There’s a certain kind of magic that attaches itself to capturing life through an unfiltered lens. Squinting into the eyepiece of a cheap Boots disposable camera and pressing that little button with the ever anti-climatic click, followed by the period of unknown before you get the pictures developed and cling onto a real, physical packet of mystery photographs; moments of history that you can hold in your hands.
The smell of the fresh matte paper unseals itself as you slide the wad out and feast your eyes on the memories you made that are now visions of the past. The way you laugh in hidden despair when you realise a large proportion are half-covered with your friend’s fingernail, and the slight sigh of disappointment you feel when you realise you didn’t use the flash and some barely even show up.
Yet none-the-less there is a handful of photos that tell the story of a time that can’t be relived quite as authentically through your iPhone screen, and that transport you with subconsciously-smiling nostalgia back to the festival in Spain in June 2019.
These five days likened to a coming-of-age movie in some ways: my brother’s last summer before starting university; my first summer out of education and in full-time employment; the first trip abroad with my boyfriend, and the gelling together of an unlikely group of friends.
Behind the grainy shots is a tale of late nights and early mornings with a pint of lager; of walking thirty minutes across the city of Bilbao with a broken suitcase and buses that either didn’t show up at all or that all turned up at once (whichever one you didn’t require at the time).
I’ll fill you in on some of the highlights, but sometimes I think it’s more entertaining to let our imaginations run wild and gain our own perspectives on what was happening behind the scenes – so I’ll leave the rest up to you to interpret as you will.
Whilst some of us slept on the plane, some of us got into the holiday spirit with a few cans of Heineken (naming no names) and set the tone for the next five days. Halfway to our hostel our giant suitcase, which contained the tent and most of my belongings, was under so much pressure that one of its wheels burnt off (full blame goes to the weight of the tent and not my tendency to overpack).
By the time we had unloaded and settled into our room we were ravenous, thirsty and keen to explore, so walked the short distance into the Old Town in search of the remedy. As I was swiftly reminded from my previous trip, Spain doesn’t cater brilliantly to vegetarians and tracking down a cuisine to suit five conflicting bellies turned out to be a laborious and irritating task – let’s just say when it came to the men in the group, ‘hangry’ didn’t even cover it.
Finally we located the one dining experience that everyone can agree on (and that is universally good wherever you are): pizza. Josh was met with a quizzical look when he requested the largest on the menu – for himself – but the woman didn’t question him despite the serving size suggesting a party of 10.
As is often the case abroad, the meals you remember most vividly are the spontaneous ones eaten quickly when you’re desperately hungry, sat in curious back-rooms and washed down with a bottle of beer. It’s not so much the food you recall but the place, the satisfaction and the camaraderie. The cafe also served popular ice cream, and the two members of staff on duty were evidently bowled over by our demand for a freshly-made pizza each.
We all tucked into the orders as they came out one by one (especially Josh’s which realistically should have fed us all) while waiting for our own to be cooked, savouring the flavours and swigging from our bottles and admiring the quaintness of the hideaway. Then we spilled out onto the cobbled streets with full stomachs, and in true Brit fashion followed drifting music to enticing bars and indulged in a few too many.
On arrival at the campsite the following morning we proceeded to bewilder staff with our unprecedented and irrational quantities when the stewards realised our tent wasn’t going to fit in the neatly organised rows. In a sea of two and three man tents, we struggled to erect our humble 6-9 man (not least because we had limited instructions and hadn’t been smart enough to practice putting it up at home).
We were sent to the corner to pitch up while streams of newly arriving campers flooded in next to us. As we scratched our heads and argued over which pole went where we had to keep awkwardly apologising in the most disgustingly British manner and asking the people next to us to kindly move down a bit more, as our tent kept surprising us with how bloody big it actually was. It’s also an awful, suggesting brown colour so at least it was easy to spot when drunk and meandering aimlessly through a maze of guy ropes.
