Big Week, Big Time: Understanding the tall and short of San Sebastian’s summer festival of ‘pura alegria’.
August 13-20, 2016
Compared to many deeply rooted festivals in Spain, Semana Grande’s history in San Sebastian is relatively short-lived. It began in the mid 20th century. But it has picked up speed and given rise to many beloved traditions. The events and ambience continue to entrance and entertain both locals and visitors alike for one week every August. The Big Week is absolutely packed with festivities, markets, contests, competitions, concerts and a general sense of joie de vivre which make it a high point of summer. Long known as a summer retreat for the aristocracy and elite who returned each year to settle into their villas, San Sebastian began to attract a new type of visitor who came for just a week or even a weekend and was in need of a hotel and restaurants and events like the Semana Grande festival became a lure. The idea of a short escape caught on and continues year round due to the city’s other traditional and modern-day festivals, as well as the intrigue of Basque culture and gastronomy.
There are some essentials you should know before you throw yourself into the excitement of Semana Grande. We wanted to share them with you so you can arrive with the necessary background to better navigate your way through the festival program, the streets and the city!
One of the world's best fireworks competitions takes place every night at 10:45pm during the festival. Renown fireworks firms come from all over the world to participate. In addition to Spanish companies this year’s competitors come from France, Italy, Bulgaria and Portugal. There's an official jury and a popular vote so you can have your two cents worth!
‘El Cañonazo’ & El Concurso Internacional de Fuegos Artificiales (International Fire Works Contest)
Let the festivities begin! The sounding of the ‘cannon’ on August 13th, 2016 at 7pm in the Alderdi Eder gardens officially commences Semana Grande and one of the most important festivals of San Sebastian’s calendar. Stick around and you’ll be entertained by an impressive lineup of firework productions provided by several international companies all competing to get the biggest awe out of the audience. This contest continues each evening in the same gardens so no matter when you arrive during the week, you’ll have a chance to be impressed should you wish.
‘Los Gigantes’ and ‘Los Cabezudos’.
The Giants and the ‘Big Heads’ become the protagonists of the city’s cobblestone streets several times during the festivities. 8 foot tall giants manned by teams of dedicated puppeteers who pilot the heavy costumed armatures depicting Basque couples from the provinces of Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya, Alava and Navarra as they parade through the streets and dance to the sounds of the txistu a Basque flute. They are accompanied by the Big Heads who roam the neighborhoods with inflated pig bladders with which they occasionally whack children - and unwary adults !
Taurina/o is one of those great Spanish words that cannot be directly translated into English. It envelops anything related to toros and corridas de toros: bulls and bull fighting. In fact, the Taurino world in Spain is very much a universe with it’s own dictionary of terms. The Feria Taurina of San Sebastian takes place during the first half of the weeklong event. Similar to many towns in Northern Spain, bull fighting here has lost much of its fanfare and followers in the last few decades. So this is one of the few times a year that a corrida is included in San Sebastian’s culture. And when it does, the event shares a home in the Illumbe Stadium along with the city’s professional basketball team. Seats tend to sell out and range from 70 to 500 euros depending on the bullfighters of the day and whether you sit in ‘sol’ (the sunny section) or ‘sombra’ (the shady section).
Herri Kirolak. The what?
Basque rural regional sports are celebrated in town plazas all over the region during local festivals and furthermore are practiced in plazas and on farms all year round. Both team and individual activities resonate with the physical tests of strength and endurance of traditional county fairs of other parts of the world (ie. chopping trunks, tug-of-war). However, there seems to remain an element in the Basque Country that is slightly more loyal to the brute tasks of old and even ancient labor practices. How about Zaku lasterketa meaning contraband races? With an ode to the harrowing runs of smugglers in the pre-EU days between the nearby border of Spain and France, competitors must race while carrying sacks of salted fish etcetera on their backs. While other teams are challenged to synchronize to literally drag massive boulders across the ground.
These are typical fiestas in plazas that are often hosted by parishioners of nearby churches and neighborhoods. The parties are good fun to join in on, a great way to mix with the locals and they often include simple and delicious homemade food and traditional music and dancing. You will find a few romerias on the program scheduled to take place in the centrally located plaza of the old town, Plaza de la Constitución.
Encierro de Toros de Fuego
And the Spanish obsession with the bull continues! However this time in a less serious fashion. The ‘encierro’ refers to the event of the ‘running of the bulls’ through village and town streets in the Basque Country and the neighboring Navarra region. The tradition became world famous due to Ernest Hemingway’s love affair with such a festival in nearby Pamplona. In the meantime, the human runners voluntarily jump out in front of the bulls attempting to duck into safety or outrun the beasts as long as possible without getting trampled or gored to kingdom come. Does that sound enticing? If not, don’t despair, for over 30 years now in San Sebastian this tradition has taken on more of a sense of humor than risk. The Toros de Fuego are actually paper mache bulls with a sparkler system attached. All this strapped onto the backs of the locals who run through the streets and between spectators. There are several evenings during the week where you can be a part of the silliness as the encierro passes through the central areas of the city.
A dance borrowed from Navarra performed in town plazas with a resemblance to the ‘Cerdana’, another traditional dance of French and Spanish Catalunya. Arms raised and outstretched, dancers move simultaneously making circular formations with lots of light-footed hopping and toe tapping. Mainly air instruments are used for melody. These dances are worlds away or rather in terms of Spain’s diversity only, regions away from the passionate flare of flamenco. They represent the more reserved culture that the north of the country as well as neighboring regions of France are perhaps stereotyped for. Regardless of generalizations, jotas are beautiful and dainty to watch with community participants of all ages involved.
A Maritime city in heart and soul, there will be several sea based or seaside events and competitions taking place during the week. From swimming races to kayak traverses, beach volleyball and beach rugby tournaments, even pirate parties!
Although it is not found in English, your Tenedor Team will be happy to answer questions about it while you’re here in town!