Holy Week (Semana Santa in Spanish) is the week leading up to Easter. In Barcelona many of the locals leave to spend the week at nearby villages or coastal resorts, so it´s actually an ideal time to visit because there are fewer crowds. And while Catalonia isn´t as well known for its religious celebrations as other parts of Spain, it does have plenty of unique traditions. Semana Santa in Spain lasts for ten days, finishing on Domingo de la Resurrección - what the English-speaking world calls ‘Easter Sunday’.
This year it will take place from 28th of March till the 4th of April
In Barcelona the most important event of Semana Santa is the blessing of the palms on Palm Sunday (Diumenge de Rams), which is the Sunday before Easter. Traditionally godmothers present their godchildren with a large palm branch. The palm carried by boys is plain but the palm carried by girls is decorated with ribbons or candy. It used to be that the palm branches were made by the godmother, but these days it´s more common for them to be bought, which is why on this day the streets are full of stands selling palm branches, especially on Las Ramblas. The palms are taken to mass and blessed by the priest, and then taken home and hung on balconies for the rest of the year to ward off evil.
There is also a procession, known as the Procesión del Domingo de Ramos, which starts at Barcelona´s cathedral, La Catedral de la Seu, directly after the morning mass.
As in other parts of Spain, Barcelona also celebrates Semana Santa with religious processions. One of the most well known in the city begins at the church of Sant Agustí. It normally takes place at 5:00pm on Good Friday in Plaça Sant Agustí, which is located in the neighborhood of Raval, and winds around the old quarters of the city before ending in the same plaza around 10:30pm. There are over 300 participants including musicians and hooded penitents. The church of Sant Jaume, on Calle Ferran in the Gothic quarter also has a procession on Good Friday. It normally leaves the church at 6:45pm.
Hospitalet de Llobregat, a suburb of Barcelona, also has some impressive Semana Santa processions. It´s said that they were started in 1977 by a group of homesick Andalusians who were watching the Semana Santa processions in Seville and missed their traditions so much that they decided to start their own processions. They became known as the brotherhood of Cofradía 15+1, because 15 was the number of the original organizers and the 1 symbolizes Hospitalet. Their processions are unique because they are not organized by the church and have no church involvement. They normally have processions on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.
Easter Sunday in Barcelona is normally spent going to church and then having a meal with the family. If you want to attend Easter mass there are many churches to choose from, but Catedral de la Seu is a good option as afterwards the sardana is danced in the plaza in front.
In Catalonia, the day after Easter Sunday is also a holiday, known as Easter Monday. On this day one of the most important culinary traditions of Semana Santa takes place, known as the mona de Pascua. Pascua in the Spanish word for Easter and mona in the Spanish word for monkey (and also means cute), although most people think the word mona actually comes from the Arabic word “munna” which refers to something you eat. La Mona is actually a cake that is given by godfathers to their godchildren, and which can be decorated with anything from feathers to eggs. The bakers and confectioners compete with each other to have the best monas, and display them in their windows to attract the attention of the children as they go by. If you want to see some of the best you can check out the bakeries on Rambla Catalunya.
There are also several towns and cities outside of Barcelona that are known for their Semana Santa traditions.
The town of Esparraguera is famous for their theatrical performance of the Passion of Christ. The citizens themselves put on the performance and normally over 700 of them are involved. This year it will take place on March 7, 14, 20, 21, and 27, and April 2, 11, 18, and 25.
The town of Verges, near Girona, is famous for La Dansa de la Mort, the Death Dance, in which two adults and three children dressed as skeletons walk along the streets followed by the sound of a drum. It will take place the Thursday before Easter.
The most widely known processions in Catalonia take place in Tarragona. Their most famous is called the Processó del Sant Enterrament (The Holy Burial Procession), which takes place on Good Friday. It dates back to 1550 and is considered by some to be the most important Semana Santa celebration in Catalonia. 5,000 people participate, many of them carrying swords and dressed as Roman soldiers. It starts in the Plaza del Rey at 4:00pm although the actual march doesn´t begin until after 7:00pm.
