Spain: Roll out the Basque barrels

Tourists visit San Sebastien for summer jazz and film festivals. But for the locals, the time to celebrate is now
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The Independent Travel

Another bottle of cider is passed around, guzzled, dribbled, and chucked on to the ground. It rolls around on the stone slabs that are already sticky and littered from four hours' boozing. This is just the beginning of el Dia de San Sebastian, the biggest festival of the year in the Basque city of San Sebastian.

Another bottle of cider is passed around, guzzled, dribbled, and chucked on to the ground. It rolls around on the stone slabs that are already sticky and littered from four hours' boozing. This is just the beginning of el Dia de San Sebastian, the biggest festival of the year in the Basque city of San Sebastian.

Five minutes to go and the crowd jostle for space in the packed out Plaza de la Constitucion. The smell of alcohol and grilled chorizo waft through the icy air, which is filled with the red, white, and green Euskadi – Basque – flags. A hollow pounding sound gets closer and closer. Finally a troop of pot-bellied chefs, all banging on wine barrels, appears on the wooden platform on the west side of the square. As the clock strikes midnight the crowd whoop and scream, reach into their pockets, and suddenly the whole lot are wearing white chef's hats.

The city is named, in Spanish at least, for the unfortunate third-century Roman martyr who was subject to a volley of arrows from the Imperial archers, and then clubbed to death when plan A did not work. To add insult to (fatal) injury, the city's Spanish name of San Sebastian is now subservient to the Basque version of Donostia. The city vies for supremacy with Bilbao, west along the coast, as the spiritual home of the Spanish Basques. It invariably fails, but can content itself with physically being everything that its rival is not. The city is squeezed between the mountains and the Bay of Biscay, and wraps around an almost circular bay called La Concha, the shell. A hulk of an island, Santa Clara, pokes out from the middle of the bay. Each end of the crescent bay is guarded by a hill. To the west, Monte Igueldo has a funicular running up to the funfair at the summit; to the east, Monte Urgull is topped by a statue of Jesus. Pleasure and piety in equal measure.

The chic, cheerful city is so sure of itself that it does not merely content itself with a tourist office; it has an "Entertainment and Tourism Centre". Here you can learn all about the late summer jazz and film festivals. But for the people of San Sebastian, a bitter January night is the most important in their calendar. For the next 24 hours, they will be celebrating (as only they know how) the day that the British and Portuguese armies finally drove the Napoleonic forces out of their city. San Sebastian was given back to the Basques on 20 January, 1813, and on this day each year – which just happens to coincide with the first loads of the season's cider being brought down from the sidrarias in the hills – the whole city dresses up, drinks sidra, and goes wild.

A group of French soldiers emerges into the Plaza from a narrow side street, banging their drums in perfect time. The crowd jeers, hisses, and parts to make way for the chefs who have clambered down from the platform to chase the enemy away, clanking their barrels as they go. While they move off, the side-stalls deal with a fresh wave of people stocking up on cider. Huge crates packed with green bottles tower in the shadows under the arches around the ancient plaza.

Why chefs and soldiers? During the occupation, the city's inhabitants used to follow the French soldiers around the streets, taunting them by beating wooden barrels to mimic their drumming. The chef is the pride of Basque culture: ask any Basque and they will tell you that their cuisine is the best in the world, with San Sebastian boasting around 75 exclusive gastronomic societies. So on the anniversary of the city's liberation, half the citizens and gastronomic society members dress as Napoleonic soldiers with elaborate military coats, tall hats and proper drums, while the other half put on chefs' whites and carry barrels which they hit with wooden spoons. The soldiers beat out their traditional rhythms, and the chefs, led by a conductor-chef using a giant piece of cutlery for a baton, clatter out the same on their barrels. The angry soldiers beat out a louder, more complicated reply... only to be mocked with the same vigour by the chefs behind them. And everybody eats and drinks as much as they possibly can.

Through the coming night and day, rabbles of increasingly drunken chefs follow equally merry soldiers through the Parte Vieja (Old Town), city centre, and suburbs. Meanwhile the bars, which fill each cobbled street of the Parte Vieja, are rammed with revellers embracing the opportunity to throw away their dignity. Many of those who don't like the viciously dry, acidic cider, drink kalimotxo – an interesting mix of cola and red wine.

The more reserved participants fill the restaurants and pintxo bars (Basque tapas), drinking cava and grazing on a spread of traditional seafood specialities. Typical dishes for this day are txangurro a la Donastiarra (stuffed spider crab) and angulas (baby eels), but the choice of delights is never-ending. Other favourites include bacalao al pil pil (salt cod cooked with garlic, parsley and chillies), chuletas de buey (huge beef chops), and chipirones en su tinta (cuttlefish in their own ink).

Late the following evening, the streets are filthy and honking. The last dregs of the party hang out on the street corners around the Parte Vieja, smoking cheap, rough cigarettes and ranting nonsense, to each other while heavily perfumed Basque ladies in fur coats and pearl earrings pick their way through the debris. The first clean-up trucks are coming through; they will work all night to make sure that the city is back to its sophisticated self in the morning.

Come tomorrow, the Atlantic breeze will have blown away the stench of cider, urine and vomit. Well-dressed families will once again be strolling along the perfectly manicured Paseo de la Concha promenade, admiring the picture-postcard view untroubled by neither ersatz chefs nor any alcoholic apple products.

Travellers' Guide

When to go: the celebrations begin a fortnight from today, on the evening of Saturday 19 January.

Getting there: by air, the obvious routes are to Bilbao on Iberia (0845 601 2854, www.iberia.com) from Heathrow, or Go (0870 607 6543, www.go-fly.com) from Stansted. There are fast connecting buses to San Sebastian. Biarritz airport, across the border in France, is a lot closer, with flights from Stansted on Ryanair (08701 569 569, www.ryanair.com), but the transfers involve buses and at least two trains.

Staying there: in winter, accommodation in San Sebastian is about one-third of the summer price, but around 19 and 20 January rooms are scarce; check with the Entertainment and Tourism Centre, Reina Regente 8, 20003 San Sebastian (00 34 943 481 166, www.paisvasco.com/donostia) for options.

Travel warning: the Basque separatist group, ETA, does not normally launch terrorist attacks during Basque festivals. But the Foreign Office warns "A number of car bombs, some of which have caused fatalities, have exploded in Madrid, the Basque country and other parts of Spain. There are also regular incidents of street violence in cities and towns in the Basque country, involving organisations sympathetic to ETA, and directed towards the security forces, political parties and banks."

More information: Spanish Tourist Office, 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (020 7486 8077, www.tourspain.co.uk).

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