The ‘fiestas de Bilbao’ (9 days of fiesta) start today – otherwise known as the ‘Big Week’ – ‘Semana Grande’ in Spanish, ‘Aste Nagusia’ in Euskara. Officially they don’t start till 6pm today, but party atmosphere is already very apparent. Indeed, a large proportion of the population of Bilbao seems to be in our street at present (3pm). (In case you didn’t read the earlier blog post, a reminder that we have found ourselves living in the most popular drinking street in Bilbao.)
The fiesta is focused on the old town where we live, and the streets around us - and especially our street – will be thronging, day and night, with thousands of people for the next week, we are told. We’ve been advised to move out, in fact, and have heard of several other people in these streets moving out for the week. We have the offer of staying at Pietro’s boss’s house outside Bilbao while he is away on holiday, and we’re definitely going to take that up when my parents arrive on Tuesday. Meanwhile, we’ll see whether we can make it till then staying here with the fiestas around us.
Out on the street there are lots of people drinking and talking loudly, quite a few singing, many of them wearing white shirts and/or blue neck-scarves (like the red ones worn at the back of the neck by toreadors) and/or Basque berets. Some are playing folk music on accordions (very popular here). We’ve had a brass band (superb) and a wind band parading down the street. Imagine a big party with thousands of slightly drunk and rather macho Spaniards. That’s what it’s like – and it is virtually in our front room…
Mixed in with all the Basque and Bilbao symbols are plenty of ‘Athletic Bilbao’ shirts and motifs. Not being in the slightest bit interested in football, I don’t feel very qualified to comment on the local team, but it’s very clear that football is almost a religion here, and Athletic Bilbao is worshipped devoutly. The origins of the club are interesting. It was founded in 1902 by a combination of British miners and steel workers who had come to Bilbao to work, and Basque men who had gone to Britain to study engineering, and who had started to play football in Bilbao in the early 1890s. Apparently, this was also true in Barcelona, Madrid and Seville; football was introduced to Spain by migrant British workers and Spaniards returning to Spain from the UK. This explains why many Spanish clubs have English names such as ‘Athletic Club’ in Bilbao and Madrid. There’s also a bit of the riverside by the Guggenheim named after the English visitors – the Campo de los Ingleses. (By the way, locally the word ‘Athletic’ is actually pronounced ‘Atleti’…)
I’ve never experienced a Spanish fiesta before, so it’s interesting to get the feel of it. Imagine a music festival, an arts festival, a folk festival, a funfair and a street fair or carnival, all on at the same time in the streets of the city, as well as in the churches, concert halls, theatres and cafes – that’s what it’s like. It strikes me as typical that Britain tends to separate all these things out with cultural ‘festivals’, pop and rock ‘festivals,’ and ‘fairs’ and ‘carnivals’, all having very different characteristics and demographics. This, however, has a more ‘we’re all in it together’ classless feel to it – the whole of life is here, and here together. No doubt that’s a rather naïve view – but I’m sure there’s nevertheless truth in it.
Over the next week, we can expect Basque folk dancing in Plaza Nueva every night, bull-fighting in the bullring every afternoon, fireworks by the river every night at 11pm, classical music, rock music, folk music, jazz, and world music in various streets and squares round the town all evening until about 3 in the morning, and much more. Apparently there’ll be informal folk music and dance wherever you go, too. And a lot of food and drink. (A lot more than usual, that is – and that’s saying something.) Not to mention demonstrations of Basque ‘rural sports’ (‘Herri Kirolak’) such as wood chopping, stone lifting, bale tossing, scything, hole drilling, espadrille tossing, hoe throwing and sack carrying….
The whole thing starts with a launch in the big square by the river (The Arenal) at 6 this evening, in which a ‘toro del fuego’, a bull of fire (i.e. a man dressed as a bull wearing hundreds of small fireworks), runs riot through the crowds. You know the kind of thing. I did once experience something similarly terrifying done by a Catalan theatre group in Edinburgh. It’s all very reminiscent of ancient ideas of festival – lords of misrule, etc.