Visitors should keep in mind that shops will be closed on Friday and Monday as they are both bank holidays and make sure to plan accordingly. If you visit during this week the best option is to make a list of things that you want to see and do and plan the schedule in advance, to avoid arriving to a museum or planning your shopping for a day when they are closed.
When visiting Barcelona on vacation or on business, it is useful to know of the major events that take place in the city each month. Here is a general calendar of events in Barcelona on a monthly basis, and how you can book or get to the event of your choice.
In January the main event in Barcelona is El Dia de los Reyes - the Three Kings Day. This celebrates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus, and takes place on the 5th of January eve each year, the day before Epiphany (12th Night). This is a popular tradition in Spain, and in Barcelona it is celebrated at sea. The crowds gather at the harbour off the Moll de la Fusta, and when the Wise Men’s boat is spotted, fireworks are let off and the foghorns start blowing from the boats in the harbour. There is then a procession led by the mayor, from the Moll de la Fusta through the city centre to Montjuic, where the fountain is floodlit and specially written classical music is performed. It’s a fabulous spectacle and a must for any tourists in Barcelona at that time.
The Wise Men throw sweets for the children who traditionally receive their Christmas presents on this day.
The Moll de la Fusta runs along Barcelona’s main harbour waterfront. For details go to the Central Tourist Office at Plaza de Cataluña (telephone +34 93 285 3834). There is also a tourist office at Terminal A of Barcelona Airport.
The outstanding event throughout Spain during February is the Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) season, the days leading up to Lent. This 10-days pre-Lent carnival takes place all over the city with processions, dancing, street markets and concerts. Though compared to other parts of Spain, Carnaval in Barcelona is a low key event. You are likely to see market stalls owners dressed up in some funny costumes, so buying the fish in the market during the days of carnival may be an exciting experience.
The street celebration on the Saturday is known as the Gran Rue de Carnaval, or just ‘Carnaval’. Don’t miss it, although by far the most exciting Carnaval takes place in Sitges, a Bohemian resort named the ‘Gay Capital of Europe’. Whether you are gay or not this is worth visiting, and with parades given the names ‘Debauchery Parade’ and ‘Extermination Parade’ you know you are going to get your eyes opened wide!
MARCH - APRIL
Setmana Santa (Holy Week) is the Easter celebration in Spain. Barcelona offers you a number of events including traditional Catalan music and dancing. Chocolate Easter eggs are popular and the kids will love a trip to Barcelona’s Chocolate Museum.
A number of religious processions held on Palm Sunday and throughout the week leading up to Good Friday. On Palm Sunday palm leaves are blessed in churches and the traditional Easter cake mona is eaten on Easter Monday.
Churches around Barcelona participate but the major processions take place in Barri Gotic.
St. George’s Day is on April 23rd, also, known as Diada de Sant Jordi who is the Patron Saint of Catalonia. This is the most romantic day in Barcelona for young lovers, when men give women roses and the women give their men a book in exchange; although nowadays in the interest of gender equality many men give women a book also. As a consequence book- and rose-sellers will be out and about in the city. Las Ramblas is the best place to find the bookstalls for your lover.
In Barcelona, as in many other cities and countries, May Day (1st May) is a day of marching by trades unionists. If you go to the Carrer de l’Hospital in the Fira de Sant Ponç you find stalls selling herbs, health foods and natural remedies in the street at this time.
Corpus Christi is also in May, but sometimes in June, and in Barcelona if you go to some of the city’s fountains, you should find hollowed out eggs dancing at the top of the spout. This is known as l’ou com balla, or the ‘dancing egg’. The eggs should be white, with the shell representing the body of Christ, and the water his resurrection. If the shell doesn’t break it means good luck until next year. See this beautiful tradition at the Catedral de la Seu.
