An over-the-top garden party has broken out, as if by magic. At 9am the town square was an empty green space. Two hours later, it’s filled with families. Men and women don elaborate hat after elaborate hat that would put Grand National-goers to shame.
Children are lined up to race around a makeshift obstacle course, on donkeys constructed out of brooms and crafting supplies, while a master of ceremonies announces each contestant, celebrating the name not just of the junior jockey but also of their trusty steed.
Later in the day, a Beatles tribute band will belt out “Hey Jude” within view of a mock Underground station that urges would-be passengers to “Mind the Gap”. The day before, none other than the late “Queen” had graced the festivities with her royal wave.
So, what exactly is going on here?
Asnot is a delightful, colourful spectacle spanning not just one day in late July but – at least in 2022 – three days to make up for lost pandemic time. And, perhaps most unexpectedly, it’s nowhere near the site of the British horse racing festival it’s playfully parodying. Ascot, Berkshire, is 1,250 or so miles from Padrón in Galicia, north-western Spain where, since 2014, this festival has captivated locals and turned their town into a temporary living theatre.
Largely under the radar outside Galicia, Asnot is occasionally stumbled upon by outsiders, particularly those – like me – passing through while walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail (it is thought that the remains of Spain’s patron saint were brought to Padrón from Jerusalem before being buried in Santiago de Compostela). Padrón is synonymous with its small green peppers, yet Asnot could put the northern Spanish town on the map for a more eclectic reason.
It all began with a simple idea: to update an outdated tradition. For roughly 50 years Padrón had been hosting an anachronistic donkey race. According to Asnot organisers, they set out to bring some glamour and charm to a new style of gathering, at which donkeys would be the focus of rehabilitation rather than racing.
The name Asnot was the first jumping off point. “Asno” is a synonym for donkey in Spanish, and then came the realisation that it could also be a play on Ascot, the historic British horse race beloved by the late Queen Elizabeth.
It was decided that the festival would, respectfully, take the piss out of British culture – something that has had particular resonance since Brexit – along with serving as a creative and fun celebration.
Yeya Gilino and Antonio Pérez are the forces behind the festival. Both hail from Padrón, as do several generations of each of their families. Gilino has degrees in business administration and cultural management as well as training in design, while Pérez, who has travelled extensively, has expertise in tourism.
In 2014, both were working at O Rincón, a bar in the old town of Padrón. For the first rendition of Asnot, Pérez suggested recreating the atmosphere of Royal Ascot at O Rincón, “turning the bar into a betting house in which customers were invited to become elegant ladies and gentlemen,” he says. It was an immediate success.
Since then, Asnot has grown in scope and size. For instance, 2016 saw the event expand into something “more like living theatre,” according to Gilino. A fabulous cast of actors was hired to play the parts of monarchy and other historical personalities.
In its fourth edition, Asnot became a proper festival – Padrón’s central square was decorated with artificial grass, arches and fences. There were musical performances befitting the theme, including swing, jazz, blues, and an English tribute band. Brincasnot, the children’s activity in which youngsters build donkeys out of brooms and set off around an obstacle course, was launched. And Freddie Mercury and Winston Churchill impersonators mingled with the festival goers.
The following year, 2018, debuted a family-friendly donkey protection awareness walk. Organisers also added a “Camdentown” market stall with Asnot merchandise, and street dance classes taught residents how to lindy hop.
Gilino says that the most successful festival year to date was 2019, when a whopping 15,000 people joined in (the town has fewer than 8,500 residents). The pandemic paused events until a limited version of Asnot returned in 2021, followed by the extravaganza of last summer. There were wooden donkey displays, mural painting, band contests and a hat market that well-known Galician artisans contributed their works of wearable art to.
Plans for this year’s event are now under way, and the intent is to keep upping the ante of creativity and fun. However, Gilino says the premise will always be to bring people together. She and Pérez point to Asnot being a wacky, peculiar celebration that pokes fun at a culture that, really, they admire.
“Asnot is ‘Made in Galicia’ hats, humour, community,” she adds. “[It’s] the intergenerational festival of music, theatre and other arts… Those who go to Asnot become their character and get involved from the moment they design their hat to enjoying the concerts and activities at the festival.”
All bets are off for what this year’s event will deliver.
The nearest airport is Santiago de Compostela, served by Vueling, BA and Ryanair. A Coruna, served by Vueling, and Vigo, served by Ryanair from 28 March are also relatively close.