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Never a city to shy away from a party, Barcelona is perhaps at its finest during the annual festival of La Mercè. Since 1871 the city has let its collective hair down to commemorate the festival day of Our Lady of Mercy, and today the celebrations last for four days and include everything from international pop acts to the most Catalan of traditions.
The story goes that in 1218 the Virgin Mary appeared to King Jaume I of Aragon (and Count of Barcelona), along with his confessor St Ramón de Penyafort and the young king's tutor, Saint Peter Nolasco. She asked them to create an order of warrior monks whose purpose would be to rescue Christians from the Moorish occupiers of southern Iberia1. The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, also known as the Order of Merced, was duly formed. The Order still exists today and has members in 17 countries. One of the vows devotees must swear is that they will exchange places with any captured Christian 'in danger of losing his faith'.
In 1687 locusts plagued the city, and the city burghers asked the Virgin of La Mercè for help. She was credited with ending the plague, and duly became the city's patron saint. Her festival is on 24 September, and this has become the main day of the La Mercè festival.
In 1868 the Pope finally gave permission for the Virgin to be the patron saint of the city, and three years later 24 September was declared a city holiday. The festival initially grew slowly, and it wasn't until Francesc Cambò, a local politician, began to see the political potential of a Catalan celebration that some of the events we recognise today were introduced. The year 1902 was the first time the festival was celebrated on a city-wide scale with castellers, sardanas and gegants2 - all key elements of the modern festival.
The festivities now go on for a full four days, and at times it seems like the whole city is lining La Rambla or squeezing into Plaça de Sant Jaume waiting for the next event. Almost every event attracts thousands of people – it's not a festival for the claustrophobic!
This Entry will describe some of the main events and spectacles of La Mercè, but the reader should bear in mind that details do change from year to year. For up-to-date information, see the official website. Although the English pages are limited you may be able to get a reasonable translation through Google Translate or a similar service.
The gegants i capgrossos ('giants and big-heads') are a key part of the festival and feature prominently in every parade. The Gegants are enormous papier-mâché figures 12-15 feet tall, built around a frame and carried by a strong (and rather hot) person. They are a source of some pride in Catalonia, and societies exist in most towns and villages dedicated to creating them. Gegants are usually designed to be the likeness of people of local or regional importance and are always in male/female pairs. The two most prominent gegants at La Mercè are supposed to resemble the King and Queen of Catalonia from the days when it was an independent kingdom, whereas the Four Nations Hotel in Barcelona traditionally supplies figures of Frédéric Chopin and George Sand in honour of their stay there.
Carrying the gegant on one's shoulders takes not just strength but also some skill and endurance - parades can last two hours or more. Each pair of gegants is expected to stop every now and then and dance for a moment or two; this involves a lot of spinning around and bobbing up and down, and there is usually a great deal of appreciation from the crowds for a particularly well-executed dance or a giddying amount of twirls. If you're a photographer, keep your eyes peeled for any gegant that appears to have 'keeled over'; the odds are that someone else is about to take over under the frame and these moments provide great photo opportunities.
Capgrossos, on the other hand, are human-sized figures with enormous papier-mâché heads. Being closer to human height, they are usually altogether more friendly characters and wander along the line of crowds shaking hands and giving high-fives.
It's worth noting that children are encouraged to take part in every part of the festival, and you'll often see small children taking it in turns to be a big-head. You'll see children from the ages of ten upwards carrying half-sized gegants (if that makes sense) and playing in the marching bands that accompany each figure.
You really can't miss the gegants. They are the most visible aspect of Catalan culture at the festival and usually parade every day, from near the MACBA art gallery in El Raval, through Plaça Catalunya and down La Rambla to Sant Jaume.
In this fiesta of incredible spectacles, nothing is more likely to set your heart pounding at the front of your chest than the castellers. These astonishingly brave teams assemble towers of humans up to nine people high, standing precariously on one another's shoulders, stoically supporting one another until the tiniest member of the team gets to the top and signals to the crowd that he has reached the top.
These displays attract teams from all over Catalonia, and they assemble in Plaça de Sant Jaume - usually in the midday sun. Marked out by their brightly-coloured scarves, one team will make their way forward, the strongest members making a tough and immovable circular foundation on which the others will stand. Once this pinya is considered strong and secure, the second tier will climb and stand on their shoulders, grasping each other tightly as the next tier climb onto their shoulders and so on. Each successive tier needs to be slightly less strong but certainly more agile, light and fearless, and this often translates into youth. By the fifth tier the climbers tend to be teenage girls and boys, and by the time the final two begin their climb the crowd are 'shush'ing one another into silence. Although the castell has taken moments to build so far, everyone can see the lower tiers shaking under the strain as two small children head for the top. The buildings around the square are insufferably high but by the time the children reach the top their heads are surrounded by blue sky; one lays across the shoulders of the topmost castellers to provide a platform while the other, the enxaneta scrambles onto his/her back. There is silence in the crowd as the topmost child reaches the peak... every palm in the square involuntarily sweats... and then the child's hand is raised, four fingers clearly visible, the signal that the castell is complete. The crowd roars and applauds wildly as the castell disassembles itself with visible relief. The celebrations will go on for many hours.
