The Pilar Festival (Fiestas del Pilar) is celebrated every year on the 12th of October. During the week leading up to this official date Zaragoza comes alive with music, parades, flowers and theatre in honour of the Virgin of Pilar. The female patron saint of Spain is honoured with an abundance of flowers as the history and culture of Spain is remembered and celebrated. Trails of roses, lillies, orchids and gladiolus wind their way to the Plaza de Pilar as an offering to the Virgin.
The reason for this internationally recognized festival has its origins back in 40 AD when St James the Apostle came to this area to spread Christianity to the mostly Pagan population. On his journey in Aragonese territory, on the eve of January 2nd, the Virgin Mary is supposed to have appeared to him on a marble pillar and asked him to build a church on the land upon which he was standing. Initially a chapel was built around the pilar followed by ever grander churches over the centuries. Today the magnificent Basilica del Pilar which was designed in 1681 stands on this spot. Major alterations took place in the 18th century and the Basilica’s towers weren’t completed until the 20th century.
The pillar (Pilar) on which the Virgin descended is displayed inside the Holy Chapel (Capilla Santa) of the Basilica. This attracts hundereds of pilgrims every day who arrive to kiss a small piece of the pillar which isn’t protected.
During this wonderful celebration of culture and history, music and dance take to the streets. The music is not bound by one particular kind and you will hear reggae, jazz, pop, rock and folk to name but a few. Spontaneous flamenco dancing is common but a distinctive form of dancing that you’re unlikely to have come across is the Jota. This dance can be traced back to the 1600s although it has changed somewhat from its original form. You can join in the street celebrations and learn to dance the jota with the locals.
Another novelty is the procession of the giants and big heads (gigantes y cabezudos) in which huge papier mache figures join the carnival on the street and mingle with the crowds. Bull fighting is another aspect of this celebration because, as with many Spanish gatherings, the bull must make his appearance. He is quite a distinguished part of the Spanish history so a celebration without him wouldn’t be quite the same. Plays and theatre are another big part of this celebration often attracting famous actors and actresses who can often be spotted entertaining the crowds. The one act plays are particularly enjoyable.
If you’re going to be in Zaragoza for the week leading up to the Pilar festival then don’t forget to take your party clothes. Although the official date of the Pilar Festival is October 12th it lasts for around nine days with the evenings centred on an area of town known as “El Tubo” which is packed with bars and revellers. You should also pay a nightime visit to the Paseo de los Bearneses and enjoy its spectacularly lit fountain. Heavenly music compliments the lights and adjoining neighborhoods join in with their own fireworks.
Not only is October 12th celebrated as the ‘Día de Nuestra Señora del Pilar’ it is also the ‘Día de la Hispanidad’, a national celebration of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas.