You can’t beat San Sebastián’s Tamborrada
Mid-winter blues are banished by the onset of the tamborrada festival on the 20th of the month. Dressed in chef and soldier costumes, the good citizens of beautiful, Belle Époque San Sebastián beat their drums for 24 hours in the first of the year’s big Basque bashes.
Oil’s well that ends well
In the central zone of Navarre, the little town of Arroniz celebrates its love of olive oil with … yes, you’ve guessed it, a festival. Important tastings take place, with the liquid gold soaked into pieces of toast. It all takes place over one weekend in February, preceded by a fair of artisans’ stalls and with pelota matches and other festivities.
A passion play that’s a bit too real
Balmaseda is the venue for the Basque Country’s best-known passion play, held over Easter weekend. From the moment that Judas Iscariot hangs himself from a tree to Jesus’s crucifixion, the crowds are transported back 2,000 years in a spectacle that’s as real-seeming as it is gruesome. Hundreds of townsfolk take part in the re-enactment.
Fishy goings-on in Getaria
‘A’ is for April, but in the coastal town of Getaria, ‘A’ is primarily for anchovy. This is the month when the boats set sail to bring in these delicious fish, which pop up on the restaurant menus everywhere. Wash them down with a glass of Basque txakoli wine, and suddenly all seems right with the world.
Chocolate, ham and bayonets – visit Bayonne in May
With its World Heritage Site cathedral, and a history that includes centuries of rule by the English, beautiful Bayonne is well worth a guided tour. Discover the history of its chocolate (with a tasting, naturally), nibble on some famous Bayonne ham and find out why the city gave its name to the bayonet. Top it all off with a lunch on the banks of the River Nive. May is the perfect month, before the summer hordes arrive.
If you want to arrive in Santiago de Compostela on the day of Saint James the Apostle (25 July) you need to make some careful calculations. How quickly can you walk 800km? Most people need four to five weeks, meaning that June is the month to depart from Roncesvalles in northern Navarre before wending your way through Pamplona and the little Navarrese towns that owe their living to one of the world’s great pilgrimages.
No bull, this is the real thing
Did we mention Pamplona? Be there on 6 July, or at any time over the following eight days, to take part in what is one of Spain’s most recognised festivals. An orgy of bull-runnings, bullfights and drinking, this was Ernest Hemingway’s favourite escape. Book your hotel months ahead and prepare for a big party. You won’t be sleeping much … do you even need a hotel?
If you’ve ever fancied surfing, then it happens year-round in the Basque Country. But if you just want to hang out and watch, visit the Chambre d’Amour beach in Anglet on the French Basque Coast this month, when a number of championships take place, including the ‘Night Surfing’ tournament.
‘The time to love dancing’
Strictly for nine days in September, Le Temps d’aimer la danse is a festival that brings together international, national and local dance troupes, performing all sorts of dance, indoors and out on the streets. And of course, you can … no, you must join in too.
Spice things up in Espelette
No-one knows exactly where it came from, the Espelette pepper. Maybe it was brought back from Mexico by a returning emigrant. Anyhow, the tiny, spicy red condiment has found its home-from-home in Espelette and they don’t half-celebrate its presence in the last week of October. Safely harvested and dried in the sun, it’s time to let rip with dancing, music, communal meals and – of course – the Benediction of the Pepper. Crazy but fun.
Pintxo pote – the Basque anecdote to cold winter evenings
Almost every town in the Basque Country south of the Pyrenees has a pintxo pote night. It’s a simple idea: a sort of pub crawl, but with the emphasis as much on food as on drink. Step out with your own cuadrilla (group of close buddies), hopping from bar to bar with a snack and a drink in every one, at a rock bottom price. It happens all year round, but November is as good a time as any.
Bilbao’s Father Christmas, known as Olantzero, is a generous figure, travelling down the Gran Via to the Arriaga Theatre to dole out presents. For those with Christmas shopping to do, visit the giant marquee by the theatre, full of craft products. And once the festivities are (nearly) over, the Three Wise Men arrive on 5 January, handing out presents all over again!