But it doesn't always happen like this: when a castell collapses, often with a small helmeted child plummeting several storeys into a sea of catching hands, the entire square inhales as one. It is more common for castells to collapse when being dismantled than when being built. The castellers train for such eventualities, however, and serious injuries are rare.
There are a number of different styles of castell, ranging from the pilar de sis (a castell of one person on another's shoulders until the structure is six people high) up to castells with five people in each level.
In November 2010 castellers were recognised by UNESCO as 'an element of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity'.
The fire-run is the most dramatic, exciting and dangerous part of La Mercè. Regular visitors to Iberia will not be surprised to learn that it involves dragons running through the streets breathing fire all over spectators; if it's your first time at a Spanish fiesta, you may wish to keep your distance until you have a handle on things.
The evening begins with a 'children's correfoc', where small dragons chase little children around the streets with nothing more terrifying than sparklers. When darkness falls, however, the drama is ramped up a gear or two...
As crowds gather in Plaça d'Antoni Maura, the Gates of Hell are erected and drummers begin to drum out what we can only imagine is the beat of Hell itself. The tension builds as the start time draws near then passes; the street lights are turned off but we can see the silhouettes of grotesque figures along Via Laietana, which passes through the square. All of a sudden the Gates of Hell are inflamed; fireworks screech and explode from them, close enough for you to be able to check the small print in your holiday insurance for 'acts of Satan'. The fireworks leave clouds of smoke, and as more bangers explode and the drums intensify the dragons make their way towards the gates.
As they pass through, they light their first batch of fireworks. Each dragon has a range of weapons; bangers, rockets, Catherine wheels, some attached to the dragon, some to sticks wielded by the dragons' human companions. Anyone who gets too close is in danger; the dragons will regularly roam into the crowd, literally spraying spectators with hot sparks. Some hardy souls take on the dragons - wearing bandanas and high collars they charge the dragons, diving beneath their fiery maws, showing their bravery and foolhardiness. It is a truly exceptional sight.
Try to get down to Barceloneta beach for the 10pm fireworks at least once during your visit. Every evening of the festival, a different nation takes charge of the fireworks in an international competition, and tens of thousands of Euros are sent into the sky every night. The display can be seen from Port Olympic around the bottom of La Rambla but loses much of its impact from so far away; from Barceloneta the fireworks take over much of the sky and are reflected in the water. It can get surprisingly chilly in the shoreline breezes after sunset, so make sure you take a jacket if you're going along.
Don't miss the final display of the festival, which is held in the area of the Magic Fountain (near Plaça España) and has the Museu National a'Art de Catalunya as its backdrop. The fireworks are set to music and the display is considered to be on par with the best from around the world.
Barcelona Accià Musical
BAM is the music festival that runs alongside and as part of the Mercé celebrations. Over the years it has been host to international acts as well as giving a platform to emerging and local talent. There are no admission fees to any of the gigs. The festival has matured over the last few years since the building of a new concert venue just east of the city at Forum. International acts tend to play at Forum (where TV stations will happily pay money to film big acts in front of large crowds) while smaller acts play in the city centre (subsidised in part by TV money). It is a tactic that has worked; now every major plaza in the centre of the city has its own stage and there are often half a dozen acts playing at any one time. In 2010, with a line-up including Goldfrapp, OK Go and Ash, BAM was nominated as 'Best International Festival' at the UK Festival Awards.
There is something going on almost everywhere, almost all the time. At 8am on the 24th, when most people are sleeping off the first night of festivities, pipers run up and down the streets waking everyone up with flutes. Here are a few of the other highlights, but this list is by no means exhaustive:
The sardana is a dance that happened to be popular in Catalunya at the turn of the 20th Century and was thus incorporated into La Mercè. With the rise of Catalan nationalism at around the same time, the dance was adopted as part of Catalan heritage despite its nebulous origins, and you can see sardanas being performed near the cathedral most evenings. Most observers would say that it is a rather unremarkable and slow dance-by-numbers and many Catalans seem nonplussed by it, but the dance remains popular and those who dance it take it very seriously indeed.
