After a while, Spanish festivals may seem to blur into a strange blend of processions, fire and building giant figures (you’ve got to have giant figures and fires), but they’re all driven from local customs and culture, their idiosyncrasies coming to the fore in the way they mix these ingredients. Turns out there are a lot of different things you can do with similar materials.
In the industrial Basque city of Bilbao, home of a Guggenheim museum, the Aste Nagusia festival (translating into English as ‘Great Week’) began as an attempt to revitalise a festival that had flagged under Francoism. Now it’s a week long festival of fireworks and concerts, with groups of people developing their own stalls, processions and parties.
Nightly firework displays are arranged, but the entire thing is kicked off by the town crier or herald launching a rocket to commence festivities, which they will also do daily throughout the festival. The week sees fairs, workshops, theatrical performances, and a variety of musical concerts throughout the city.
The organisation of the festival comes from the city council and party groups (comparsas, or konpartsak in Basque) who supply the heralds. These groups were invited to instigate a competition of ideas and boost the festival’s popularity by making it something that the residents actively participated in. As a result the vitality that ensued to this day is a genuine enthusiasm and zeal, embodied in the festival’s mascot Marijaia.
Marijaia is the official symbol of Aste Nagusia, and is a representation of a plump lady raising her arms while dancing. A puppet of her is revealed at the start of the celebrations, and then burned ceremonially at the end.
Even in the Basque country, you’ve got to have giant figures and fire.