It’s the weekend of La Mercè here in Barcelona which is a three day holiday celebration to Our Lady of Mercy, an enormous festival consisting of papier mache giants, the Correfoc (fire parade), pyro-musicals (or insane fireworks show with music), Sardanas, an awkward Catalan dance (mostly done by all the old ya-ya’s as they call them), and everyone’s favorite, the Castells, or human towers. At night, there are light shows, fountain shows, concerts, and other festivities all over the city.
So here’s the schedule of activities:
Friday: Free concert with my favorite Spanish band, Vetusta Morla
Saturday: Free concert with another one of my favorites. Did I mention it was free?
Sunday: Castells, Correfoc (fire parade), Sardanas, clubbing (okay, so that was our own improvisation, but still…)
Monday: Parade of Giants, fireworks show with Montjuic palace as a backdrop
Overall: Spain, you just get better and better.
So, let’s start from the beginning. Friday, we worked all day in the office. Also, I finally turned in all my papers for my visa renewal, so the big leg of ridiculous papeleo (paperwork) is almost complete. After work, I went out with all of my roommates and their friends to see Vetusta Morla who has always been my favorite Spanish indie-pop band. I had never seen them live before for whatever reason, so I was stoked to finally be able to see them. It was pretty terrific to have finally seen them live. When they played my favorite song, Valiente (brave), everyone went nuts. I’m pretty sure that’s their most widely recognized song because is so filthy catchy you can’t help but love it. That was pretty spectacular.
Saturday, I didn’t do too much during the day. But early that afternoon, I met up with some new friends of mine and we all went to see Love of Lesbian play which was mad chaos because everyone and their moms (…and their nieces, aunts, uncles, nephews, cousins, sisters, brothers, girl friends, boy friends and their dogs…) went.
Sunday is when I got to really experience the Mercè in a cultural sense. So far the free concerts have been terrific, but now it was time for me to participate in Catalan culture.
At noon, I went into the overly crowded center to watch the Castells.
I had seen pictures before either in guide books or on the internet of the Castells, but I never realized that it was a tradition specific to Catalonia. In these pictures, I saw men standing on the shoulders of others, creating these massive human towers that trump American cheerleaders’ pyramids. Either way, I was finally able to see this in person. Knowing that it was something I didn’t want to miss, especially since I still feel a certain disconnect from Catalan culture, I figured that by going to see some of these cultural events, I might be able to identify with a bit more of the culture.
I woke up early and went down to the Plaza de Sant Jaume I only to find thousands of people flooding the square. I slyly pulled out my camera and began to photograph the crowds. I didn’t see any stacks of people yet, but I knew they’d be starting shortly. The crowd all waited impatiently, talking amongst themselves. I was surrounded by Catalan, so I can’t tell you what the people were saying, which is still a weird feeling for me but as soon as the competition began (did I mention that it’s a competition, and it’s apparently very, very competitive), “shhh’s” were uttered all around the square. Voices were quickly hushed and the competitors put on their serious game faces.
The largest men start the base and slowly but surely, the smaller people begin to scale their backs. Eventually, the kids come out, all strapped with black helmets in case they fall. A few years ago, I believe a child fell from the top and was killed so now they require the children to wear helmets. Anyway, as the children begin to climb, breathing becomes limited and suspense builds. Eventually, the last child will finally reach the peak of the human mountain, raise their hand, and the crowd will cheer wildly! Then what looks to me as the hardest part: The descent. Again, slowly and with much caution, the top children start their way down, and finally once the men on the bottom are finally relieved of all the weight, they start to cheer and celebrate their feat.
After the first two groups finished, I went searching for my friend Sara who I work with at BarcelonaSAE. I found her right in front, dead center. At first I thought it’d be impossible to get that far in, but for some reason, where she was, it was much less crowded than the other side that I was on. From there, I was able to get some really great pictures and videos.
One group actually fell. I saw small children get smushed in the piles of large men. I was sure one of them was going to come out hurt, or at least start crying, but not a drop of blood, not even a bruise. Everyone was okay. At this point, I pulled out my video camera, wishing I had filmed the most exciting part of the day, the fall. But I missed it.
However, to combat the loss, the next group was able to get about seven or eight people high, which was quite the spectacle I must admit. I actually thoroughly enjoyed watching the Castells more than I was expecting. I guess just looking at the pictures in guide books isn’t convincing. To me, I just thought it was a big drunken Spanish party (like the Spanish do best), but I was wrong. This takes year-round training and practice. Each group is part of a club and they practice very frequently to prepare for the final competition on the 24th of September. Very impressive.
Later that afternoon, I met up with Emyr, who is a Welsh student at my university. We went to see the Correfoc, which is this crazy parade with all these papier mache dragons the spit out flames in these twirling tornadoes of spark showers. And the crowd just sits still. The children put hoods on and tried to cover their arms, but the majority of the people just stood there and let the sparks fall all around them. Emyr and I agreed that if this were elsewhere, there’d certainly be some sort of legal risk involved with having uncontrolled sparks stinging the crowds. But this is Spain where all bets are off.
Afterwards, we made it back to Sant Jaume I Plaza and watch the Sardanas, which has to be the single funniest thing I’ve ever witnessed. This ridiculous medieval flute-and-tuba music starts playing by a live band and all the old people in the crowd grab hands and start bobbing up and down doing this silly kicking dance. Before you know it, the plaza is jam-packed with all these oldies dancing their pacemakers away. Emyr, who is really into Catalan culture (he has even learned the language) thought it was terrific. As did I, but I also found it to be completely goofy.
Later, I made it back home where I found my roommates and friends all eating dinner, listening to music, and then botellón. Then to the club! We went to this bar that played awesome music, from American oldies to Spanish ska. Terrific night.
Yesterday, the last day of the Mercè, I met up with a friend, Patricia, to go see the Giants. This is a large parade that blocks up the main street right in the heart of Barcelona where people march with drums, flutes, and others carry these enormous, 15-foot giants. Very fun.
From there, we got burgers, and then stood in Plaza Espanya, right in front of Montjuic Palace to watch a fireworks show. I wasn’t expecting too much, but right when they turned off all the lights in the area and the surrounding fountains were all turned off, the palace sitting at the top of the hill was lit up by beautiful blue lights, giving it a completely surreal feeling.
Then the music. Then the fireworks. Now, I’ve seen many firework displays. We’ve got the Fourth of July and I’ve seen Las Fallas in Valencia, but this trumped everything! What a spectacular show! The firework show was just average, but with a lit up Montjuic in the background and wonderful uplifting music coordinated to the explosions, one can’t feel but stuck in a fantasy world. I thought I was in the movie Fantasia. The music was similar and as the fireworks all danced across the sky and Montjuic sat there like a resting beauty, breath was almost hard to come by.
Once the last song started, everyone in the crowd started to pass out sparklers. This hilarious old man gave me one and lit it for me. Then he pointed to the sea of people. Everyone had lit one. That was a crazy site! The world was lit on fire. The sky was burning. Montjuic was being brought down like a Desden firebomb. And the people were a flood of burning sparks.
After the show concluded to large cheers from the crowd, and a very content Graham, I dropped Patri off at her place and I headed home.
So after a weekend of festivities, I’m really starting to like this Catalan lifestyle.
Write more later,