations and dancing at Madrid's San Isidro Festival!

Updated: May 15

✦ See Madrid at its most traditional and authentic in May at the festivities celebrating its patron saint, San Isidro, a 12th century farmer.

Brilliant-Online Content Writer Yann Tyng has been living in Spain for the past 16 years and this year was the first time she went to check out what the San Isidro Festival is all about. May 15th is the bank holiday for San Isidro Festival, and here are a few snapshots into what you can see at this festival!

With spring in the air and many more hours of sunshine, May is a great time for celebrations and festivities. In Madrid, Spain, the people celebrate the Fiesta of San Isidro, and in true blue Madrileño style, there's lots of music, food, drinking, singing, and dancing!

Not being a big fan of crowds, I set off early in the morning and took the metro to the main area where the festivities were - the Pradera de San Isidro. The word 'pradera' means 'meadow' and in our modern day city life we won't be seeing a meadow but a long wide road with the traffic blocked off and where street market stalls are set up along the sides, with another area set up with a stage and seats for a concert. Even in the metro, you can already see some Spaniards dressed in their traditional costumes so all I had to do was follow them! Everyone got off at the metro station Marqués de Vadillo and I literally just tailed anyone who was in a costume and found my way easily to the Pradera!

Spaniards in chulapa and chulapo | Brilliant-Online
Follow the red carnation!

Wear a carnation

One thing that you'll notice during this festival is the presence of the red carnation flower. It's the national flower of Spain, and you'll see many people wearing one at this festival. Take note though, there is a secret code embedded in these flowers!

  • 2 red carnations means you're married

  • 2 white carnations means you're single

  • 1 red and 1 white means...(yes you've guessed it!) you're in a relationship

  • 2 red carnations and 1 white means you're a widow

  • And little girls wear 1 pink carnation

Stalls selling red carnations  | Brilliant-Online

There were lots of stalls along the road selling these carnations for a euro, so if you've forgotten to bring yours you can easily get one there. And it wasn't just the women who were wearing the carnations! Madrid has quite a spirit of fun that spreads to everyone, and there were pet dogs wearing carnations, and young men (tourists) who cheekily pinned a carnation in their hair too!

Chulapas and chulapos

That's the next thing you'd see at this festival. The women wear the traditional 'chulapa' dress, and the men wear the 'chulapo' suit. The chulapa consists of a long dress with polka dots, a headscarf and a carnation, and they sometimes also wear an embroidered Manila shawl. A chulapo suit includes a waistcoat, a cap, a neckerchief and also a carnation in the lapel.

Chulapas and chulapos traditional Spanish costumes as featured in Brilliant-Online

What is really adorable is seeing children, toddlers and even babies dressed up in these traditional costumes! And dogs too, of course!

Dance the chotis!

Madrid's traditional dance is called the 'chotis'. This is danced in pairs facing each other. The woman dance around her male partner who does not move from his spot. You can see couples dancing at the San Isidro festival dotted here and there! Check out this video if you want to learn how to dance the chotis!

Giants galore!

At this festival, you'll see what the Spaniards call 'Gigantes y Cabezudos', meaning 'giants and big heads'. They are basically large figures in fancy dress, and the 'cabezudos' are dolls with papier mache heads. They parade through the centre of Madrid along with live music playing. If you're lost, just follow the giants. You can't miss them!

Gigantes y Cabezudos | Brilliant-Online
Getting a giant's eye view of the festival!

Donut, anyone?

A typical sweet eaten during this festival is the 'rosquillas'. They look like little donuts (baked or fried bread) and nowadays they come in all kinds of flavours such as coffee, pistachio, strawberry and orange.

Rosquillas San Isidro | Brilliant-Online

The original ones include two types called 'tontas' and 'listas', which strangely enough when translated mean 'silly' and 'clever'. The 'silly' ones are just a simple dough without any coating or syrup while the 'clever' ones have a layer of sweet covering on the top.

Here's a recipe for rosquillas if you're in the mood for some Spanish sweets! All you need is some flour, eggs, butter, baking powder, sugar, lemon, water and vegetable oil. Whether you want to make it 'silly' or 'clever' that's up to you!

Grilled meats

Along the street markets you'll also find stalls with huge grills set up, with all kinds of meat, sausages, and offals. Okay, some of you may balk at the idea of offals, but it's quite typical to see what they call 'entresijos' and 'gallinejas' which are lamb mesentery and lamb intestines. The smells of barbecued meats fill the air as you follow the parade, and the stalls selling these meats also have some seating areas so you can stop for lunch without having to get out of the festivities area.

It's also common to see families bring their own food for a picnic up on the park near the festivities. This is the best time of the year to have a picnic as the temperatures are just right.

Being with community

At the end of the day, the Spaniards love any reason to celebrate, enjoy good food and drinking, and most importantly, to be with people. They are often seen with family, friends and even if you went somewhere alone, people are friendly and it's easy to start a conversation with people around you. Go to a bar, go to a local festival and everyone's open and ready to enjoy and have fun. They truly embrace and appreciate Carpe Diem, and take their rest and relax time seriously. It's not a luxury. It's a necessity and a part of life.

Spaniards at a bar  | Brilliant-Online

With mental health and wellbeing being given so much priority nowadays, perhaps we can take a leaf out of their books and learn how to fully live. The Spaniards have been given quite a bit of flack and are often misunderstood to be people who take endless siestas and barely work. Maybe it's time to relook at the glorification of workaholism and running-hamster-in-the-wheel work culture and bring some balance to how we live our lives.

Puente de Toledo  | Brilliant-Online
See your city in a new light (view from Puente de Toledo)

Are there any local festivals where you live which you've never been to or not gotten to know well yet? Why not do some local tourism for a change and see your city in a new light?




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