Today is the day when people dress in costume for the biggest party of the year, a celebration dating back to San Sebastián’s darkest hour when the city was razed to the ground in 1813 during the Napoleonic wars.
Even though San Sebastián is widely known for its beaches and amazing food, it is so much more than a summer resort town. It is a city with a rich culture people are proud to sing and march to every year during the Tamborrada.
More than 200 years ago, San Sebastián used to be a walled city, which was great for trade but not so good for defense, as it turned out. When Napoleon conquered Europe, he seized San Sebastián as well.
The city still has a distinctly French feel, reflected in the architecture, certain dishes and the stories surrounding the Tamborrada.
As you would expect, relations between soldiers and citizens reached an all-time low when the French took over the city. Legend has it that San Sebastián used to have two fountains and that every morning, the women would come to fill up their barrels of water while the French soldiers marched by, banging on their drums and annoying the locals every single day. In revenge, the locals decided to mock the French invaders. Bakers would take out their rolling pins while the townsfolk used their knives, forks and spoons to bang on the barrels. Nowadays, a song is sung to commemorate this.
Gastronomic societies -sociedades- have been responsible for keeping the tradition alive. They are traditionally exclusive dining clubs for men only, with a kitchen where friends gather to eat and drink heartily and enjoy some singing and good company. Every year, each sociedad hosts its own mini-parade. Even though sociedades have helped keep the tradition alive, you no longer have to belong to a sociedad to be able to take part in the celebration.
Wearing traditional Basque attire for the Tamborrada is very important. Women dress up as farmers’ wives while men get togged up as French soldiers or cooks.
No-one knows why but almost every year it rains or pours. The Tamborrada starts on the stroke of midnight of January 19th and goes on for 24 hours non-stop until midnight the next day. All night and throughout the next day, the sound of drums echoes through the city. More than 15,000 people in 125 bands play three traditional Tamborrada songs, which they are only allowed to perform on this day.
One of the most impressing places to go on the 20th of January is the 31 de agosto street in the Old Quarter, the only street with buildings that survived the fire and final battle. This street has the most parades, marching and singing and people play to commemorate the time when the English and Portuguese drove Napoleon’s forces out of the city, but burnt the city down in the process. They recall those who survived, fought for San Sebastián and rebuilt a city that is now open to the world.
As San Sebastian Day draws to a close, everyone gathers in Plaza de la Constitución where it all began 24 hours earlier, to sing the city's song, celebrate and keep their history alive, a fine example of turning tragedy into triumph!
If you have a chance to join this festivity, you’ll not only enjoy it but also understand how history has shaped the Basque way of life. It is a heartfelt celebration, not just a party. It is a day when the city gathers and people remember who they are and why they are proud of being Basque. It is part of their identity and the people of San Sebastián unite to the beat of the drums.
United, here we are
Here we are too
We’re always happy
There’s a San Sebastián in the sky
There’s only one San Sebastian in the world
This is the saint
and we are the people.
This is our Donostia.