It was once said that if you wanted to see what a town looked like when everyone living there had had a glass too many, then just pay a visit to Bilbao during Semana Grande – or Aste Nagusia, as they’re as likely to refer to it. Every year during nine days in the middle of August, more than 100,000 festival goers throng the streets of Bilbao for Semana Grande – partying all night to the noise of live music and extravagant fireworks displays and then watching bull fights or Strongman competitions during the day. The festival actually begins on the first Saturday following August 15th.
Semana Grande is the biggest festival in northern Spain. Dedicated to the Virgin of Begoña, affectionately known as Amatxu, or Mother, to the Basques, this is a celebration of Basque heritage as much as religion. Most of the inhabitants of the city take a week off – so don’t expect all the shops to be open, or you’ll be disappointed – and simply take part in one of Europe’s most exhilarating street parties.
Music is at the heart of the festival, with many free performances during the week in a variety of venues. Two of the most popular places to go are the quarry amphitheatre and the Plaza Nueva. The concerts at both these places will not start until about midnight and will keep going until 4 or 5 o’clock the next morning. There are many other places to find music, though – many of the streets are lined with tents of different societies and bars and will have live or recorded music. Bilbao additionally has a host of music bars and clubs which go on all through the night – especially in the Indautxu area of town.
Also, during the day, you’ll find various flotillas and regattas along the Ría de Bilbao, the Nervión. Then again, you won’t want to miss the Bilbao Strongman Contest, held at the Arenal. This is the Basque version of Scottish Highland Games. For example, in the Aizkolaris men have to chop a 45 inch thick log of wood in half whilst standing on it. There are granite boulder lifting competitions and other such awe-inspiring, and terrifying, spectacles which almost defy belief.
Bilbao’s bull ring, in the Plaza de Toros de Vista, has a week of spectacular corridas during Semana Grande and, although tickets start at about €30, some of Spain’s most prominent fighters attend. Furthermore, the bulls here – just like the men – are supposed to be the bravest in the country. Lovers of Don Quijote will remember that even in Cervantes’ time, Basques had a fearsome reputation because of their strength.
There are some fabulous firework displays during Semana Grande – each evening they seem to get louder and louder. Perhaps the best place to see the dazzling display is from one of the bridges across the river or you could even take the historic funicular to the top of the Artxanda hill and have a really spectacular panoramic view. You might have to walk back down, though, as the funicular only operates until 11.00pm.
Bilbao has justifiably developed a reputation as a beautiful city for weekend breaks during the last few years. The opening of the Guggenheim Museum and the development of cheap flights to Bilbao have combined to make the city one of Spain’s most popular destinations. This has come as a big boost to the north of Spain, after many years of being ignored by tourists heading for Madrid or the costas of much further south.
It is a very different place, though, during Semana Grande. With theatre performances, dances, parades of floats – and, of course, some of the best cuisine in the whole of Spain – the entire city of Bilbao is simply one big celebration.
You’ll need to have a strong constitution and plenty of stamina to last for the whole festival – but it sure will be fun trying to.