Semana Grande is one of the biggest and, in my opinion, the best festival in the north of Spain! It takes place over the course of a week around the 15th August each year in Donostia/San Sebastian in the Basque Country. Semana Grande consists of a fantastic array of events that attract both locals and tourists alike. I spent every summer of my childhood in San Sebastian and Semana Grande was always the highlight of my year, and still continues to be!
A bit of History
The Basque Country (Euskadi in Basque) is an autonomous region in the north of Spain. It has its own flag which you’ll see around the country. It is made up of 7 provinces, 4 in Spain; Vizcaya, Alava, Guipuzcoa and Navarra and 3 in France; Labourd, Basse-Navarra and Soule. The Basque Country has its own parliament with devolved powers, a bit like Scotland and Wales in the UK. It has its own language called Euskera which is the oldest language in Europe and dates back to the Neolithic era but could be older still, with some linguists believing it could be one of the original articulate languages. It has no resemblance to Spanish at all. Euskera is spoken throughout the Basque Country by the people, particularly in the smaller towns and villages. It is an extremely difficult language to learn. I spent a year trying to learn it full time many years ago and despite being half Basque and having heard my family speak it throughout my life, nearly cried in my first week of classes because it was so difficult! The people have a strong sense of Basque identity which you will learn about during your time there. Basque people are unique in that they have been found to have a distinct genetic makeup and have the highest frequency of Rh- blood type anywhere in the world!
The “Cañonazo” (firing of a canon) marks the start of the festival. Crowds gather in front of the town hall in the Alderdi Eder gardens at 7pm to celebrate with traditional music and dance. Semana Grande has an incredible atmosphere. You’ll see young children through to the elderly all enjoying the events at all hours of the day and night. There are hundreds of events over the week showcasing sport, food, music, comedy and art, with the majority of events free and accessible to all. The town hall publishes a booklet (which can be found online) each year with all the times and locations of events so you can pick and choose which ones you want to see and do. There is something for everyone! But there are so many you won’t be able to do them all, so choose wisely!
Throughout the day and night there are shows and buskers all over the city where you can watch everything from magic shows and mariachi to street dance and rowing competitions. Learn about the culture by watching traditional Basque sports derived from farm work such as log chopping where men compete to be the quickest at chopping a huge log or stone lifting where tremendous men lift stones weighing over 300kg. Alternatively, you can try your hand at pelota vasca, a very popular sport in the region which is usually played in a ‘Fronton’ with 2 teams of 2 players. They take it in turns to hit a very hard ball against a wall. I have tried pelota vasca and it is not for the soft handed!
Make sure you see the ‘gigantes y cabezudos’ (giants and big heads). The 8 giants are hollow figures with big moulded heads and dressed in costumes depicting different historical or local archetype figures. A person gets inside the frame which they then carry on their shoulders and walk/dance around the streets to traditional music. The cabezudos have similar heads and costumes to the gigantes but are held on by the people wearing them. They carry an inflated ball a bit like a hardened balloon which they use to hit people with. Children love taunting them and then running away. The cabezudos will chase you and if they catch you, expect a good beating! My son loves getting them to hit me which they happily do to his great pleasure! There are events during the week by the children’s playgrounds where little ones can try on smaller ‘big heads’ and run around playing with them.
A highlight of the festival is the international firework competition. Famous firework manufacturers from all over the world compete, one per night, over the course of the week. The winners get a guaranteed place in the following years festival and you can vote for your favourite at booths around the city. The fireworks kick off each night at 10:45pm. Crowds amass on the beach and around the city at key viewpoints to watch. They are absolutely spectacular and nothing like I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world. Get to your chosen spot in plenty of time as the city becomes engulfed with people. My family have a ritual of buying ‘bocatas’ (baguettes) of tortilla or calamares and a bottle of local cider from any local bar to enjoy on the beach while we wait for the fireworks to begin. The week ends with a musical firework display. After the fireworks there is the incredible and adrenaline fuelled experience that is the ‘Toro de fuego’ (bull of fire). This is a man with a bull shaped sculpture on his head that spouts fireworks to each side and it kicks off at the Alderdi Eder gardens. The 8 bulls run at small intervals of each other, straight through the crowds. Running in front of a ‘Toro de fuego’ is a feeling of sheer exhilaration and terror! You never know when the one in front might turn around or where the one behind may be! Squeals of excitement from adults and children alike will soon alert you to a bull heading your way and the very real risk of being singed by the sparks!
