Be at Aste Nagusia Bilbao

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If you are exploring Bilbao from the 17th through the 25th of August, you will need to know this is Big Week. It is the grand finale for all town parties of País Vasco, Bilbao's Aste Nagusia (Great Week). All summer had been training for this week and a half long party. Every night I either made it home around 3 or 4 a.m. I even crashed at my friend's houses a few times throughout the week. Thankfully the metro runs 24 hours and increases the frequency of trains.

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The fiesta de Bilbao also is known as Semana Grande, or in the local Basque language of Euskera, Aste Nagusia opens on August 17th and ends August 25th. In this post, I will give a complete guide on how to survive the flour, eggs, txosnas, 4 or 5 a.m. nights, and everything to expect at this experience in the northern region of Spain, País Vasco. 

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This week is the Oktoberfest of País Vasco, minus the crowds of Americans. This post will mainly cover my experiences of the nightlife in Bilbao's Casco Viejo (Old Town), but events are happening roughly 20 hours of the day. There are events for children, parents, grandparents, and party animals. Trust me when I say you won't find a dull moment here this week. Learn some fascinating history about this party at espanafascinate, who has a great post about it.

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 If you are a foodie looking to taste outstanding Gastronomy, there's food for you to try. Unfortunately, since I had my dada classes, I missed out on these events. Next year for Aste Nagusia 2020, I will give a guide on the activities. If you like free concerts from big to small stages, there's a concert for you. Throughout the day and night, there are concerts from every genre. They have everything to traditional Basque folk and folk-pop to Raggae to classic rock to reggae or alternative and even heavy metal in Euskera music playing. In fact, there were at least three massive stages for big concerts as well as stages on top of the giant txosnas. As you will see, the txosnas of Bilbao aren't your typical firework stand outside like bar you have seen in previous posts. They are huge. If you prefer to arrive when the sun goes down and go to bed as the sun is rising, you won't be alone. 

Without further or due, here is the 9-day breakdown of my first time going to the Fiesta of Bilbao, which I made it out every day except one night.       

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Night 1-Saturday

The original plan was to arrive for the opening ceremony called the txupinazo (flare), which starts at 7 p.m. sharp in front of Teatro Arriaga. Similar to the start of San Fermin with the chupinazo, Bilbao goes berzerk. In front of the theatre of Bilbao, becomes a war zone of flour, champagne, sangria, wine, eggs, and other condiments. Locals will throw these things at each other and in the air following the flare and presentation of the Marijaia. I knew of this and even warned a couple from England visiting while on the metro into the city. 

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The pre-game lasted a bit longer at my buddies Matts and Antonys, and we walked on foot to the Old Town. We arrived just as people were walking back home to shower and change. I immediately realized we made an excellent decision to come late, as you can see in the pictures, those who went got destroyed. 

We saw people covered head to toe in flour, confetti, and condiments being washed off by Bilbao's sanitation department. People were even jumping into the Nervión Estuary that divides old town with the central city. If you choose to experience this unique aspect of the party here are some tips: wear as grubby clothes and closed-toe shoes you can find and a rain poncho or garbage bag. Expect to throw away everything after.

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We made our way to meet up with my other group of local friends in my cuadrilla, who were drinking in the txosna zone. The previous week at the fiesta de Puerto Viejo, I discovered how much I like a basque liquor called Patxaran made from a Navarrian fruit, which is a digest of 25-30% alcohol. It makes for a perfect pre-game drink but creeps up on you because it's sweet. You'll feel a good buzz only after one or two cups. While in the pop-up street bars, the officials of celebration paraded around with the Marijaia, a huge female doll and the main symbol of Aste Nagustia along with the crest of Bilbao.

Time seemed to zoom by thanks to the Patxaran, and we wanted to a spot to watch the first night of fireworks. Every night of the fiestas of Bilbao at 10:30, there is a 15- 20-minute firework show. An interesting fact about the fireworks is each night they get them from a different country and every other night it is an international competition for fuegos artificiales. At the very end of the week they announce who won.

One of the best places to watch the show is in front of the Kubrick Bar. After the fireworks, someone at the bar gave us free pintxos of tuna fish sandwiches. After the fireworks, it was time to head to the txoznas.

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Night 2-Sunday

 It rained the second day, classic País Vasco. No worries it didn't stop the party or my desire to go out. Though it was a pretty calm night. Not much happened other than hanging out in the Txonsas. At one point, I left the group I was with to look for one of my other friends, Ray. It was a fail. My phone died and I was in a mob of people and I could barley move.

I also ran into two girls I met in Fiestas de Algorta/Paellas and Porto Viejo. It goes to shows how small world it is here even during the biggest party. It also goes into my theory on how similar Chico is to Bilbao. 

Night 3- Monday

So I forgot about this and started this post saying I made it out every night. It's a good thing I took notes after every night. It turns out I decided to take a break from the party and went surfing on day three. I have been trying to surf as much as I can since the conditions have improved. This summer was odd, according to my roommates. It was pretty flat May through July. Not going out this night also allowed me to have the energy to make it out the next day.

