Revelers party late into the night in Ribadesella (Photo: Helen Bunting)
We knew we were getting close when the tents came into view. Tents of all shapes and sizes, crammed into every green space available. Tents under bridges, tents inches from busy roads, tents where there really should not be tents. Unable to find a space in the crammed parking lots, my friends and I finally left our cars on the side of the road and walked about a mile into the old Asturian port town of Ribadesella.
Every August, Ribadesella and the nearby town of Arriondas play host to the Descenso Internacional del Sella, a huge, international canoe race between the two towns down the Sella River. The festivities that grew up around the event began as a way to celebrate the competition, but according to my Asturian friends, have more or less evolved into an excuse to party. And we--four Spaniards, two Australians and one American (me)--were definitely there to party.
Even so, we were all a bit shocked by what greeted us on our arrival. The town was trashed. Empty green cider bottles littered the plazas and streets. Garbage bins overflowed. Crowds of slightly grimy young people stood about, slowly adding to the piles of rubbish. And everything was wet from the rain.
But it was not long before we ourselves were pouring cider, yanking out the cork with our teeth and passing around the communal cup. Dry cider, or sidra, is the "national" drink of this northern Spanish principality. It is poured from high over one’s head into a slightly tilted glass, and then swallowed in one go, like a shot—except for the very last drop, which is swirled around and then dumped out onto the ground. This is supposed to "clean" the glass, which is shared among friends.
Pour, drink, swirl, pour again. When it began to rain in earnest, we simply moved underneath the awning of a bar with a booming stereo and carried on. As night fell, competing stereo systems blared louder, more people filled the streets, and soon everyone was dancing in the rain. Jolly groups of Spaniards splashed along in front of us, spilling cider and singing Asturian anthems.
It soon became clear that this raucous fiesta was not for the faint of heart. I knew from a previous trip to Spain that Spaniards quite literally party until dawn. But for some reason, I naively assumed that the weather would force everyone home early. Not so. Crowds of revelers continued to pour into the main square. The later it got, the less inhibited men were about relieving themselves. And the cider kept on flowing.
We didn't leave until at least 5 a.m. By then, I had sworn off cider for the rest of my life. And it was still raining.
For more information on the annual Sella festival and canoe competition, check out the Spanish government's tourism website. The town of Ribadesella is 18 kilometers west of the seaside resort of Llanes. It is easily accesible by car, FEVE train (www.feve.es) or bus (www.alsa.es/portal/site/Alsa). It is also close to the beautiful Picos de Europa, one of Spain's most popular hiking areas.