Guilt-Free Ethno-Tourism in Bilbao

Today’s slide show: Images from the Basque Country.

A wall poster in San Sebastián

The Basque Country smells like Spain—a mixture of wine, sweat, eau de cologne, olive oil, and “black” tobacco. And the locals’ food fixation is quite French. But as a poster I saw in San Sebastián explains, “Tourist remember: You are not in Spain nor in France, you are in the Basque Country.”

I came to Bilbao, the region’s biggest city, for Aste Nagusia, the “Great Week” of fiestas, when, as a tourist brochure put it, the city “comes to life in the midst of summer lethargy to experience the most entertaining week of the year.” The program is amazingly varied—Basque music and dancing, traditional rural sports, a pelota tournament, an international fireworks competition, cooking contests, kids’ activities, open-air cinema, street theater, nine bullfights, scores of free open-air concerts, and thousands of people out on the streets all through the night.

Forget eco-tourism, this is guilt-free ethno-tourism. You don’t have to schlep to the jungle for an anthropological experience—take a chair in a terrace bar in Bilbao’s old town, the Casco Viejo, and you can see sword dances, battle raps in the ancient Basque language, and wandering minstrels playing traditional music on instruments with names like the txistu, txalaparta, and alboka. After dinner at one of the city’s great restaurants (only San Sebastián up the coast has a better culinary reputation), you can put ethnographic studies behind you and wander around the city drinking at the 26 txosnas—booths that serve beer and cocktails until 5 a.m.—sampling the free concerts.

This year’s Aste Nagusia blossomed in a mud puddle. It was pouring on Saturday evening when Bilbaínos gathered outside the Teatro Arriago in the Casco Viejo to greet Marijaia, the muse and symbol of the fiestas. Since most of the revelers were dressed for sun, I figured that, as in Seattle, the residents of a rainy place distinguish themselves from sightseers by eschewing umbrellas. As soon as the giant figure of Marijaia, a homely middle-aged woman with outstretched arms, appeared on the balcony and the strains of “Badator Marijaia,” the Aste Nagusia theme tune, started to blast from the loudspeakers, I understood why the crowd was so indifferent to the rain—they knew they were going home soaked to the skin anyway, so why worry. Once the txupin—the rocket that officially launches Aste Nagusia—had been fired, the bottles of champagne and other bubbly beverages that folks had brought to toast the fiestas became makeshift showerheads, and revelers good-naturedly pelted each other with bags of flour. After a couple of minutes of toasting, showering, and flour-bombing, most of the crowd looked like contestants in a concrete factory’s wet-T-shirt contest.

Performing a traditional Basque sword dance

In 1609, Frenchman Pierre de Lanure reported to his superiors in Bordeaux that the Basques were “light and quick in body and spirit, liking late evenings and dancing.” In the four hundred years since, they’ve certainly not lost their taste for staying up.

Although the Basques’ nocturnal nature might still shock the French, Spaniards generally love to trasnochar—given the climate, it just makes sense to get work done in the morning, rest at the hottest part of the day, then hit the streets when the sun goes down. (Besides, other than retail and service industry workers, most Spaniards are on vacation for the whole month of August anyway, and hay que aprovechar—you have to take advantage of the break.) Throughout Spain, it’s not unusual to see entire families—several generations from oldsters to tiny tots—rambling around at 3 a.m. during their town’s fiestas. The Basques of Bilbao are no exception: From 8 each evening, the streets of the Casco Viejo are jammed with people—crowds of a size you’d see at the Washington Mall on July 4 or in Times Square on New Year’s Eve—enjoying a summer evening stroll and greeting friends and neighbors as they too take a paseo through the neighborhood.

In the States, fireworks usually represent the end of a holiday—the last bangs and whistles before the hangover kicks in. In Bilbao, the nightly 10:30 show is just the start of the night’s entertainment—the big concerts don’t even begin until 12:30. Even the Guggenheim has a late show, opening from 11 p.m. until 2 a.m. for four nights of Aste Nagusia.

The Basques still love their music and dancing, too. On Sunday afternoon, I was in the Museo Vasco on Plaza Unamuno, desperately trying to take in the earnest exhibits about Iron Age implements, traditional Basque shepherding techniques, and the many and varied uses for sheep horns, when the museum’s atmospheric sound effects (baaaah) were interrupted by the sounds of music from the street below. Even the museum guard couldn’t bear to stare at the dioramas for a moment longer, cracking the window to peek down at the living embodiment of Basque culture. On the street, standing outside a bar, multitasking pipe-and-drummers sipped vermouth and chewed on salchichas while a male voice chorus circled and sang. Once the host bar’s tribute was exhausted, the pipers signaled that it was time to head to the next corner for another impromptu performance.

Every day, groups performing styles of traditional regional music known as trikitrixa, alboka, and gaita tour the original seven streets of the Casco Viejo. Although some, especially the choral groups, tend to be dominated by graybeards, others are composed of twentysomething scenesters. Here and in the dances of the Basque Country performed every evening in the Plaza Nueva, I was shocked by how hip the artists were. Several of the young women playing medieval music on authentic instruments or dancing a jota had facial piercings; the guys with bells tied round their knees doing the sword dance while wearing big goofy red berets were cool kids with tattoos and novelty sideburns. In the Basque Country these days, it seems, it’s hip to be square.