To keep the spirit of the party for day 3, I will share my top tips on how to survive one of the biggest and longest parties in Spain. These tips will apply to both boys and girls.

Tourist survival guide for Bilbao's Big Week

  • If you come on the first day and don't want to get destroyed avoid the area around Teatro Arriaga

  • If you don't mind getting covered caca, where a poncho and grubby clothes, go home to take a shower after.

  • Wear close-toed shoes; glass, alcohol, urine, vomit, and other bodily fluids will fill the streets.

  • Expect to see people peeing in the street. There are bathrooms and portapotties set up, but most people boys and girls included, pee between rows of dumpsters. (hence why you shouldn't wear flip-flops)

  • If you're a girl, bring sanitation wipes.

  • Learn some basic Basque, like kaixo-hello, eskerrik asko-thank you, and Agur-good bye.

  • Don't drink Kalimotxo from the big Txosnas, order it at a proper bar where they will pour from a bottle or make your own.

  • Don't be alarmed when you see lots of trash on the ground, the sanitation department cleans it all up (they even comb the river for waste).

  • Hydrate with water.

  • Keep your cup and reuse it or else you will be paying an extra euro per drink.

  • It's normal to see kids as young as 13 or so drinking.

Night 4-Tuesday

We started with a delicious dinner and drinks at a Mexican restaurant in Casco Viejo called Txokomex. Txokomex is a hole in the wall and one of two or three Mexican restaurants in Bilbao. My group of friends and I ordered handcrafted margaritas topped with Tajín. Holly, Antony and I wanted to get a little bit of everything. So we all split the wet burrito, tacos, and quesadilla. It was perfectly portioned. The Txokomex burrito was fantastic. I could have eaten the entire thing. 

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After dinner, we went to the stage and pop-up bar near the Abondo train station. Tonight there was a jazzy punk and ska/reggae band. The jazzy punk was good, but the singer for the reggae band brought down the house. He was super old but had the spirit of a 20-year-old. He was jumping all around, and you could tell he loved performing.

Day/Night 5-Wednesday

After working online for DaDaABC, I went to the city to take photos and video by myself. It was a perfect day. The weather here can be stormy and pouring down and the next day sunshine and in the 70s or 80s. Camera in hand, I was able to capture the festivities during the day, before the masses arrive. Although as you can see, there were still a lot of people out during the day enjoying the sun. I was able even to watch an Offspring cover band do its soundcheck. It was great to hear some of my favorite childhood, alternative rock songs. People were dancing and walking in the street, eating food with their families, and playing with their kids.

I had just finished taking photos when I was thinking of heading to Antony's and Matt's to safely store my camera for the night when I heard a loud announcement. "Due to the sexual harassment experienced at the fiestas of Bilbao, the organizers have decided to protest. All bars will be shut down, and there will be a demonstration." 

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Figured it would be an excellent time to get out of the area. Bilbao and Basque Country as a whole there is a powerful feminist movement you can read about my coverage on the subject in my post about international women's march day here. Later, I found out it's a massive and secret protest. Meaning, people will cover there faces with black cloaks, so no one will know who is protesting. Also, if you can tell the artwork on many of the txosnas are related to Feminism, Socialism, liberation, and independence. 

I dropped off my camera, and we headed to a different neighbourhood of Bilbao called Ledezma, where you can find Txosnas known for mojitos. A nice change from cheap beer and Kalimotxo. We needed food, so we got lomo (pork) and queso sandwiches for only 5 euros. If you're just here visiting a random weekend, this area can be relatively more expensive than the rest of Bilbao, but the food is delicious. You can get to Ledezma by either the Moyoua or Abondo Metro stop and turn on a side street on Gran Via. Menu del Días are from 15-30 euros in this district, and you usually can get one between 9-12 euros. My favorite place for Menu del Día is around the corner on Buenos Aires street at a restaurant called Don Paco. Here the 3- course meal, wine, and bread is typically 9 euros. I discovered it when I went to celebrate getting my Spanish Tax Identification Number.

After a failed mission on the perfect mojito( we tried twice), we watched an insanely fun ACDC cover band. We came toward the end, but they proceeded to give ten or so minute encore after the crowd of people chanted, "Las Una Vez," meaning once more aka encore. 

We went back to watch the fireworks and into the mob of people. In-order to find people in the madness, txosnas have developed nick-names. one, in particular, is the "glitter bar." There must have been a super famous pop singer because the "glitter bar" we were at because the area was packed. 

I later found out that the "glitter bar" was the stand from the Pinpielixir, one of the main sponsors of the party. They are an LBTQ+ organization in Bilbao and promote equality and anti-discrimination. A prominent decision ESL teachers have to make is if the country or region is accepting and safe for LGBTQ+. Not that this was a factor in my decision making, I have realized that Bilbao is a very safe place for LBTQ+ ESL teachers in Spain. (I am planning on writing an entire post on why Bilbao is such a safe place to teach English and live).

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People who work at this stand will blow glitter on you so by the end of the night you are covered in sequin. They also have tons on supply at the bar for mischievous friends and party-go-ers.

