Tour guide @ San Sebastián Urban Adventures. Just another Basque hoping to explore the world. Passionate gamer, repressed prose writer, and language nerd.
If you’ve done your Basque research, then you probably know that San Sebastián’s most important tradition is Donostia Eguna (San Sebastián Day) on January 20th. But that’s not the only day of celebration in our city. Month after month, there are different events bringing joy to our streets — but there’s one time of the year, while it’s (sometimes) sunny and warm, that San Sebastián throws the biggest party of the year.
Semana Grande, or Aste Nagusia in Basque, is the big party celebrated in the main cities of the Basque Country. Three weeks of endless parties are waiting for you during this “Big Week.” Typically celebrated in the following order, these are the dates for 2017: 4 August to 10 in Vitoria-Gasteiz, 12 August to 19 in San Sebastián-Donostia, and 19 August to 27 in Bilbao.
Here in San Sebastián, faithful locals will be grabbing ice creams while watching the annual mesmerising fireworks competition; eager pirates wait to conquer La Concha and challenge their rivals on a race to the shore; and concerts are performed in the port and in Sagüés (end of Zurriola). Sleeping is not allowed until long after the sun sets. But it’s not all wild parties — the celebrations are family-friendly and packed with culture. Here are the highlights of this year’s programme.
The Cannon Shot
The Cannon Shot happens on the opening day of the local fiestas. Donostiarras all meet in front of City Hall, by the exotic gardens of Alderdi Eder, long before the cannon fire echoes in the sky. The artillerymen light up the cannon at 7pm, and everyone cheerfully sings, marking a joyful beginning to the celebrations. Join the locals and take part in the kick-off by following the festive bands through the streets of the city centre and the Old Town.
Fire bulls and pig bladders
Walking through the Old Town on a late morning could lead to bumping into local bands, exhibitions and even tortilla or paella competitions. Check out the 10th anniversary of the Marmitako contest, happening August 19th in Plaza Gipuzkoa (10am to 7pm), and try the most delightful tuna with potatoes and vegetables, enjoyed like a true Basque fisherman’s meal. From txistularis (Basque traditional flautists) to bertsolaris (improvisers of Basque verse), you will have more than one opportunity to experience the true San Sebastián culture.
The giants and “big-heads” (daily, 6pm to 8pm) will impress you with their spooky cardboard and papier-maché heads, and will try to hit you with their inflated pig bladders. (Yes, really.) The giants dance, leaving the crowd oohing, while the big-heads torment the spectators. The children typically love them, so if you want to have a very Spanish celebration, engage with the big-heads — let them catch you, or run far from them. The fun is in the chase but getting hit by their pig bladders is also part of the tradition.
At night, come to Plaza Cervantes by Hotel Londres for the running of the fire bulls. The organisers of this tradition carry a figure of a fierce bull loaded with fireworks and firecrackers. While the band plays, “the bulls” run from the bay towards the Boulevard, dancing as they run to the rhythm of the music.
Fire in the sky
For many years now, San Sebastián has offered a magical international fireworks competition, starring pyrotechnic companies from all over the world. This year, our guests will come from Granada, Castellón, Valencia, A Coruña, Italy and China to impress us with their glorious fireworks displays.
We recommend getting a delicious ice cream in any of the local shops by the Boulevard and going to the port, La Concha and Ondarreta areas quite early (by 10:15pm at the latest). Be patient with the crowds, especially right after the fireworks have ended; local services will come out to clean the streets in Alderdi Eder to ensure everyone’s safety as they head home.
Can you imagine the chaos of thousands of local pirates racing to La Concha on improvised boats? August 14th is Pirates’ Day in San Sebastián. “Pirates” meet early in the morning by the port in big groups of friends, locally called kuadrilak. The goal is simple: to build the most resistant boat so that it will survive a race to the shore as well as the boarding of rival pirates.
Pirates bring the materials to build their rafts, and enjoy an abundant lunch, drink some rum or Basque cider, and come back to the meeting point around 4pm, when the race begins. If you can’t participate in this event, make sure to watch the pirates — but from a safe distance or they will loot all your riches!
Let the music play
San Sebastián manages to bring big bands to the stage in Zurriola. This year, performers like La Oreja de Van Gogh and Chenoa, and local bands like Gozategi, will visit us for the week. Their melodies will fill the streets and be heard from every corner in Gros. View the detailed itinerary, which kicks off at 11:45pm in Sagüés.
Last but not least, while the concerts in Sagüés only last a few hours, from midnight to 4am, the acoustic boxes in Kursaal won’t stop buzzing the tunes of amazing DJs! Similarly, all night long more bands will hit the stage in the port, with rock and punk melodies, characteristic of local music tastes.
Beyond the above, here are some other activities you might find interesting during this year’s celebrations:
- Hair braiding and face painting workshop for children (every morning from 11am to 1pm in Kursaal)
- Children’s fairground (10am to 6pm) on Urdaneta Street
- Fairground and booths in Paseo Nuevo
- Street markets all day long
- Zurriola Street Food, with vegan options, gourmet hamburgers, international food and many other choices (August 17, Kursaal)
Of course, all Semana Grandes in the Basque Country are great parties, but in San Sebastián, we are proud to say our Big Week is probably one of merriest parties of all. But because of its size and raucousness, you’ll also want to stay safe. If you need any emergency assistance during these celebrations, these are the following numbers you should be saving into your cellphone:
- Emergency assistance: 112
- Ertzaintza (local police): 943 538 606
- Municipal Guard: 092
- Country code (Spain): 0034
In the Basque Country, sexual assaults are not tolerated, and the Semana Grande organisers are raising awareness — there’s even a #noesno hashtag. If you’re being harassed and don’t feel comfortable, remind them our motto: NO means NO. If you fear you might be in danger, ask for help and report it to the local authorities.