The main arena didn’t open until Thursday so we squeezed in a fleeting trip to the nearest beach and then met up with our final attendee, Ali, who had been travelling all day. Buses up to the campsite and festival run from the local stadium, where we waited after collecting some supplies from Aldi (Pringles, Baby Bells, £1 wine – the necessities). The other route is to walk up the steep mountain path, which we half considered when one of the stewards informed us it was going to be a 2 hour wait for the next bus.
By this point we were a bit fed up, but decided to see the funny side by plonking ourselves in a circle on the floor, cracking open beers and passing them round and tucking into the Baby Bells. The sun set as we talked and laughed and realised this was exactly what we’d be doing back at our tent anyway. I realised I had packed the speaker in my beach bag and we delighted the fellow tired festival goers in the queue by blasting out music from the Bilbao line-up.
Occasionally, the people you surround yourself with have the power to transform even the most annoying situations into a fun adventure. That’s exactly the outcome with the 6 of us. We had as much fun waiting for the bus as we did enjoying the rest of the festival. These people also tend to help you see the beauty in scary predicaments. Later that night we stayed up with one friend who eventually had to go to hospital, and although we were worried and drowsy from lack of sleep as the sun had started coming up, the experience brought us all closer together and we stood in awe of the sunrise.
All reunited later in the day, we explored the site and napped and as the weather was so glorious we made use of the cold showers dotted around outside. The water took some getting used to but offered an unique view of the hilly scenery and the freezing shock woke us up with a new lease of life. The timetable for Bilbao was nocturnal: acts started at 5pm and DJs led the party until 6 in the morning, so the long hot days were an opportunity to relax and rejuvenate ready for the next round.
Live music is the best medicine, in my opinion. Our group has a deliciously similar taste and along with the artists we were all looking forward to, we swapped recommendations and discovered new favourites, too. It’s funny to recall how we came to love certain bands; we danced to Slaves on Friday night (and actually bumped into Isaac wandering round the grounds) and reminisced about me introducing them to my brother to years ago. I should point out that there’s two Josh’s in the gang: one brother and one boyfriend – and yes, it’s as confusing as it sounds.
Thursday night saw the likes of Sleaford Mods and Liam Gallagher, but the late night took its toll so badly half of us missed The Voidz (headed up by The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas) in favour of some sweet sweet sleep.
Our little morning tradition became queuing up for an hour to get an iced coffee to overcome the sweaty morning tent wake-up (if you know you know) so you can imagine how unbelievably hilarious we found it when realising on the final day that exactly the same coffee cartons were also sold at the camp shop (where there is virtually no queue).
Our Josh managed to misplace his phone whilst moshing around with his bumbag open and luckily a lovely Spanish man charged it up and contacted us to give it back.
Friday was the big one: The Strokes on the main stage! A rare kind of band that somehow effortlessly has a repertoire full of bangers and who have set the soundtrack to a lot of my life. We warmed up watching Idles (who I accidentally saw three times this summer) as the sun set and they were genuinely mind-blowing. Once I started listening to their unique mash of ironic, political lyrics and catchy punk melodies earlier this year I couldn’t stop, and feeling the passion pour from their set was electrifying.
The Strokes fired up with Heart in a Cage and proceeded to made my teenage dreams come true – hearing such iconic songs in the flesh made my heart flutter. Their apparent lack of pizzaz and reluctance to play songs from their newer albums was slightly disappointing, but nonetheless it’s a treat to say I’ve seen them and I’ll never forget it!
My bittersweet approach to savouring the last day (half sad it’s nearly over, half happy there’s still the last drops of festival goodness to soak up) was thrown out the window when Our Josh announced he couldn’t find his passport. Initially my attitude was to ignore the possibilities and assume someone had handed it into the lost and found and that we’d collect it later when we went to the arena.
