Postcard from the Basque Country III: A Fiesta in Every Town

There is something about somebody else’s village fete that encourages romanticism. Quite apart from the exoticism inherent in observing the customs of others, there is a universal turning-of-the-seasons melancholy to a festival that is effortlessly inclusive of all age groups. Sitting in the afternoon sunlight watching the young people of Deba enjoying their corrida could not fail to make one lament the transient nature of youth; at dusk, watching more elderly denizens slow-dance to the jauntiness of the trikitixa (the Basque diatonic accordion), this becomes the transient nature of life. Even at the height of summer, there is an autumnal quality to the fading light.

No people on earth party quite like the Spanish, and although the people of Deba would be the first to tell you they are Basque not Spanish, they have in common with their neighbours in Aragon and Castile and Andalusia an ability to celebrate every occasion as if it might well be the last. The shops close all day, the bars are open all night. There is no escape from the madness, even if you want it, and nobody does. ‘This is the fishermen’s day,’ explains a local schoolgirl, dressed, like all of her peers, in long blue skirt, white blouse and the checked neckerchief de rigeur with both sexes and all age groups. It is not a national costume or a national day; this is simply one more festival.

In Donostia/San Sebastian, we planned our passing through to coincide with La Semana Grande – the Big Week of music and dancing whose highlight is a nightly fireworks display over the bay of La Concha. We spent half the night dancing on the edge of the beach. Against a backdrop of hyper-traditional parades that felt like a cross between an Eisteddfod and a revolution, the beachside DJ spun hip-hop, trip-hop and cutting-edge mixes of Brazilian rumbas. If that was not what we expected, it also came as a surprise that as we tramped across the montes Vascos on the Camino de Santiago, there seemed to be a fiesta in every town.

In Zumaia, the roads were closed off to allow a hillside go-karting race to proceed to the sound of Basque folk-reggae pumping through a tinny tannoy; in Bilbao stages were set up for music and dancing and street theatre, while participants in water-games were watched by thousands lining the banks of the river. Here in Deba, it was all about the bulls. Not the magnificent toros of Death in the Afternoon, the traditional activity contested by animal rights activists, nor the famous encierro of Pamplona during the Fiesta de San Fermin or their fire-based equivalents in San Sebastian. In Deba, the bulls are babies and the derring-do is done by the children of the town; in my continuing quest to find Welsh equivalence to every experience in Euskal Herria, it didn’t take me long to recall the Welly Wanging at Llanfihangel Show.

The heady mixture of music and a-day-out-for-all-the-family doesn’t take long to leave me nostalgic for my south Powys childhood of shows and country fairs, events I came to think of as boring as my teenage self began to clamour for the excitement of a city – any city would do. Now I recognise the central importance of these time-honoured rural traditions. However beguiling, beautiful or bonkers a tradition might seem to outsiders, for locals such rituals mark the turning of the seasons, forming the very punctuation points of life. Having long since been saturated by an urban culture that can only revive such mystical events with a protective coating of irony and faux-nostalgic ‘vintage’ knowingness, here in the Basque Country I find myself longing not only for home in the sense of a specific place but a certain type of community.

Deba’s central square has been converted wholesale into a makeshift bullring, its wooden fences less than a metre from front doors, residents’ balconies overnight becoming akin to theatrical boxes while the stalls are formed from long planks of wood fixed up as benches. The audience is predominantly young and the atmosphere reminds me of a school assembly on the day the oldest group of pupils will leave, complete with rowdy chanting, near-universal flirtatiousness and conspicuous evidence of underage alcohol consumption. We join a song of support of the crowd’s favourite baby bull avoider, a big-boned Basque girl of fifteen or sixteen with jet-black hair and a wicked smile: ‘Sofie, Sofie, lo lo lo lo lo…’

Outside the arena, the bars that would ordinarily line the edges of the square with regiments of chrome-legged chairs and tables spill their punters out onto the street. Bar staff, themselves decked out in the ubiquitous fishermen’s garb, are hardly visible behind the pintxos stacked in formations like Jenga towers on narrow formica counters. In the corner of each, a television blares out the Real Sociedad game, to varying levels of interest. Away from the town centre, there is a fairground, a market and the beach. At seven in the morning, when we’re setting out for the next town, revellers are still parading through alleyways, the teenagers out all night, following the music.

Travel writing is so often a first-person account. Its capacities for extending one’s horizons, expanding one’s mind and teaching one about oneself are so often platitudinous. But I’d like to conclude by wondering: if other people’s festivals can make you feel like this much of an outsider, this much of a passer-through not just of a single town but of life itself, imagine how wonderful and strange are the things you regard as normality. Imagine a Six Nations match in Cardiff viewed through the eyes of a Basque fisherman or the National Eisteddfod through the eyes of a Hackney hipster. Maybe we can yet reclaim the idea of tradition from CathKidstonisation.

In Wales, it is not like a rich seam of folk tradition waiting to be tapped into; we already have contemporary culture, one that blends the best of past and present. But maybe it is only without government sanction, corporate sponsorship or, dare I say it, arts council funding, that we can truly discover why customs exist in the first place. La Semana Grande in San Sebastian, Wales v England in Cardiff, the corrida in Deba and the Welly Wanging at Llanfihangel Show are all part of the same thing – the continuity of community. It’s up to us all, of course, but if it were left to me to imagine a community, I’d want a fiesta in every town.