Tuesday, September 28, 2010

La Mercè

I’ve said it a million times but I’ll say it again: people over here know how to throw parties.

Last weekend (Sept. 23-26) was the local festival here in Barcelona, La Mercè.  It honors the patroness of Barcelona, Mare de Deu de la Mercè (the Virgin of Mercy), but more importantly it’s a showcase of the most important aspects of the Catalan Culture.  Here’s a day-by-day account of what I was lucky enough to see (as there was so much to see, this post is very very very long…).

*If you would rather see what La Mercè was all about rather than read about it, scroll down to the end of this post for my two-part youtube video*

Thursday night, I went to see an alternative rock group from Valencia called Obrint Pas.  I happened to stumble across them when I was still back in the States, so of course I was thrilled that they were going to be in Barcelona as a part of BAM (Barcelona Acció Musical), Barcelona’s musical scene during La Mercè.  They sing in Catalan, and it’s usually about very nationalistic/independence themes about the Països Catalanas (Catalan-speaking territories).  For some reason, I thought it was going to be very low key, which of course I was dead wrong about.  The concert was held at Parc Fòrum, which is apparently the park where the youth of Barcelona go to party.  Literally, as far as my eye could see there were circles of young people drinking and smoking, not to mention the amount of trash, bottles and plastic bags everywhere. 

Since the home is reserved for family, people party in the street or in bars/clubs.  So, I guess it’s very common to buy a two-liter bottle of pop, mix some alcohol into the bottle and pass it around your circle of friends, right?  Oh, and people were rolling and smoking joints like it was nobody’s business.  This whole scene was kind of culture shock to me, because back in the States the cops would be all over the place, riot gear and all.  However, the only cops I saw were the ones directing traffic, pedestrians and security to get into the concert area.  The concert itself was pretty good, I only recognized three songs but it was still a good time.  It was insane though and when I say insane, I really mean insane.  There were people yelling in Catalan, the band was firing up the crowd, people jumping up and down and random mosh pits everywhere. 

Friday was the actual holiday of La Mercè, so everything except restaurants was shut down.  At around one, in the Plaça de Sant Jaume (the main plaza in the Gothic quarter), there was a castells competition.  Castells are literally human towers and it was quite a sight to see.  There were three different teams of castellers (the human tower builders) from neighborhoods in Barcelona, Sants (where I live), Sagrada Família and Gràcia.  They tried to outperform each other by building the tallest and most elaborate towers.  There were some that were 5-6 levels high (a horizontal collection of castellers is considered a level), and there was another cool one that was 5 levels high with a vertical stack of casterllers in the middle.  I was in awe of the skill it too to build these towers; I still don’t know how they managed to do it without falling over like Jenga pieces.  Oh and my favorite part: who was the bravest person that would climb to the top of the castell?  It was always a little kid with a helmet and they would only stay on top long enough to raise their hand up to get applauses from the crowd.

Later on Friday was La Mercè Cavalcade, the main procession of the Gegants, the 9-10 feet tall protagonists of La Mercè.  There’s a person inside each gegant that makes it walk, run and dance.  However, there’s no electronics involved; the person inside the gegant has to be strong enough to have the thing on his/her shoulders and be able to run and dance in it without falling over.  Just like the casterllers, it takes a lot of skill and it’s incredibly difficult.  The gegants were all very unique; there were traditional ones like the Barcelona giants, the Eagle, the Lion and the Dragon Monster but then there were ones that made me laugh (like the one that looked like Ronald Reagan and a pigeon with boobs).  Also, there were many marching bands that played traditional Catalan tunes with a special type of pipe and drums.  The whole procession marched down Las Ramblas (the most famous street in Barcelona), down to el Barrio Gótico (the Gothic Quarter), past the Plaça de Sant Jaume and finished up at the La Seu (The Gothic Quarter’s cathedral).  We were lucky enough to get a great spot in Las Ramblas where we could see everything and it was definitely a cool parade to watch.

On Saturday we checked out the traditional Catalan dance, Sardana, in Plaça de Sant Jaume.  A lot of Spaniards consider this to be a very lazy and boring dance but I found it to be quite moving, especially considering the history behind it.  When Franco came into power not only did he outlaw the public use of Catalan, but he also banned sardanes.  He was in power for more than 30 years, so for a dance to survive that long under repression is quite an achievement.  Maybe for this reason, a lot of the older participants looked very serious when they were dancing and the music was at times very somber.  To dance you first have to put your belongings in the center pile and then join the circle.  Each dance usually lasts around ten or fifteen minutes and then the participants take a little break before starting again.  At first there were maybe only three circles in the plaza, but later when we came back the whole plaza was filled with dance circles, sometimes even a circle within a circle. 