The castle of Montjuïc was used to subjugate the ordinary citizens of the city, to execute nationalists and occasionally to practice firing mortars at targets within the city walls. During La Mercè, it becomes a picnic venue: admission is free, a circus tent is erected, face-painters and jugglers move in. Family-friendly bands such as the Always Drinking Marching Band entertain the crowds from 10am until sunset. If nothing else, it's worth a visit just to get away from the crowds and get a perspective on the city from the skyline.
La Mercè has always had an international touch - heck, for some Catalans even Valencia is foreign parts - but in the 21st Century the festivals have invited a major international city to be a 'guest city'. So in 2010 you could wander around the city and be surprised to hear sabar drumming and hip-hop music featuring rapping in Wolof. Mbalax3, you say? Well, you'd be right - in 2010 Dakar4 was Barcelona's guest city, and musicians from Senegal were invited to Spain to play at the festival.
The City Park (Parque de la Ciudadela) is the focus for the guest city, with events taking place all day. At night the park is transformed into a 'city of light' with art installations and shows going on until the larger small hours.
At MACBA (Museu de Arts Contemporari de Barcelona) in El Raval on the final night there is an Asian festival, with contemporary Asian music and dance from the mid-afternoon. It's well worth going along for an hour if you have time.
The events listed above are the largest and attract most visitors, but there are minor events going on all the time. Want to see a swimming race across the harbour? Taste wines from all the major producers in Catalonia? Buy hippy gear from a temporary market on La Rambla? You got it.
Here are a few extra tips to help you enjoy the festival a little bit more:
The programme for La Mercè is only finalised a week or two before the festival begins, so be flexible when choosing how long to stay in Barcelona. The final firework show is unmissable, so if you're pushed for time it's far better to miss the first day than the last.
Most major British cities have flights to Barcelona airport (BCN), which is only half an hour from the city. The 'Aerobus' seems to run every ten minutes or so to Plaça de Catalunya - you may prefer to take a taxi, particularly if you're staying in the winding streets of Gotic or El Raval. Taxis are reasonable and, contrary to popular belief, as long as you don't wave €50 notes at them, are quite happy to give change.
If your ticket says 'Girona' (GRO), you're landing in the Costa Brava, about 80km from the city - this is a longer journey than you'd think. Girona itself is quite a nice place, but if you're really interested in Barcelona and La Mercè the best plan is to book early and fly direct to Barcelona.
Hotels can be expensive and get booked up early, but apartments are very good value and you can get an apartment for four within sight of La Rambla for €100 if you look around.
Don't try to do too much. If you want to see the castellers at 2pm and a band at 3pm, forget it. Not only are there thousands of people around to hamper your progress, but it takes a lot longer than you'd think for anything to get started, and to move from place to place. Decide on a relaxed schedule and if you end up at a loose end, you'll find it easy to fill your time. If it's your first visit this is especially important, because trying to see all the sights as well as dancing the night away can be hard work. Try to spend at least a day before or after the festival to see the city as it's supposed to be seen.
Pick your events. You'll want to see the gegants, castellers, carrefocs and fireworks at least once each, and there are probably some bands you want to see as well. Plan in advance and make sure they don't clash - many but not all make more than one appearance in the schedule, so with good planning you should be able to see everything you want to see.
Unless you're going to Forum, where you'll be searched and stripped of drinks on entry, buy your alcohol in advance from a supermercado and carry it around with you. If you're on a budget, make some calimocho - Pepsi mixed with the cheapest red wine you can find. Sounds disgusting but far better than sangria!
For the main events - the castellers, the last night's fireworks and the carrefoc in particular - bear in mind that pretty much the whole city wants to get to and from the venue as well. Public transport will be full and you'll either be massively delayed or hideously squashed, so give yourself plenty of time and walk there if you can.
September 24 is a Catalan holiday, and most of the museums are open for free. If you want to see one of the 'big' galleries such as the Picasso Museum this could save you €15 a head or so. The castle at Montjuïc is open for free throughout the festival, so get your money's worth and go somewhere else on the 24th!
If you want to get your camera stolen from your table in front of your nose, your pocket picked in a crowd or your bag snatched on the metro, you're in the right place and time as well. Thefts and scams are not unique to Barcelona, and anyone who has travelled to any of Europe's major cities will probably recognise at least one of them. However, Barcelona does have a reputation for petty thefts and trickery, and despite various initiatives the bigger the crowd, the greater the risk. There's no need to be paranoid, but don't show off your valuables and keep them in zipped pockets - particularly if you're in a crowd, as you may be for much of the time.