In the 1990s, Bilbao successfully overcame hard times and transformed from an industrial town into a services-oriented city that is a center of culture and tourism. Similarly, Bilbao adapted to the times years before that when it updated its Aste Nagusia festival.
By the 1970s, Bilbao’s Aste Nagusia was outdated and nearly obsolete. Except for carnival rides and some traditional dance performances, the celebration was restricted to closed-off areas where people could watch bullfights, theater, boxing, and a circus. However, after Spain’s transition to democracy, the festival broke out into the streets thanks to increased public participation.
Since 1978, the organization and planning of Bilbao’s Aste Nagusia has been a collaborative effort involving several groups known as konpartsak, which consist of all kinds of organizations (including political ones) from different neighborhoods and the city government. The festival’s program is a slate of diverse events for all interests and age groups. The performances and party atmosphere never end in venues like Plaza Nueva, Plaza de Bizkaia, Plaza de Unamuno, Plaza de la Encarnación, Uribitarte Pier, El Arenal, Etxebarria Park, and the area around Arriaga Theater.
Today, Bilbao’s Aste Nagusia has become so popular that in 2009 it was chosen as one of ten Treasures of Spain’s Immaterial Cultural Heritage, earning first place on the list. The current-day format of the festival originated with a contest held by the city government in 1978 during the democratic transition. Bilbao’s government took submissions of ideas for a more inclusive festival to revive the outdated Aste Nagusia celebration. The winning project was submitted by Txomin Barullo, one of Bilbao’s pioneering konpartsak, and included an expanded role for citizen groups, many of which were born from the variety of sociopolitical views of the time. Ever since then, the thirty-or-so konpartsak have been at the heart of the festival. They celebrate in their txoznas (tents) set up in El Arenal and descend on the city throughout the nine days of the festival, starting on the Saturday after August 15th, the holiday in honor of the Assumption of Mary. This model was only interrupted once, in 1980, when the city government decided to organize the festival by itself, but a boycott by the konpartsak—who did not set up their txoznas or participate in any of the events—destined them for failure.