Friday, March 18, 2011

Aste Nagusia Bilbao

Aste Nagusia or Big Week is the third week in August when in each town in The Basque Country the summer-long fiestas are held. For ten days the city centre is bursting with people, young and old, enjoying a mix of traditional Basque music, dance and sports that line the main streets. The sound of the accordion fills the air while groups of dancers in traditional white costumes with red sashes, berets and espadrilles jump and kick in unison. If you are feeling peckish, you could head over to one of the cooking competitions where local chefs compete to produce the best bacalao al pil-pil (cod in a garlic sauce) or merluza en salsa verde (hake in green sauce). And if you are feeling particulary adventurous you could try your hand at bull fighting. Once the sun has set, huge crowds gather for the daily firework displays as pyrotechnic teams from the surrounding villages compete for the 'best display' award. And then the party begins. The bar staff in the txosnas serve up beer, wine and kalimotxo (red wine and Coke) to the thirsty punters.

A word of warning: don't wear any clothes that you actually care about. Drinks come in large, plastic cups shared among groups and the chances of you surviving in the night without large red stains down your top are small.
The singing, dancing and drinking carries on until the not-so-early hours of the morning. The week ends with the burning of Marijaia, a rosy-cheeked mascot of the fiesta, outside the Arriaga theatre.
One aspect of Aste Nagusia that stood out for me was the lack of a conspicuous police presence as compared to, say, the Notting Hill Carnival where it can feel like there are as many police as carnival-goers. There is a real family atmosphere during both the day and night. And while Asta Nagusia might not be as well-known as the Tomatina or San Fermin festivals, the opportunity of joining in with a whole city at play for a week is one not to pass up on.

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