Every year at the end of September this fun-loving Catalonian town erupts into a festive celebration that fills streets and plazas with good cheer and good times in honor of Barcelona’s Patron Saint, La Merce.
Although festivals are somewhat of a common occurrence in Barcelona adding to it’s infectious charm, La Merce is undoubtedly the most important. This particular fete and its link to Barcelona dates back to 1871 when the local government made it an official holiday to observe the Roman Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Mercy, or in Catalan as it is known, La Mare de Deu de la Merce. Although the actual feast day is September 24th the festivities have always and still do take place over a 5-day period beforehand bidding goodbye to the summer with a big bang.
During the 5-day period there are numerous events, activities, performances that focus on popular Catalan and Mediterranean culture however there are not-to-be missed highlights that are a favorite among Barcelona Catalans.
On the top of the most love family event is the Gigantes or Giants Parade. Introduced in the 1902 festival program of activities, the gegants i capgrossos is a parade of gigantic effigies of queens, kings and nobles dressed in historical attire that march through the streets. These looming figures that look like your favorite fairytale come-to-life tower above kids that sit atop their parent’s shoulders as the giants twirl and spin through the streets accompanied by a small groups of percussionists drumming march songs.
1902 also saw the first Castell competition in the city and has become the most spectacular attraction to date. The Castellers, which literally means ‘’castle builders’’ use their bodies to build human towers. The performance resembles something you might see in a circus. The aim is to create a narrow column structure as high as possible forming the tip with a child Casteller.
Typically dressed in a traditional costume of white pants, a wide sash at the waist and shirt, the participants form layers of the tower by climbing on top of one another locking arms and supporting each other on their shoulders. This is a tremendous feat requiring a great deal of planning and teamwork and is a nail-biting site to see.
And because of its popularity, the crowds can number in the thousands transforming Plaça de Jaume into something that looks like a tightly packed can of sardines. Therefore it wise to arrive early or figure out a way to talk yourself into one of the coveted balconies on the facades of the surrounding buildings. Loved by Catalans, funny enough, the Casteller tradition is actually hails from Valencia and is believed to have roots in a type of square dance performed at the Balls de Valencians that concluded with participants forming a small, human tower.
Another one of the more historical traditions is the Sardana performances, a popular circle dance that originated in the Emporda region and gained popularity throughout Catalonia during the 20th century. The sardanistas (sardana dancers) whom are accompanied by the customary cobla (band) can be seen during the 5-day period performing in the streets and town squares in every corner of the city. Oftentimes complete strangers that come across a Sardana can’t help themselves join in, leaving their bags in the center of the dance circle to kick-up their heels for a while.
One of the more recently introduced event traditions and quite possibly the most thrilling to spectators is the correfoc or fire-run. Parading down Via Laietana to a plaza in the Ciutat Vella this festival of fire attracts year in and year out crowds upwards of 60,000 making it the top event of the La Merce.
The evening skies light up as the festivities kick off with a fireworks display where the ‘’Gates of Hell’’ open up releasing ‘’devils’’ to race around spraying fireworks into the teeming crowds of people. Dragons and other fire-breathing beasts that spew sparkler firework flames from their nostrils and mouths take to the streets as eliciting shrills of laughter.
Generally taking place at dusk there are two types of correfocs on the same evening. One, which is tamer, is for children followed by the more rambunctious adult correfoc where the little diablos, whom are actually special community groups that dress up, get a little wild dancing to the drums of traditional gralla bands.
The correfocs are highly colorful but can be a bit dangerous to onlookers therefore some simple precautions to follow if you plan on attending are:
- Wear appropriate footwear like sneakers (to outrun the little devils);
- Shield your eyes when the devils get too close with their sparklers;
- Protect your hair by wearing a hat or a jacket/sweater with a hood;
- Keep your neck safe from flying sparks by wearing a bandana or scarf;
- Earplugs are good idea;
- Wear long sleeves and avoid wearing clothing made out of synthetics
Personally I can’t imagine a better way to bid farewell to summer, my favorite time of year, and welcome Autumn than the way they do it here in Barcelona during La Merce. It almost makes returning to school and work after summer vacation a little more bearable.