This last Saturday, Helen and I, along with her parents, headed to the third night of Las Fiestas Virgen de la Paloma, one of Madrid’s most popular local festivals and essentially the biggest party of August.
My first experience of the Fiestas de la Paloma was back in 2018, when Helen and I accidentally stumbled upon it not realizing what weekend it was. The festival, from August 11 to August 15, builds to one of Spain’s main national holidays, the Assumption of Mary (or Assumption Day). Being a majority Catholic country, celebrations of Mary (Marian feast days) take a central role in Spanish society, even if day-to-day religious practice is majorly on the wane. They usually involve parades, religious plays, and Mass.
While Saint Isidro is officially the patron saint of Madrid, the Virgin de la Paloma (Virgin of the Dove) occupies a similar, albeit unofficial role for Madrileños (citizens of Madrid). As such, the Paloma festivals are essential the city’s biggest block party and not-quite-end-of-summer celebration.
The festivities takes place in Barrio de La Latina, among Madrid’s most active and developed neighborhoods (it makes my own Puerta del Angel look positively sleepy). Situated around Plaza de la Paja, the festival stretches past the Royal Basilica of Saint Francis the Great and to the Church of the Virgen de la Paloma. At that second church, there is a famous image of the Virgin Mary over its altar, from which the church and the festivals derive their name.
While La Paloma is ostensibly Catholic, the parties themselves aren’t particularly religious. Mostly, they’re an excuse for locals and visitors to drink beer, eat various grilled meats (lots of roasted full pigs on display), try their hand at carnival games, and watch traditional music and dance performances, like the El Chotis, a Madrileño folk dance that’s origins go back to Polka. At night, there are also concerts on a mainstage to show off various local performers, from flamenco to rock.
A fair warning to anyone planning future visits to any Spanish festivals: If you want to eat, show up early. Spain is a country of exact timings, and the only thing more rigid than dinnertime (22:00) is lunchtime (14:00). If you go for dinner at the standard time, expect to wait in line for 30 minutes, easy. On the plus side, if you’re even 10 minutes early, your wait will be cut in half.
(This is a general rule for eating in Madrid any day of the year. If you don’t have a reservation and want to get a table for lunch, show up at 13:45 and you’ll be all good.)
The Return of the Festivals of the Virgin of Paloma
In 2020, las Fiestas de la Paloma were canceled due to COVID-19. Still reeling from the ongoing pandemic, 2021 brought the return of the festivals, but in a very restricted manner. There were strict capacity limits for most of the events, even outdoors.
So, seeing the bustling, mostly unmasked crowds at the festival this year really drove it home: Madrid, and probably Spain in general, has officially entered the post-COVID era. That’s not to say COVID is gone (it never will be), or even that people should stop caring about COVID (I’d expect at least a mini-surge in winter). But people definitely have stopped caring.
To be fair, at 86% of the population, Spain does have one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe (and the world). Though the country was pummeled by the first few rounds of COVID, life in Spain has mostly felt like it’s been back to “normal” for a while now. But this weekend at La Paloma was the first time it was so in my face.
We were among the unmasked cohorts; there were maybe a handful of attendees wearing masks. In Madrid, mascaras are only required on public transportation and in pharmacies. Perhaps that’s a mistake; maybe the long-term effects of COVID will prove masking should’ve been a permanent part of our lives. But, hey, no one ever accused humanity of being farsighted.
(I realize for many Americans, the idea that any COVID precautions would still be in effect sounds insane.)
For now, at least, it really does feel like we’ve truly entered the post-COVID era. Not an era where COVID doesn’t exist, but an era where the hospitals aren’t overwhelmed, vaccines are readily available, and serious cases are few and far between. Famous last words? Guess we’ll see.
Fiestas de la Paloma 2022
If the last 2 years has reinforced anything, it’s that we live in uncertain times. It’s a frequent topic of conversation, the fact that lifestyles that were once taken for granted are no longer the norm. It’s not just the pandemic. The Great Recession and its ripple effects, the rapid technological advancements, the widening global reach of culture, all of it has wildly reshaped what it means to live, even just from a generation ago.
So, it’s interesting to walk through something like the Fiestas de la Paloma and see the vestiges of the past still holding on. The elderly chotis dancers were doing their part, performing their routines in classical attire. And there were younger people helping out, too, like the 20-something-year-old girls wearing manila shawls and traditional dresses.
The purpose of the various Spanish festivals is to continually reinforce the ever-fraying threads that connect the past and the present. Many Madrileños will return to La Paloma year after year, growing up with it from childhood to adulthood to parenthood, bringing their own offspring to an event that makes some concessions to the changing world but largely remains the same. They’ll come because it doesn’t change.
Likewise, posts like this by writers like me are meant to be evergreen, something that aims for the first page of search results when someone googles “Fiestas de la Paloma Madrid”. A good travel blog (which 10 Cities/10 Years is categorically not) is always looking for that perennial hit post, and that means writing about these kinds of static cultural events.
But, how static is it, really? The festivals themselves are relatively new, having grown out of the religious processions surrounding Assumption Day; the Paloma Festivals only started at the end of the 20th century. So, while it’s now a mainstay of Madrid culture, it’s a relative baby in terms of Spanish tradition. What will La Paloma look like in the future; in the unknowable 2023, and the unimaginable 2053?
Spain is a country that is notoriously slow to embrace change, but it feels like all of us are being carried on an unstoppable wave to a foreign future (and not just because sea levels are rising). So, will I be returning to the Fiestas de la Paloma in 30 years, or will we have all evacuated the city to escape the fire-breathing lava monsters that rise up out of the heat-scorched Earth? It’s really anyone’s guess.