The Tamborrada Festival takes place in San Sebastián every year on 20th January and honours San Sebastián, the city’s patron saint. It begins with the raising of the city’s flag in La Plaza de la Constitución at midnight on 19th and lasts for a full 24-hours. The event consists of columns of drummers playing music composed specifically for the event by Raimundo Sarriegui in the 19th century. Those who carry drums are dressed in 19th century Napoleonic military uniforms whilst the drummers, who carry wooden barrels, are dressed as cooks for the day.
Origins of La Tamborrada
The origins of the festival date back to 1597, when the city turned to their patron saint San Sebastián for protection during a plague epidemic. After the plague subsided, the citizens vowed to honour the saint every January 20th. Whilst the festival started as a religious procession to the Church of San Sebastián, it has evolved into a popular festival with parades and concerts taking place all over the city.
Tamborrada Festival and the Napoleonic Wars
Whilst the Tamborrada Festival in San Sebastián displays a certain military air, there are no direct origins in the specific events, sieges, or battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The drumming parades actually began in the early 1800s, before the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. They started as carnivalesque groups parodying the daily military parades which took place from the San Telmo Barracks to the Puerta de Tierra where a changing of the guard was performed. The drummers began wearing Napoleonic-style military uniforms in the 1880s, simply because the city council provided old uniforms!
Napoleonic Wars in San Sebastián
The Napoleonic Wars were a series of conflicts fought between France and various European powers between 1803 and 1815. The Siege of San Sebastián was a pivotal battle during the Peninsular War phase of the Napoleonic Wars in Spain. In the summer of 1813, the city of San Sebastián on the northern coast of Spain was a key strategic holdout for French forces after their retreat from Madrid.
Determined to capture the port city, Allied forces under the command of General Graham commenced the siege in early July 1813. For two months, Allied British, Portuguese, and Spanish troops relentlessly bombarded San Sebastián’s walls and defenses with artillery fire. However, the French garrison staunchly resisted the bombardment from the city’s seaside castle, weakening the Allied encirclement.
On August 31, the Allies launched a full assault and breached the city walls, pushing into the streets of San Sebastián. Viciously intense urban combat ensued as the French withdrew to a fortified line and desperately defended their position street-by-street against the incoming Allied forces. The fighting ravaged the city, devastating buildings and civilians caught in the crossfire.
After days of grueling house-to-house combat, the depleted French finally surrendered on September 9th, 1813. The Allies took control of San Sebastián, but the ferocious battle left over 5,000 dead and the city largely destroyed. While a strategic victory for the Allies, the horrific Siege of San Sebastián was emblematic of the horrific destruction wrought on Spanish civilians during the Peninsular War.
Attending La Tamborrada
If you’re planning on going to La Tamborrada take a look at our San Sebastián Travel Guide for more information about what to do in the city and region.