Other recent appearances (last couple of days) have included a lot of political posters. Most of them are about the Basque prisoners. A large number of ETA terrorists (over 500) are being held in prisons in Spain and France, deliberately well away from the Basque country. However, since ETA announced a permanent ceasefire last year, there has been a powerful campaign by Basque nationalists to get the prisoners returned (‘repatriated’ as I’ve seen it translated) to prisons in the Basque Country. All over the Basque country (and all over the streets in the Casco Viejo) are flags hanging from people’s balconies demanding the return of the prisoners (see pictures below: the slogan means 'Bring the Basque prisoners home' - 'etxera' meaning 'home'). Apparently, several of the prisoners have gone on hunger strike this week to protest at the refusal of the authorities to release one who has terminal cancer, hence the new posters.
Other posters have appeared at the same time protesting against the bull-fighting (which we WON'T be going to see...) And others are anarchist protests against the state-controlled fiestas.
It’s not unusual for there to be lots of people drinking in the street at 3pm. We’re beginning to get the hang of the Bilbao day, and the ways in which eating and drinking shape the day. Life here seems to revolve around food and drink, and around local cafes and ‘tabernas’ and ‘cervecerias’ – of which there are dozens. And eating and drinking on the streets, outside the tabernas, either just standing, or perched at a barrel-table, or on doorsteps, happens all over the place.
Breakfast is ‘café con leche’ (au lait, latte) with a croissant. Except that the croissants are large, rather dry, and stickily encrusted with sugar. When we first walked into a local café at breakfast time, we were amused to see everyone eating croissants with knifes and forks. It then became clear that it was because they are very sticky.
At 11.30, many people stop work and go to their local bar or café for a piece of tortilla, as a mid-morning snack, to tide them over till lunchtime which is around 2.30! The first time I left our flat for a mid-week mid-afternoon wander round the Old Town, I was amazed. The cafes and bars were full to overflowing with local people having lunch – in couples, en famille, in groups of friends. (There are very few tourists round here, certainly non-Spanish ones – they all go to the Guggenheim, but not here. The bars, cafes and restaurants are used mainly by locals.)
At weekends, even more people go out for lunch, and it’s traditional to precede lunch – whether eating at home or out - with ‘txakoli’ and ‘pintxos’ in the local bars with friends. Old ladies seem to get their hair done specially, and enjoy doing what in Italy is called ‘passeggiata’ – walking round the streets of town with friends or family, maybe having a drink or an ice cream.
Work starts again at about 5 and goes on till 8. Then everyone is out on the streets again, drinking coffee, wine (the local white wine, ‘txakoli’,) cider (a big thing here in the Basque country), or ‘kalimotxo’ (mixture of red wine and Coke), before having supper at about 9 or 10 pm (later at weekends). Lunch is very much the main meal of the day, so supper might be just a snack – a ‘racion’ ( a slice or portion of something), or some ‘pintxos’ (the Basque version of ‘tapas’) – of which more later.
All this against the backdrop of a worsening national economic crisis – of which we haven’t seen much sign here, though we are told that people can’t afford to eat and drink out as much as they could a year ago. Apparently, the unemployment rate is 35% in Andalucia, 25% nationally, but ‘only’ 15% here. The Basque Country is the wealthiest corner of Spain, with the highest GDP. Not far away, though, is the mining crisis in Cantabria, just along the coast.
I haven’t noticed any activity by ‘Los Indignados’ – the protestors against Spain’s current conservative government’s austerity programme – here. Perhaps the lack of protest here is to do with the fact that the Basque Country has a significant degree of devolved government. The Basque government goes its own way (a bit like the Welsh assembly in the UK?) and is significantly more left-wing than the rest of the country. I have just discovered a ‘Basque news in English’ site run by the local tv company, and noticed that the local news today was an announcement by the Basque socialist government that it would not be cutting health or education in the Basque Country, despite the fact that the national government is doing it everywhere else.
More of this and other topics soon… Meanwhile, here is a picture of yours truly eating sticky croissant in the Spanish mode.