Even in the Basque Country we haven’t gone very far. Apart from occasional train journeys across it to get to France, we have only really explored our local region, Bizkaia (Biscay), of which Bilbao (Bilbo in Basque) is the centre. Until recently, we hadn’t been to the other two regions – Gipuzkoa, next to France, of which San Sebastian is the centre; and Alava, south of the mountains, of which Vitoria (Gasteiz in Basque) is the centre.
The name ‘Tamborrada’ sounds as if it might have something to do with percussion instruments – and indeed it does. Around 10,500 of them, in fact. Playing non-stop for 24 hours.
We knew that it would be noisy, and we knew that, staying in a little pension in the centre of the old town, we might not get much sleep because of the drumming. But we really weren’t prepared for the scale of the whole thing, nor for the fact that it all went ahead despite the truly awful weather.
What happens is that, at the stroke of midnight on Saturday night, drumming bands of around 50 people (each one accompanied by a brass band of six or seven players) start marching about the town drumming, and they keep drumming for 24 hours – all night and all day – finishing at midnight on Sunday night.
The brass players ( - there seems to be an amazing number of superb brass players in the Basque country -) play a series of traditional march tunes, over and over again for the whole 24 hours, whilst the drummers just keep drumming along.
and a longer (6 min) French tv report which also catches the whole fiesta very well:
We stayed there for an hour or so, caught up in the jubilant mood, listening to the bands, with the crowds singing along to the marches, which they clearly all knew very well, marched around town, and then wended our way back to the pension, encountering various bands and numerous scenes of street celebration on the way.
Next morning, the rain had eased off a bit, and the bands were still going at it, with the rest of the day still to go. Unfortunately, we had to leave in the afternoon, so we weren’t able to see the finale back in the square at midnight.
There were so many amazing things about the whole event it’s difficult to know where to start. We were blown over – even more than we have been on previous similar occasions – by the extraordinary level of community commitment and coherence that enables this thing to happen. The population of San Sebastian is about 180,000 – the same size as York. I don’t think I could imagine 10,500 people rehearsing in bands for weeks and then dressing up in Napoleonic costume and taking to the streets to drum for 24 hours in the pouring rain in York, can you? Or many thousands of other people following them around and singing along to the marches.
Then there was the fact that it all went ahead in the face of such appalling weather – demonstrating the unshakeable Spanish determination to have fun (noisily in large groups) at the appointed times and places (preferably outside and in the middle of the night) regardless of any discomfort they might suffer in the process.
Then there was the bizarre sight of 10,000 people in Napoleonic costume wandering the streets.
Until recently, they were all-male; now many of them admit women – though it is still the men who do the cooking.
Each txoko organises a drumming group in the Tamborrada. Before they are due to march, they have a big feast in their dining club for all the marchers, and then the marchers assemble in front of the txoko and set off to do their shift.
Here’s a recent article in the Guardian about the txokos:
One of the amazing things about txokos is that, even without them, there are more communal places to eat and drink in the Basque Country than anywhere else you have ever seen. The ratio of bars and restaurants to people must be one of the smallest in the world (and nowhere more so than in San Sebastian); and yet they have txokos as well! It’s all indicative of the unusually strong link between food and community that is characteristic of this place.
As for San Sebastian itself, it’s a very beautiful city. Like many Basque towns and cities, it suffers from some really terrible post-war building (after German bombing in the Spanish Civil War) – and we didn’t really see it in the best weather conditions (although the sun did come out for a little while on Saturday), but its natural setting, a wonderful huge circular bay with broad sandy beach and impressive rocks framing the harbour, is fantastic, and the harbour and old town are very picturesque. We will go again in the summer and report more then.