Well, Aste Nagusia – the week of the fiestas – has been and gone, and very marvellous it was too.
It all kicked off two Saturdays ago at 5pm. Just as we were preparing to go and watch the launch of the fiesta in the Arenal (the big public square by the river, five minutes walk from our flat), the fiesta came to us. About two dozen brass bands, wind bands and pipe and drum bands marched down our street, each one accompanied by groups of revellers, all on their way to the Arenal. Thousands of people passed by in the space of about 45 minutes. There was a wonderful joyful carnival atmosphere, and the musical standards were great – superb brass and wind playing in all the bands. It was a baking hot day and each time the parade stopped because of a log-jam further down the street the crowds looked up to the people watching from their balconies and shouted ‘Agua! Agua!’, begging us to throw buckets of water over them – which we duly did!
Each ‘konpartsa’ sets up a festive tent (a ‘txosna’) in the Arenal which acts both as a public bar and as a base for that konpartsa for the week. The square is transformed into a huge street party, and each evening thousands of people go to drink and talk at these various ‘txosnas’ in the square. (We are beginning to realise how important meeting and drinking outdoors is for the Spanish, an observation which has now been corroborated by many we’ve spoken to. We’ve been told too that there isn’t much of a culture of inviting people into your house: you simply agree to meet outside.)
Next day, the parade of ‘Los Gigantes’ across the city – a group of huge puppets representing figures from Bilbao’s past, including a British footballer (with pasty skin and a handkerchief on his head – see previous post for explanation). They were accompanied by traditional Basque pipe and drum bands (of which more later), and by a mini-parade of what we later learnt were called ‘cabezones’ (big-heads’, young people wearing ‘big heads’ and carrying inflated pigs’ bladders (!) with which they hit children in the crowd – not hard, I hasten to add: apparently, a custom at fiestas in other parts of Spain, too. All very carnivalesque, all very reminiscent of ancient ideas about festivals and ‘misrule’.
Sadly, we missed the last weekend of the fiestas. At the end of the whole thing, Marijaia is apparently burnt, her ashes sent off down the river, only to rise again phoenix-like the following year.
Finally, quiet political protest was quite strongly in evidence. Here are some pictures: