Every year during the week of August 15th, from Saturday to Saturday, the streets of San Sebastián are bursting with ambiance, music, and fun in a marathon celebration characterized by public participation. Since it’s the summer season, lots of visitors from all over Spain and from abroad are in attendance. The festival’s origins date back to the 19th century and the so-called Belle Époque of San Sebastián, when the city was a vacation destination for the royal court and aristocracy of Spain and Europe.
During the summer months, San Sebastián hosted a variety of activities to entertain visitors coming from all over Spain, and one of the main events was the summer bullfighting festival. After a new bullring was built in Atocha, the bullfights came to be known as “Aste Nagusia,” meaning “Big Week” in the Basque language. The Aste Nagusia celebration has changed dramatically over time. The program has come to include all kinds of ceremonies and performances which draw countless visitors year after year and allow the people of San Sebastián to enjoy themselves like never before.
The opening ceremony takes place in front of city hall in Alderdi Eder with the cañonazo. A cannon is fired and the thunderous noise is accompanied by the sound of El Artillero being sung in Basque by the crowd that has gathered for the occasion. This moment officially kicks off Aste Nagusia in San Sebastián and the partiers take to the streets, not to leave them until the following Sunday. The festival’s program includes all kinds of activities, so between concerts, performances, and ceremonies, there’s something for everyone.
Since the beginning, the festival has included a bullfighting festival, which today takes place in the Illumbre Bullring. Some of the main sporting events during the festival include horseraces, a beach volleyball championship, rural Basque sports games (herri-kirolak), and the Getaria–San Sebastián swimming competition. Music holds a special place in the hearts of San Sebastián’s people, which is evident in the large number of free concerts that take place every day of Aste Nagusia in public spaces throughout the city, ranging from the most traditional folk music to the latest pop and rock. Some of the best concerts tend to be on the Sagüés Esplanade at Zurriola Beach. The music continues on August 14th, when the Gaztelubide Society gathers at midnight in front of their social center in the old part of the city to sing the hymn Festara and other traditional compositions.
The costumed figures known as gigantes y cabezudos (giants and big-heads) have also played an important role in the festivities since they first appeared in 1982. This troupe is made up of four gigantes and 13 cabezudos. The gigantes, which are over four meters tall, represent figures from Gipuzkoa, Álava, Biscay, and Navarre. You won’t want to miss out on seeing them dance to the accompaniment of txistus (a type of Basque flute). As for the cabezudos, they pay homage to the city of San Sebastián itself, specifically honoring its festivals and folk characters. The Tamborrada festival is represented by the Cook, the Barmaid, and the Drummer, and Carnival is represented by Harlequin and Pierrot. They are joined in the parade by shepherds and other characters hearkening back to the Belle Époque.