The Verbena de Sant Joan is celebrated on 23rd June as the midsummer solstice (though the actual solstice varies). Bonfires are lit in the streets and the parties start in the evening with drinking, dancing, fireworks and coca - this is a special cake baked for this celebration.
There is also a tradition to have the first dip in the sea at the dawn.
Sonar is festival of music and dance held in June, and is the world’s premier festival of electronic music and audiovisual art. It is techno-music at its best, and its sole aim is to encourage freedom of music no matter how it is produced. In 2010, this will be held from 17th - 19th June though many events will straddle these official dates. Tickets are on sale now. For details contact firstname.lastname@example.org
El Grec is a music and theatre festival that takes place each year on Montjuic Hill - in the amphitheatre close to the Olympic Stadium. It is named El Grec after the Grecian design of the amphitheatre. It offers a wide range of entertainment each year, previous years offering stars such as Craig David, Joss Stone and Brian Wilson. There is something new each year and the dates for 2010 have yet to be announced so you cannot book them yet.
The Festa Major celebrations in Gràcia are renowned all over the city. This celebration on 15th August marks the Feast of the Assumption, and the streets are filled with floats, decorations, music and lots more. The ‘Castellers‘ form human pyramids, and the ‘devils’ roam the streets with fireworks. There is lots of street entertainment, and the Catalans generally do what they do best: enjoy themselves and entertain others. There are games, orchestras, theatre shows, dances and anything else you want. This is Barcelona’s top festival, so be there to enjoy the 600+ events.
La Diada de Cataluña is the national day of Catalonia. This is September 11th, the date that Barcelona was besieged during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, and effectively celebrates the autonomy of Catalonia. This is a day of independence, with demonstrations and wreath-laying, and of great interest to those wanting to understand the Catalan view of independence. The people fly their flags and dance in the streets.
Though it is rather a serious day by comparison to other festivals and you are likely to see political demonstrations.
La Mercè gives honour to La Mercè, Our Lady of Mercy, who is the patron Saint of Barcelona. The traditional castellers and giants walk the streets, along with all the other traditional entertainments provided during the Festa Major. Concerts of all types of music and traditional dances take place, and fireworks and a final night involving dragons and the ‘correfoc‘ or fire run, with people running around carrying lighted fireworks and ’sparklers’. It is one of the best festivals in the city.
Dia de la Hispanitat is the main national event in October: it is held on October 12th, Spain’s national day celebrating the date on which Christopher Columbus is believed to have discovered the ‘New World’. Because of the nationalistic feeling of the people of Catalonia, it is no surprise that this national holiday is not celebrated to the same extent as in Madrid or any other city outside Catalonia. You will find the occasional celebration, but you will also find a number of demonstrations. Catalonia and Spain are a bit akin to Scotland and the UK.
All Saints Day is the day after Halloween, and celebrated in Barcelona as a day when we remember our dead. The people of Barcelona visit the cementery to lay flowers to the graves of their loved ones and pay their respects, and then will traditionally eat castanyes (roast chestnuts), boniatos - sweet potatoes and panellets - marzipan cakes made from potato, almonds, pine nuts and sugar). Munch these with some sweet white wine, Muscatel is traditional, and you are in heaven!
Nadal - Christmas: as in all other Christian countries, there is only one great festival in December. It starts at the beginning of the month when stalls are set up in areas such as Fira de Santa Llúcia around Barcelona Cathedral in the Plaza de la Seu in the Barri Gotico - the Gothic Quarter. This is one of Spain’s most famous Christmas markets, and goes on until 23rd December. It is a wonderful exhibition of decorations, trees, gifts, figurines and nativity dioramas (pessebre).
If you are in Barcelona at Christmas you are likely staying with friends or relatives, or on an arranged tour. Make sure to pay a visit to the Cathedral and get some Christmas shopping done - it’s a fabulous experience, even if you purchase nothing.