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This night, all of the bars shut down as well. The music stops, people stop dancing, bars stop serving, and a similar message from earlier was played at every bar on a loop for roughly 15-20 minutes.

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After drinking and working our way through hoards of people, we needed to eat, at this point, it was also 2ish. So we ordered pintxos morunos- meat on a stick cooked over coals, delicious. These pintxos originate back to the history of when the Moores and Muslim empires ruled over Spain. The Moores have had a significant impact on culture and architecture in Spain.

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Night 6-Thursday 

There are two reasons I have learned to love the Ledezma neighborhood. The pre-game started with 2 euro glasses of txakoli, a stiff and very dry sparkling white wine from the north of Spain. While waiting for my friends to arrive, I watched one of the concerts at one of the three big stages. It was a traditional basque pop/folk band. People were dancing in the street to music. I was able to experience more Basque Folklore with their line dances. There are a few different kinds of dances. Some are with women or men or in couples. If you think Country line dancing is hard; just wait until you watch this. The footwork is super impressive. They went backward, and then forwards in a circle or individually stamping their feet up and down. Their long deep blue/purple skirts were twirling to the beat of the electric accordion. Colors are part of Euskal Herria's history and folklife. Here in Bizkaia (Bilbao), the deep blue/purple is a symbol of the sardine fishing families. It was interesting because some of the folk dances are exclusive to women — another element of a sub-theme of the deep culture of women in society here in País Vasco.

The fireworks were pretty decent the first five nights but starting from the 6th night; it seemed each night was better than the last. The finale the fireworks were low and powerful. They felt like they were smashing against your chest. After the performance, we headed to Plaza Nueva for a reggae concert. I discovered this plaza has roots to Spanish and Indian trade relationship. I will have to get a photo of the inscription. The singer also happened to be from the U.S. After the concert ended my friend Antony and I ended up in an area with mostly high school-aged kids. We quickly left the area because we felt uncomfortable and we were hungry. We also wanted to check if there were any people on Samera Street in Casco Viejo. This street is known for a party street for students studying abroad or on Erasmus. It was creepily empty. So we called it a night and found a place to get loaded French Fries.

Night 7-Friday

The last Friday of the week and a half long party is known as Dia Grande. It is called this because there is the same night-time crowd during the day inside the streets of Casco Viejo, Old Town. My friends told me the close-quartered streets were full of people, making it impossible to move at times.

The night before, I regrettably made the switch to Kalimotxo. Unfortunately, and right before I was ready to take off for Dia Grande, I came down with what locals call "Kali de Txosnas." Since there are thousands of people drinking, the bars use powdered and cheap wine. When you're a "green" like me, and this is a new concept, it can give you a pretty bad stomach ache the next day. 

After spending the entire day knocking back cups of water, a litre of orange juice, and sprite, I mustered up the energy to make it out for the fireworks. Tonight Matt, Ant, and I went to watch the fireworks up on the hill for a new perspective. We were right next to them and at times it felt like we could feel the heat. I was only going to go out for the fireworks but, that did not happen. I ended up dancing and walking around the txosnas till 5 a.m. and crashed at my buddies Matt and Antony who live in Bilbao. The couch was a much safer route than potentially falling asleep on the metro and waking up in Plentzia.

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Night 8-Saturday

After seven days of walking through the crowds of txosnas, I was exhausted. I was also still pretty tired from the night before. But, I managed to make it.
Between there being a Bilbao Athletic match and the last big night of parties, there were many people in Ledezma tonight. Bilbao ended up scoring the first goal, so everyone was excited.

With it being the final night, the fireworks were from Bilbao and were one of the best, loudest and almost blinding, my heart was pounding at the end. At this point, my buddy Antony joined to watch the fireworks. Every night they try to outdo the night before. After the fireworks, we ended up in the txosnas again.
Tonight, there were two feminist protests/demonstrations with the bars closing down for a brief period. During the rally, a similar message from the others was blaring on speakers. At the same time, people who were working the bar stood on top of them clicking pots and pans.

Tonight I expanded my Euskera dictionary by learning new words in Basque: ama-mom, aita-dad, barkatu-excuse me.

While stuck in the glitter bar, someone covered my face and hair in glitter. I would be picking and combing off glitter for weeks. I was getting tired, and so was my friend Holly. It was an early night of going home at 2 a.m. Tonight I also could never feel full. We opted to get a sandwich on the way back.

Night 9-Sunday

For the closing ceremony of Aste Nagusia, we said goodbye to the Marijaia until next year. Every year she is floated down the river and burned next to City Hall. During this conclusion, they also sing a farewell song. Number one rule I've learned taking photos, you can never arrive at early, and research pays off. It was my first time going to this event, and none of my friends had gone before. I found a picture from the event last year in front of the Ayuntamiento (City Hall). Online the Bilbao Turismo page said it started at 8:30. I arrived at seven, so I could be upfront and center. I also wanted the Ayutomento and fair as my backdrop. Well, arriving early and doing the research paid off. I was right in front of my main spectacle.

I hope you enjoyed this post on Semana Grande Bilbao.

Be curious. Be courageous. Be chivalrous.