We arrived in Barcelona around noon, under grey, menacing skies, and humid heat. During our taxi ride to our apartment, right away the feel of the city seemed different than any others. The city felt charged, just like the forecast thunderstorms. In chatting with our taxi driver, who immediately converted himself into a tourist guide when he realised we could understand him, he told us we had arrived during one of the most important festivals in Barcelona: La Mercè.
La “Festa Major” is dedicated to the Virgin of Mercy, co-patron of Bacelona and occurs at the time summer changes into fall. In 1865, during a pestilence of locust, the city councillors voted to appeal to the Virgin for help. Soon the locusts were gone; a further appeal for help in 1714 by Barcelona’s Navy turned the tide of fortunes around for Barcelona, making her prosperous and cementing La Mercè as a protector of the city. The festival began in 1875 and has occurred every year since then except for the Civil War years.
As we settled in to our apartment, just off Via Laetana in the heart of El Born, a cacophony of drums erupted, echoing on the adjacent buildings. It was so loud, we had to go out and investigate. We saw teams of drummers roaming around, obviously finished for the moment: we had missed our chance. Little did we know. the drumming was the precursor of the “correfoc” or fire run. After sundown, people dress in huge devils, dragons, fireflies, etc. and walk along the Via Laetana spewing flames out of every possible orifice. The spectators run into their paths and get singed by the sparkles (Think supersize birthday sparkles, add whistles). The monsters are accompanied by hordes of drum players, who chase them down the road. The parade started at 6pm and by 11pm it hadn’t wound down. Here is a preview.
Next day, we went in search of la “sardana” dancing groups at Plaça de la Mercè. This is a traditional Catalan dance, with people dancing in lines and executing a series of complicated steps. Everyone takes part, with the youngsters performing a bit more vigorously. You can see a sample here. They are accompanied by traditional sardana bands, made up mainly of brass instruments.
Another event we wanted to see was the building of the “castellers”, the human towers that can go up to 8 levels of people, culminating into the “canalla,” which means youngsters, who form the “pom de dalt” or the crown of the castle, a very perilous position for ones so young. There are different formations, one more difficult than the other. The competitions are between teams from all over Spain and last over 4 hours in full sun in Plaça St Jaume. The unrelenting sun and the masses of people made us turn back, but we didn’t miss the show. It was televised in direct and was as impressive as if we’d been there.
If this is an indication of what awaits us in Barcelona, we’ll be busy. We couldn’t be happier.