Aste Nagusia: Bilbao a lo grande

Party-goers stream to the center of Bilbao to watch the opening of Aste Nagusia

It was only when we were attempting to make hotel reservations when we learned that the city was going to be in full-on party mode.  You’ll have to stay a 3-night minimum, we’re celebrating Aste Nagusia, the email read. Aste Nagusia? What was that?

Kids of every age cross the main bridge to reach the heart of the festival

Before we arrived, a Google search gave us a preview of the crowds, kalimotxo, and cabezudos that would fill the street. We also learned that Aste Nagusia means “Semana Grande,” or “Big Week,” in Basque. This nine-day celebration takes place mid-August, and we would be arriving in time for kickoff.

Pausing to watch the nightly fireworks

We didn’t have to wait long to feel the excitement; as soon as we set foot in the city there was a palpable buzz not felt during trip one nor two to Bilbao. Ubiquitous blue neck scarves tied everyone together in festive fellowship. The pedestrian areas were busier, the music louder, the lights brighter than before.

 The balloon vendor totes his wares

In the club

We arrived several hours before the official opening to find that everyone but ourselves was already party-prepped by wearing blue scarves. On these scarves were the name of the city and sometimes the year, as well. (This must be a tradition dating from some time as scarves from past years are on display in the Basque Museum.) We toyed with the idea of getting scarves but didn’t seek them out as the first afternoon was a busy one. Later, as we were dining on pintxos, a street vendor fortuitously wound his way inside the crowd hawking the exact item we had our eye on.

He eventually made his way to our seats, and waved the scarves under our noses–with a 10-euro price tag. Pass. I am no barterer and eventually said No, not now, thank you. This tactic, if you can call the truth a tactic, worked–the price fell to a manageable 1.50.

Back to the street, this time with party blue

A sign for drinks hangs above abandoned cups

A crush of people move across the bridge

After a long first day we were tired and more than ready to crash. Pushing through the crowds at a snail’s pace allowed us to take in even more details: the way entire families were out at midnight, traditional costumes here and there, the smell of deep-fried dough wafting from the churrería, the huge cups overflowing with the wine and Coca-cola mixture known as kalimotxo.

The aftermath

The tradition of drinking in a public space, in a huge group, can be found throughout Spain. It even has a name, botellón, which literally means “big bottle.” After seeing the streets of Bilbao filled with massive groups of partiers, I realized that every bottellón I have seen up ’til now had been only a small bottle.

Street lights

Before: Plaza Arriaga at midnight on Saturday

The biggest botellon I’ve ever walked (er, pushed) through

After: Plaza Arriaga at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday

The street sweepers wash the grub away

Saturday night’s opening festivities were terrifically colorful, but the nine-day party had more in store than nightly fireworks and botellón-ing. Check back later to see events that took place during the day. In the meantime, take a peek at more images from this year’s Aste Nagusia festival by thumbing through this slideshow in El País.

Have you ever been to Aste Nagusia? What was your favorite part of the night scene?