Hej from Sweden. In case you can’t keep up with what I’m doing (often, neither can I), I now live in Stockholm. And this is probably going to be my longest stop so far, for 3-9 months at the outset. Anyhow, more on that later. I just got back from a week in my Erasmus city, Zaragoza, with one of my best friends who I actually met there 6 years ago, for the annual Fiestas del Pilar, so today’s blog post is all about the festival – what to do, what to see and where to party!
If you’re not super familiar with Spanish culture or with the northern Spanish city of Zaragoza, you may not know about this festival; it’s not as famous as La Tomatina down in Valencia, but it’s actually one of the biggest and best fiestas in this country which is basically known for its fiestas. Now, I might be biased because when I was a student 6 years ago, this week was basically a week off studying for 3 hours and drinking for 21. Instead, we would pretty much party the full 24. So of course we had a pretty good reason for enjoying the week. But this time round, Becky and I wanted to take a slightly more mature approach, plan out our week and try to see pretty much everything. And we did. So, here is my ultimate guide to Spain’s October festival.
The Fiestas del Pilar run every year in the gorgeous northern city of Zaragoza, the full week of the day of the 12th, which just so happens to be my birthday, which is why I think me and this festival were made to be together. This year, it began the weekend before (10-11th), then ran on for the week, finishing up on the 18th. Now, the main thing you need to know is that most of the crazy stuff goes on on the 12th itself, apparently the date on which the Virgin Mary appeared to St James on a pillar. Or pilar, in Spanish – you see. So this whole festival is to celebrate Nuestra Señora del Pilar, whose special day also coincides with Columbus’ discovery of America. And my birthday. So, it’s a pretty incredible day.
Here are the main highlights of the festival, all of which go on every year.
12th – The ‘ofrenda de flores’ or ‘offering of flowers’. At its heart, this is a religious festival, in a fairly heavily Catholic city, and most of the big events are religious by nature. The ofrenda de flores kicks off on the day of our saint Pilar at 7am, and goes on literally all day. Head to the central square by the basilica, or any of the surrounding streets (via independencia, plaza españa etc) to watch the literally thousands upon thousands of old Spanish ladies, mostly in traditional Aragonese dress, bringing flowers to the Plaza del Pilar to offer to the saint. There is a huge structure there in the square that eventually ends up covered from head to toe in beautiful flowers and stands there for the rest of the week looking pretty impressive. The crowds on this day are absolutely mad, so it’s better to relax and walk at a slow Spanish pace for the day.
13th – the ‘ofrenda de frutos’ (offering of fruits) – this is a similar concept to the ofrenda de flores, but this time, fruits are brought to honour the saint. Unfortunately we managed to miss this both years, but it’s generally a must-see as well. Afterwards, the fruit is donated to the poor/homeless of the area.
The ‘rosario de cristal’ – apparently this is a pretty major part of the festival as well. Various ornate glass artifacts are taken around a circular route around the central plaza in a pretty astounding procession. Religious music echoes through the streets as this immense column of people carries lights and the rosarios around the town and huge crowds stand by to pay their respects.
Other major happenings throughout the week:
Each of these are repeated a few times in different locations, so check them out in the programme each time.
— Fuegos artificiales – fireworks. We caught one display this year up in the Parque Torre Ramona, which is a slightly awkward little park off the beaten track. A nice firework display although nothing out of the ordinary. Better to catch the final one on the closing night.
— Los gigantes y cabezudos. Which translates as something like ‘giants and bobble heads’, or at least that’s what I’m going to call them. This is a particularly peculiar part of the festival, which involves a group of ‘gigantes’ aka people wearing huge, towering costumes depicting various historical archetypes of the city who parade and dance in their massive costumes. Alongside them are the ‘cabezudos’, human sized figures with giant heads who dance along. They parade on various days and are mainly popular among kids but quite interesting to see anyway.
— El Oktoberfest. This according to us is the highlight of the week. It takes place every night from 7pm onwards at the Parque de Attraciones slightly out of town. It’s set up a lot like the real thing, with long benches, a German oompah band and huge steins of overpriced beer. Sporadically the band will strike up a rendition of ‘ein Prosit, ein Prosit’ and everyone will get up and yell variations of ‘atrroces, atrroces’ or whatever their interpretation of the words may be. You can almost forget you’re in Spain until they put on the Macarena or another Spanish hit and everyone joins in with the actions and words. One of my favourite nights out ever.
— ‘Luz y sonido’ at Parque Grande. Parque Grande used to be my local haunt when I lived just round the corner by the university. During the fiestas they put on a really pretty event where they light up the fountains in a range of colours and sync them with music. This is from about 8pm-8.30 each night and is a nice, relaxing way to start your evening.
These are my favourite parts of the festival, but there is lots more going on too. There are concerts, events and parties all over the city every single day and night, so it’s best to check SoyDeZaragoza.es and/or the printed programme for more details.
In case you’re planning a week of Pilares fun next year, here are a few practical tips:
— Book your hostel or apartment WAY in advance. Especially for the first weekend, people from all around flock to the city and prices quickly rise whilst good apartments and rooms are snapped up like crazy. Book at least two months in advance.
— Get yourself a place in a good location. My tip is NOT to stay in and around the ‘tubo’ or the centre. Especially around the 12th it becomes a 24 hour riot there, with tens of thousands of people milling around making noise at all hours. Unless you want to party 24/7 and not sleep, I don’t recommend staying there. It will also be very expensive. My recommendation is to look for somewhere near to the University or the Parque Grande, which are all at the other side of town (South of the Ebro river), but with a quick and easy tram ride to the centre. Or you can easily walk in 20 minutes. An Airbnb apartment is a really great option if you’re in a small group.
— The biggest events are on the weekend before the 12th and on the 12th itself, so make sure you keep those days free instead of spending them hauling suitcases around like we did.
— If you miss an event (such as the firework display), they re-do many of them on several days or in different places.
— Keep a copy of the programme and a map with you to find all the events you want to see.
— Fill in the rest of your time sightseeing, visiting bars and enjoying the amazing food around Zaragoza.