Later on Saturday night all Hell broke loose; no, literally all Hell broke loose.  Near el Barrio Gótico the gates of Hell opened up and out poured the Devils and Dragons into the streets of Barcelona in what is known as Correfoc (Catalan for “fire run”).  This was by far the highlight of the festival.  Although it’s a recent tradition (it was created in the first few years after Franco’s death), it is one of the most popular traditions in Barcelona.  The procession combines huge dragons, ferocious beasts, devils and drum lines.  There were several types of dragons as well as beasts (examples: a three-headed dog, Gaudí’s dragon from Parc Güell, a demented looking pig, and a T-rex).  The people running the festival would attach some sort of tube looking thing (think roll of coins, but much bigger) to either the mouth and/or tail of the dragon/beast, light it, and then it would run down the street chasing people brave enough to get in front of it.  I don’t really know how to describe the flames other than they were huge sparklers on steroids.  When the gunpowder ran out, there would be a flash followed by a very loud BANG and then the people in charge would have to attach another tube to it.  There were also several different styles of shooting off the flames.  Most of the dragons/beasts would sway back in forth while moving down the street, others would aim the flames directly at the participant’s feet while others would shoot flames onto the sidewalks (where I was standing), showering the spectators with flames. 

The Devils were the experienced participants of the festival who dressed up in cloaks and used a pitchfork/spear to fill the streets with flames.  Back behind each block of Devils, there were one to three people who would attach the tube to the Devil’s stick and then light it.  Once the stick was lit, the Devil would gleefully run back up to the other Devils, often with a little hop in his/her step.  The tubes themselves would rotate on the stick so that it moved around in a circle, dispersing the maximum amount of flames everywhere.  As the Devils ran down the street bold spectators would follow the Devil, huddling around him/her as the flames danced around them.  Most of these people were covered head to toe in clothing so as they wouldn’t get burned, but I did see a couple of guys wearing nothing but shorts running in front of dragons and then huddling around a Devil.

After each block of dragons/beasts/Devils a drum line would follow and provide some really good beats.  They sounded like tribal music and they really got into the spirit of things too.  They would enthusiastically bang on their snare or base drum while jumping up and down and screaming at the top of their lungs.  They really added to the whole atmosphere of the Correfoc and, being a band geek, they were really fun to listen to.

Sunday was unfortunately the last day of the festival but it went out with a bang (pun intended).  At ten o’clock all of Barcelona gathered at the base of Montijuïc (the main hill of Barcelona) to watch Piromusical.  It’s also probably the most popular event of the festival because the entire plaza was filled, from the fountain all the way pass the round a bout.   The show was an awesome musical fireworks display that took place against the gorgeous backdrop of Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.  There fireworks were set music with near perfect timing as the Magic Fountain of Montijuïc put on a show that would rival any fountain in Las Vegas.  Before the last block of fireworks, everyone lit a sparkler and held it up in the air; it’s a cool little tradition that the locals do.  Overall, it was a great way to end what was a truly remarkable weekend.

All and all, there’s one word I can use to describe the festival: incredible.  I’m so happy that I chose to study here in Barcelona.  I’m so happy I decided to study in the fall, because if I didn’t I wouldn’t have been able to experience La Mercè.  I may sound obnoxious at this point, but I’m just so happy that I get the opportunity to spend three months here in this city to learn not only the language but also to learn about their traditions and culture.  Though I love the rest of Spain, my heart now officially belongs here in Barcelona and it will forever be in Catalunya.

Of course, you can see all my pictures from La Mercè, here, or you can check out the sidebar.  However, to get the real feel of what it was like to be at La Mercè, you should check out my two-part youtube video of it at the bottom of this post (just click on part 1 and/or part 2).  It gives you a taste of the castellers, the Cavalcade, saradanes, Correfoc and Piromusical.  As with the rest of this post, the videos are pretty long (2 parts, about 6 minutes each), but here are the times you can go to if you want to see a specific part:
Part 1 - Sardana: 0:11           Castells: 1:38            Cavalcade: 3:45
Part 2 - Correfoc: 0:06          Piromusical: 3:19

¡Espero que disfrutes!

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