San Sebastián steps up a gear during its many festivals, moving seamlessly from leisure town to hedonistic frenzy. The main events are outlined below, but there is nearly always something happening and the tourist office website is well worth monitoring in the run-up to your visit. The Tamborrada takes place every year on 20 January and is definitely not a time for those seeking the quiet life, with the streets awash with citizens dressed as chefs and soldiers furiously beating on their barrel drums. The tradition may have originated from the townsfolk mocking the retreating French soldiers (who were defeated in the city in 1813) by banging on pans with sticks and spoons, but no-one can be absolutely sure. Nowadays, the festival is driven by the energy of local gastronomic societies and social clubs, plus thousands of costumed children who set off at noon from the City Hall, banging their own drums. The Caldereros (‘Boilermakers’) festival takes its origins from the visit of a Hungarian carnival group back in 1884. Its success has waxed and waned ever since (and it was banned in the late 1960s for political reasons), but the event is now firmly fixed in the calendar for the first Saturday in February. Immediately following this comes Iñudes and Artzaiak, which began in 1885 and relates loosely to the religious festival of the Día de la Candelaria (Candlemas), with much dressing up as shepherds and nursemaids, waving of baby dolls, music and dancing. Celebrating its 50th year in 2016 is the San Sebastián Jazz Festival (or ‘Jazzaldia’), with performances taking place all over the city, notably in the tiny Plaza Trinidad in the Old Town, at the Peine del viento sculpture and also on the beach at Zurriola. It is held every July and some of the events are free.
Semana Grande (‘Big Week’ – the clue is in the title) always starts and ends on a Saturday and its eight days of fun always include 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption. Its history tracks back to the mid-19th century, when it was created to coincide with the city’s emergence as a resort. As well as theatre and musical performances, highlights include a funfair and an international fireworks competition.
The second and third Sundays of September see the finals of the traineras, the rowing regattas that set off from La Concha beach. The best eight teams from along the coast fiercely contest these much-loved events, with each club bringing its own band and displaying its own team colours.
More refined than most of the above is the San Sebastián Film Festival, established in 1953. Celeb-spotting is a sport in itself at this September event and actors who have graced the festival in years gone by include Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor, Harrison Ford, Matt Damon and Sophia Loren, as well as directors such as Luis Buñuel, Pedro Almodóvar and Francis Ford Coppola. The event is now staged primarily in the Kursaal, though part of it has since relocated to the revamped Tabakalera.
Near the end of the year comes the fair of Santo Tomás, a centuries-old event famed for the txistorra, a type of spicy sausage. Much, though by no means all, of the action takes place in the Plaza de la Constitución, where societies and schools set up stalls to sell pintxos, talos and txistorra-based treats. Santo Tomás takes place on 21 December. A pig is fatted for months prior to the fair and presented to the winner of a public raffle, the highlight of the event.