Semana Grande: Your Ultimate Guide to San Sebastian’s Biggest Festival
Semana Grande takes place every year on the week of Aug. 15, from Saturday to Saturday. That means that, in 2018, it takes place Aug. 11–18. During this time there are fireworks every night (it is, in fact, an international fireworks competition) and special events all day, every day. View a complete program of 2018 events here.
Still, if you’re looking at the events calendar, some events might seem like head-scratchers. Here’s your guide to some of the festival’s most exciting events. Put down your pintxo and check them out.
El Cañonazo: Kickoff to Semana Grande
A cañonazo, or cannon shot, kicks off Semana Grande festivities before a milling crowd of local families and tourists alike. Gigantes ("giants") and cabezudos ("big heads")—more on these characters later—march through the streets to help launch the festivities.
Viewing the cañonazo is a great way to get into the Semana Grande spirit. Join in the fun in the Jardines de Alderdi Eder at 7 p.m. the first Saturday of Semana Grande.
International Fireworks Competition
There are fireworks every night of Semana Grande as part of an international fireworks competition involving professionals from all over the world. Try to view them from a different vantage point every time—from the Plaza de la Constitución, then the Playa de la Concha, then Miramar. You can even board a boat and view them from the harbor. Warning: dance parties tend to break out.
Gigantes and Cabezudos
Some of the most iconic figures of Semana Grande are also perhaps the most difficult to explain. That's why it might be easy to watch our video about gigantes and cabezudos first:
Gigantes (which translates as "giants") and cabezudos ("big heads") are, roughly speaking, marionettes or mascots that march through the streets throughout the week. Look for them on the schedule, but they can be difficult to miss for two reasons: one, the gigantes are nearly 15 feet tall; and two, the cabezudos go around hitting people with dried animal bladders.
Told you it was hard to explain.
Gigantes are found in many parts of Spain and date to at least the 1600s. The eight gigantes of San Sebastian were premiered in 1982. They are divided into four pairs, each of which represents a different region of Basque Country: Álava, Navarra, Guipúzcoa, and Vizaya. They can be seen dancing to traditional music and marching alongside local bands.
The 14 cabezudos are the more mischievous bunch. They represent the different festivals of the city, and generally manifest as trades or types: a cook, a barmaid, a drummer, and so on. They are known for swinging around dried animal bladders (usually a sheep's or pig's) and occasionally slapping passersby with said bladders. (And if you're wondering—yes, it hurts.) Children, among their most common victims, have a love-hate relationship and can be seen running along behind them down the street. In short, if you dare pose for a picture with a cabezudo, do so at your own risk.
Toros de Fuego
No, they don't set actual bulls on fire. These model bulls are outfitted with fireworks, strapped on someone's back, and run down the street as onlookers flee and children chase them. It's not as dangerous as a running of real bulls, but it's not the safest-looking thing either. A can't-miss, hilarious good time.
Keep an eye on the Plaza de San Juan in the Parte Vieja (old town) of San Sebastian for a pop-up stand making talos, a traditional Basque corn patty. It's similar to a Mexican tortilla, served up with either txistorra, a seasoned local sausage (delicious, BTW), or chocolate. You can even see them being made by hand.
Herri-Kirolak (Traditional Basque Sports)
Rural sports from stone-lifting to trunk-cutting are on display at these events. Stones range between 220 and more than 700 pounds. It's overall an impressive display, and an incredible opportunity to gain a little more insight into a culture that is dramatically different—with a very different history—from what you can find anywhere else in Spain, or the world for that matter.
Traditional Music and Dance
The Plaza de la Constitución, at the heart of the Parte Vieja, hosts performances that include traditional music and dance. These are complete with costumes, as well. It's a fabulous chance to learn just how diverse Basque culture really is, as there are different dances and styles of music for each region and even subregion of this community.
You can also catch local bands marching through the streets of the Parte Vieja or the Antiguo neighborhood, showing off traditional musical styles. Particularly wonderful are the drum bands.
More contemporary iterations—including carts with amps hooked up to electric guitars—will be wandering the streets, too. While many musical groups will show up on the official schedule, a great many won't. The lesson is, just be outside in the street a lot during Semana Grande—and when you hear music, follow it until you find it.
Free Live Music
Semana Grande not only draws a host of artists and artisans from all over Spain—it also attracts some of Europe's most popular bands. So keep a close eye on the schedule, as you might catch an act like La Oreja de Van Gogh (Van Gogh's Ear), one of Spain's most beloved pop bands, which played an open-air stage near Zurriola Beach in 2017. A free show, I might add.
All Ashore! Homemade Boat Race
Self-styled "pirates" build their own homemade boats. ("Rafts" might be a better term.) Then they attempt to row these rafts from the harbor to La Concha Beach. For such a short distance, it takes longer than you might think. This may be the week's most hilarious event.