Following this there are live performances around the city. My son’s favourite routine after the ‘Toro de fuego’ is to watch a magic show (he once turned his sock into a dove) and get an ice cream on our walk home. If you’re not ready to head home yet, you have plenty of options. Hit the local bars in the Parte Vieja (old town) or head to the live music concert at Sagues which takes place every night from 11:30pm. They have performances from famous Spanish and Basque singers, tribute acts and some international artists. My mum loved watching the Pretenders a couple of years ago. One of my favourites has been a Bob Marley tribute band which I listened to from the beach. At the same time there are DJ sets at the Kursaal where young people gather to party. Shows go on until the early hours of the morning so if you’re ready to “gaupasa” (do an all-nighter), make sure you siesta before you fiesta!
San Sebastian is a foodie’s heaven and deemed the food capital of the world! The Basque Country doesn’t do tapas, it does ‘pintxos’. ‘Croquetas’ are, in my opinion, the king of pintxos! Make sure you try one, or a dozen. You certainly won’t get bored of food with the amount of choice you’ll have. Try a ‘txikiteo’ (bar crawl) where you get a free pintxo with every drink. A great way of spending the afternoon in my opinion. San Sebastian is the city with the most Michelin star restaurants per capita in the whole world. There are 18 within a 25 km radius, 3 of which have 3 Michelin stars; Arzak, Akellare and Martin Berasategui. They can have long waiting lists however so if you plan on going, definitely book well in advance. For pudding, make sure you try a thick and creamy chocolate con churros. I highly recommend going to a ‘Sidreria’ (cider house) for a traditional Basque meal which usually consists of salt cod omelette with peppers, on the bone ribeye steak and cheese with quince and crack your own walnuts for pudding. This all comes with unlimited Cider from the gigantic 15,000 litre barrels which you can help yourself to throughout your meal. When you hear a shout of “txotx” make your way to the new barrel of Cider being opened by the staff, get in line and enjoy the eventful experience of trying to catch the cider as it flies out of the barrel. This process naturally aerates the cider giving it a crisp flavour but is something that definitely gets much harder the more you drink!
If you want some down time, while in San Sebastian there is a selection of 3 sandy , clearwater beaches to relax on; Ondarreta, La Concha and Zurriola. La Concha was voted #5 best beach in Europe and #15 in the world by Trip Advisor users. Take a swim out to the floating platform to have fun diving and sliding into the sea. San Sebastian and a lot of the coast of the Basque Country is known for its great surf. Why not try a lesson at Zurriola, the main surf spot? There are plenty of surf schools in the local area that teach small children through to adults. There is a promenade that goes the whole way along the Basque coastline, perfect for walking or cycling off the Pintxos and to catch some rays of sun. Head to the ‘Peine del Viento’ (the wind comb) which is a collection of steel sculptures on the end of the western coastline of the city. Watch the waves and the wind beat against them and hear the epic sounds created; nature in action.
Semana Grande is due to take place from 14-21st August 2021 should all be well re: Covid19.
Key Basque Phrases
Kaixo (pronounced Kai-sho)- Hello
Eskerrik Asko- Thank you
How to get to San Sebastian
Fly to Bilbao in Spain or Biarritz in France. Both are similar distances to the city. There are buses straight from the airports to the city. You can also get a ferry across to Santander, which is a 2 hour scenic road trip to the city.
San Sebastian can be very expensive to stay in during Semana Grande. Many people stay outside of the city and travel in each day. There are cheaper options but you will need to book well in advance to ensure availability. If you are a happy camper then there are various campsites around the city, my favourite being up Monte Igueldo. There are also several hostels around the city that are more affordable for those on a budget.
Other things to do whilst in San Sebastian
Climb Urgull, to see the fortress, the Sangrado Corazon statue of Jesus Christ and some amazing views of the bay.
Take the funicular up Monte Igueldo for spectacular views of the bay. There is a small theme park for younger children which is great fun. Definitely try the lazy river to get the best views of the coastline.