Surviving Spain

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Surviving Spain

Every year for the past fifteen, over 200,000 people converge on the coast of Spain for the annual music festival, Festival Internacional de Benicàssim, for four days of live music, partying, and hanging out at the beach. What could possibly go wrong?

By Laura Bridgestock

It’s 8:30 a.m. I’ve been asleep for three hours. It feels like I’m in a sauna.

Actually, I’m in a tent at one of the world’s largest and best-known music festivals, the Festival Internacional de Benicàssim, located in the port town of Benicàssim, Spain. Now in its fifteenth year, the festival has become a major draw for fans around the world of indie rock and electronic music, with bands like Oasis, Franz Ferdinand, and The Killers all headlining this year.

I’d been worried about camping in the Mediterranean in mid-July and, as I’d feared, sleeping late is really not an option in this weather. The music doesn’t start until late, so there’s not much to do during the day other than crawl out of your tent, load onto the festival-sponsored bus heading to the nearby beach, and snooze in the shade or drink a cool sangria in a bar. By around 7 p.m., just as it starts to cool down, everyone’s ready to head back and start all over again.

In fact, heat turned out to be the least of our worries in a trip that began with one of our friends getting mugged and ended with all of us missing our flights home. Not to mention the gale-force wind storm that caused chaos in the middle of the week. Don’t get me wrong, Barcelona (where the mugging happened) is an amazing city, and FIB is a brilliant festival, but it ended up being a lot more dramatic than I’d planned for. After all, Spain is the most popular holiday destination for Brits like myself, and a good 60% of people at the festival were British, so I guess I was expecting things to go a bit more smoothly (especially after my adventures in Syria last year).

We arrived in Barcelona a few nights before heading down to the festival. After months of practically everyone I know telling me how amazing the city is, it had some pretty hefty boots to fill, and I wasn’t disappointed. While Barcelona doesn’t have the impact of a skyline-based city like New York or London, it’s packed with attractive buildings, bustling plazas, and impressive monuments. We did a quick tour of the Gaudi hotspots which lived up to their reputation. Ok, so claiming the man was “the most universal genius ever” (I quote from the audio guide to Casa Batlló) might be a bit over the top, but his work is truly magnificent. Aesthetically, his designs are truly arts of work, and his new uses of traditional crafts such as mosaic and glasswork have inspired countless after him.

benicassim2After ticking off the cultural box (and having spent the night both in a police station and at the consulate getting an emergency passport after a mugger took my friend’s bag), we were ready to hit the festival. Luckily, we’d booked a train for the roughly 2 1/2 hour trip south along the Spanish coastline (we met quite a few people who hadn’t and were forced to dole out hundreds of euros for a taxi from Barcelona to Benicàssim). We’d also asked some friends to save us some camping space, which was a good idea as the site was packed. This year was one of the biggest yet, with over 200,000 tickets sold.

As I mentioned, more than half of those 200,000 were British, and it was quite surreal walking through the small Spanish town surrounded by the sound of accents from East London and South Wales. The atmosphere was generally relaxed and friendly, like a big party with everyone looking out for each other. But, unavoidably, there were a minority of the kind of people who “give the British a bad name,” and some returning festival goers I spoke to complained that the line-up had attracted a different kind of crowd this year, perhaps due to more mainstream bands like Oasis playing.

benicassim3Speaking of Oasis, they were pretty impressive live. I also enjoyed Maximo Park, Franz Ferdinand, White Lies, Friendly Fires, and Glasvegas. But the two performances that really stood out for me were Elbow and Pete Doherty. Another highlight of the festival was the silent disco tent. Here you get a set of headphones and switch between channels run by two DJs depending on what mood you’re in (hmm, techno or Baywatch soundtrack?). Great fun.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see Kings of Leon due to the wind storm that wiped out a whole night of music and about half the tents at the festival. Luckily, mine survived, and by the morning the wind settled so we were able to wipe the dust out of our eyes and head back to the beach.

The festival organizers couldn’t have prevented the storm, but they definitely could have improved the information service. Aside from cancellations due to the weather, there were a lot of unannounced changes to the line-up, which meant I ended up missing some of the bands I’d planned to see. But the biggest mess-up was when we came to leave. We’d booked a bus from Castellón de la Plana — about 20 minutes away — to take us back to Barcelona for our flights home. According to the festival information office, all we needed to do was get a bus from outside the train station. After a last night partying, we packed up and set off, only to find no buses, and another “information office” that told us to figure it out ourselves. So we jumped on a train to Castellón which, ironically, broke down due to overloading by festival goers.

The end of the story: we missed our flights (as did lots of other people, as we found out when we tried to get on new ones). But we still had a fantastic time. Great bands, perfect beaches, sunshine and sangria: What’s not to love? It’s no wonder the Festival Internacional de Benicàssim is getting more popular every year (though the British Festival of Benicàssim would be a more appropriate name). Believe it or not, tickets are already on sale for next year. Remember to bring your patience. I’ll see you there.


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