Here comes the downside with having a festival that starts in the early evening (and one that’s abroad): we spent the whole day dealing with a disgruntled brother and our stomachs knotted in case the unthinkable happened. And unfortunately it did. We turned the tent upside down, retraced our steps, asked security and started to panic. It’s these times my anger swells at the laziness and supposed privilege of the English language – we expect everyone to understand us and when they don’t we’re shocked. If only I hadn’t been so naive in school and studied another language.
Figuring out what to do next was a nightmare. Although it never crosses your mind because it’s pretty stupid for someone to actually lose their passport whilst on holiday, you’d think these situations must happen all the time. Once we finally grasped that Josh needed to get to the police station and ask for emergency travel papers, I was devastated because it surely meant we’d miss the last night of music and freedom and fun. I was obliged to either go with him or be the worst big sister ever, and obviously I chose the former because I couldn’t let him go it alone.
Luckily I did, as our journey to town was not exactly straightforward. Buses had stopped running people back into town, so halfway down the mountains we had to try and catch a service bus. My Spanish is incredibly limited (Hóla? Gracias?) and resorted in a game of charades with locals to gather information. Times like these seem to restore my faith in humanity, and thanks to the kindness of strangers we made it to the police station.
The bus driver exerted all effort to understand us and scribbled down the route to take back to the festival on a piece of paper and dropped us right outside the building we needed. The policewoman typed all of our conversations into Google translate and eventually assured us the documents would ensure Josh could fly in the morning. It would turn out they wouldn’t be accepted (which deep down I think we knew) but the false hope allowed us to fully appreciate the last night of our trip.
The night turned into a mission to get back on time to see the acts we wanted to, which was a far cry, but again thanks to the generosity of locals we were directed to the right bus and dropped off at the gates! Unknown experiences in unfamiliar places throw you into such a negative mindset, heightening senses and blinding you to rational thinking, so I’m quite surprised that I kept a level head and worked to help Josh sort the problem out. The situation was emotional and turned out to be an unlikely bonding moment – we shared beers and stories and secret sibling gossip on the way back up, and I’m pretty sure it taught him to keep his bumbag shut too.
Our celebratory return led us to see Boy Azooga, Weezer, Hot Chip and for a well earned boogie in the dance tent. When morning came we were all 100% ready to head home (especially Gwyn whose stomach got the better of him on the bus down to the stadium). Josh didn’t make it on the plane, but he survived for three more days and had quite the adventure travelling 5 hours to Madrid to get a temporary passport and making the most of an extended holiday.
In the wake of the seriousness of our climate change situation I think it’s important to mention that while we had a fucking brilliant time, I won’t be returning to Bilbao BBK unless they decide to have a total rehaul of their system. Buses would either not turn up to take huge crowds where they needed to go, or they would wait for a couple of people to climb on and then drive away – an absolutely unnecessary waste of energy and polluting toxins.
The water facilities were absolutely dire. There was nowhere in the arena to fill up water – you were encouraged not to bring in empty receptacles, so the only option (other than dehydration) was to purchase a tiny plastic water bottle from behind the bar and they WOULD NOT LET YOU KEEP THE LID!!! Please someone explain to me the logic behind this?! Very frustrating and upsetting, not just in terms of global warming, but also for general health.
It might seem funny that I have just waffled on about our wonderful trip, only to advise you not to go, but I’m hoping it will raise awareness of how far behind some organisations still are in comparison to the role models like Glastonbury. In their defence, a charity for refugees asked for any unwanted items to be donated to a stall that appeared on Sunday morning, which was both helpful in disposing of heavy baggage like toiletries, and a resourceful method to help those in need. Unfortunately this doesn’t outweigh climate change, though, and more must be done by all of us – even if that’s refusing to attend an event you love.
I hope you enjoyed a summary of our adventures! I’m certainly looking back at these photos with fondness and longing as we trudge slowly into autumn… More festival film highlights will be coming this way as the season has come to a close and ‘normal’ life resumes.