Pandemic rains on Spain's glittering Epiphany parades

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For children, it's the most wonderful time of the year, when Spaniards turn out to welcome the gift-laden Three Kings. But this year's glittering parades have been torpedoed by the pandemic.

In Spain, it's not Father Christmas nor Christmas Eve that beguiles the children, but Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar who arrive bearing gifts on the night of January 5.

Every year, millions flock to the streets across Spain to watch fairytale parades welcome the royal visitors with music, dancing and bucketloads of sweets that are hurled into the excited crowds.

But with all outdoor gatherings banned to slow the spread of the virus this year, officials across the country have been scrambling for creative ways to keep the magic of "Reyes" alive.

- Kings sail into Barcelona -

In Barcelona, organisers had been working on a detailed plan since the summer, fearing even back then that life would not yet have returned to normal come January.

"It's a really traditional celebration -- total madness, a real family event with dancing, lights, floats and everyone packing the streets to watch," said Esteve Carames, in charge of Barcelona's Reyes festivities, which normally sees 700,000 people massed along the three-kilometre (two-mile) route.

This year, however, the Three Kings arrived by boat, an event broadcast live from Barcelona's port on TV, which then screened footage of a parade recorded in advance.

Barcelona also set up an open-air amusement park based on The Three Kings. With a capacity for 400 visitors, it has lights, music and scenery, but no actors and nothing that can be touched.

The 50,000 free tickets to enter the park, which is open from December 28 to January 5, were snapped up in just four hours.

This year's festivities have been more expensive than usual given the extended duration of the events, costing roughly 1.2 million euros ($1.5 million) compared with 800,000 euros in a normal year.

In other cities -- including Seville and Cordoba -- the kings arrived in hot-air balloons.

- Behind closed doors -

In Madrid, where hundreds of thousands usually throng the streets, City Hall broadcast on a live televised event inside a cultural centre with no spectators.

"It is the most special night of the year and we wanted the magic to be felt throughout the city," said Andrea Levy, one of the capital's top cultural advisers.

And fireworks will be set off "to mark the arrival of the Magi", she said.

Many other places either filmed events ahead of time or relayed it live -- as they are doing in the southeastern city of Alcoi, home to one of the oldest parades in Spain, dating back to 1866.

Other places have turned to social networks to post videos for children or to organise games.

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