Hooray, it's nearly Lent. Admittedly not words you often hear in the same sentence. Bear with us, there is a point to our seeming madness. Lent; 46 days of self-imposed deprivation, you choose what to lose and you've got as much time as you could ever need to contemplate the virtue of your sacrifice - that's 5 days feeling holier than thou and 41 days of hatchet faced bitter resentment.
But - and this is the good bit - before virtue comes vice, just so you know how bad things could really get if you didn't rein it in occasionally. And at some point someone, somewhere decided the best way to highlight the error of our excesses was to party it up big style for days on end and call it a carnival.
As a universal celebration of how down and mad with it we can get, you've got to admit carnival is not a half bad idea. But if you've done Venice, tv's Treme'd you out and Rio's on the list, just not yet. Then where to go, for a blow out before it's time for sackcloth and ashes?
Barcelona, of course, and for two very good reasons; Catalans are party people to their very core and Barcelona is about the most fiercely independent city in the world so it's not going to celebrate Carnival like anywhere else, is it?
For starters let's get the terminology right. Don't be running around asking the good people of Barcelona about Carnival, it's Carnestoltes. As a side note, Catalan is widely spoken in Barcelona so no one really expects you to use anything but your own language. Handy, if all the Spanish you've ever picked up could get you two beers, a milky coffee and some butter - at a push.
But that's enough general visitor information, back to Carnestoltes. In Barcelona the festivities last for 7 days (7th to 14th February this year) across the city's 7 districts, with each district symbolising one of the 7 deadly sins. You don't need to be Tom Hanks in the Da Vinci Code to work out the symbolism here (although he did get Audrey Tatou and a suite at the Ritz so there are obviously worse career choices).
But, don't expect a simple run through of the usual Greed, Sloth, Lust, Gluttony, Wrath, Envy and Pride. This is Barcelona and each district has its own twist on sin, turning vice into virtue and taking Carnestoltes right back to its 14th century roots. Because that's what Barcelona decided it wanted its carnival to be; a traditional community celebration for the people by the people, no Mardi Gras parade, lots of small parades, one Big Party, Santa Eulalia for the children and enough of the city left to escape into if you want to avoid the whole thing entirely.
La Ciutat Vella is the King of Carnestoltes' turf. It's Barcelona Old Town, the one most of us probably know best, and it's where you should be on Sunday 9th February round about 6pm for La Taronjada. All seven districts send their ambassadors parading through the city to meet up with the King and oversee a battle between vice and virtue using orange balloons and confetti as ammunition. Everyone battles but there are no victors, the King just announces the end and invites everyone to the Ball de Mascares. If you avoid everything else even slightly Carnestoltes, you shouldn't miss La Taronjada and the Masked Ball.
When it's not hosting medieval style carnival tomfoolery, La Ciutat Vella is where you'll find La Rambla. The most famous drag in Barcelona has cleaned up its act significantly over recent years because, quite frankly, the off duty footballer vibe was bringing down the Wrath of the Locals. It wouldn't be fair to suggest that you'll now find the 'true spirit' of Barcelona on La Rambla but if you're in La Ciutat Vella it's worth a look.
More than a passing glance should be given to the Barri Gòtic and El Raval. Gòtic is Medieval Barcelona with tiny streets (more like corridors really), no cars and iconic linked buildings. And El Raval is the La Ciutat Vella's oldest quarter and the place for diversity, vintage clothes, local bars and Gluttony.
To get right away from the King of Carnestoltes' stomping ground head for the hills and Tibidaba. The funicular runs all day and into the evening and links to the city's Metro system. The end of your journey is without a doubt the best all time view of Barcelona. But before you get too filled with Envy for those lucky enough to live way up here, check out the funfair. It doesn't open until March, but even so, if you're thinking more Scooby Doo than Alton Towers, you're not wrong.
L'Eixample is where you want to be if you Lust after a glimpse into the strange and wonderful mind of Antoni Gaudi. His work, grand, domestic and even simple street lamps, is all over Barcelona. But L'Eixample is where you'll find his masterpiece La Sagrada Familia and at this time of year they might even let you in.
The 13th is Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. So if you've indulged heartily in the revelry of Carnestoltes, today's the last day to Sloth your way to recovery before the serious business of abstinence begins. Best place to be lazy with a purpose is Ciutadella Park, home to Barcelona Zoo, the Museum of Modern Art and the seat of the Catalan Parliament. Ciutadella Park is also the venue for L'Enterro de la Sardina. No, your linguistic skills have not failed you. It does mean 'The burial of the Sardine'. A traditional ritual all over Spain on Ash Wednesday and celebrated in Barcelona with a boisterous children's party, entertainment, Catalan music, dancing and general 'for tomorrow we may die' style merriment.
If Barcelona doesn't sate your carnival Greed, about 50km up the road the town of Sitges celebrates in the same week but in a very different way. This is 'alternative' Carnestoltes and the Pride of local people and Sitges' Gay community. If you're made of stern stuff stay the week. But for most of us a day's just fine, because if anything could make you appreciate the tranquillity of Lent it's the hedonistic excess of Sitges.
And there you have it; Carnestoltes Barcelona, in a themed package with enough symbolism and tenuous links to make Dan Brown pea green with envy. Enjoy your vices, savour your virtues and dance the 'hustle bustle' - apparently that's what the King of Carnestoltes commands you do at the end of La Taronjada, but we think it might have lost something in translation. If not, let us know.
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