Five to eight meter high human pyramids, getting showered with fireworks, a parade of five meter tall giants, public art and the best music Spain has to offer, what is there not to love about Barcelona’s Merce Festival. Originally organized to honour Mare de Deu de la Merce, the Patron Saint of Barcelona it has now become a big end of summer four day blowout… and it should not be missed! This is a chance to see Barcelona at its’ best and it has something for everyone. I had never even heard of the festival though I was aware of some elements of it.
I arrived in Barcelona, already one of my favourite cities, on September 22, the same day that the four day festival kicked off. As my niece, her husband and I wandered the side streets off of Las Ramblas on that first night, we first stumbled onto a big stage with a jazz performance underway. We thought it was a one off thing, but when we decided to see La Sagrada Familia (Gaudi’s famous cathedral) by moonlight we found an even larger party underway in the square in front of the massive church. Everyone was dancing, drinking (yes public drinking is commonplace in Spain), laughing and enjoying the music. The band playing was similar to the Gypsy Kings but the sound was more a cross between Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. We decided to sit down at one of the outdoor cafes surrounding the square, drinking Sangria, enjoying the music, the warm evening and the company, all making for the perfect night and the right way to start our visit. It was also where I learned the name of the festival so when I got back to my room I Googled Merce Festival and found out about all the events scheduled over the next four days. There were musical stages set up all over the central part of the city with performances at all hours of the day and night (there was a big dance party near my apartment at Placa Espanya that was still booming at 2:30am!). There were also kiosks set up where you could browse through books or artwork or pick up some new clothes or jewellery, most of it by local craftsmen and women. I made a list of some of the things I wanted to make sure I saw and it helped plot out our agenda for the next few days.
The Gegants (or Giants) Parade was like no parade I had ever seen before. Yes there were marching bands but they were playing traditional Spanish instruments beating out a rhythm for the parade, not the typical drums, pipes, brass and woodwinds (although there was some of those as well. Instead of floats, the highlight was the giant figures of huge Kings, Queens, Lords, Ladies and other nobility along with some other characters that parade down the street, twirling around and shaking hands with the children who looked on wide-eyed with huge smiles on their faces.
I also took in the Castellers, basically a human pyramid building competition… but taken to a whole new level… literally. The large teams would carefully orchestrate their tower, the largest and strongest participants on the bottom with the lighter and smaller team members on each successive level with a small child (wearing a foam padded helmet) scrambling to the very top. It was a very fast event; those at the bottom of the tower could only withstand so much. Some would build larger tiers while other groups would opt for a narrower tower with members simply standing on each other’s shoulders (though hardly a simple task). Getting to the top was a major accomplishment; the crowd would become silent as the tower grew in height, erupting in loud cheers when the top level was finally achieved. But then the deconstruction of the tower would be a new challenge… they have to maintain the integrity of the tower or it will completely collapse.
The most fascinating event I took part in was Carrefoc, literally Fire Runs. Community groups dress up as devils and light fireworks while dancing to the traditional Gralla drum beat. What makes it so wild is that the fireworks are lit and sprayed at spectators and others in the parade. It is loud, frantic at times, and only mildly dangerous. It begins with a group of drummers pounding out a rhythmic beat to get the crowd pumped up…that’s followed by a dramatic introduction by two participants in costume moving through the crowd on a 3 meter pedestal joined by a satanic figure with a rams head and holding a giant pitch fork, there are some fiery explosions and then the real fun and excitement gets underway. Teams parade through the Dragon gate, lighting their fireworks, shooting out streams of sparks that would shower down on the crowd, some of whom would run underneath, hunch down and dance around the sparks. It’s best to wear something to cover every part of you… from the top of your head (I had to put out one ember that landed in a girl’s hair and my friend Val got home to discover a hole burned in her sweatshirt) to the tip of your toes and that means long pants and a long sleeved shirt or jacket… no matter how hot it is. The fireworks ‘spray’ isn’t bad it’s when the fireworks have almost extinguished they let out a loud bang and usually fire the cartridge and any remaining embers into the crowd. I got hit in the back by one cartridge and I can tell you it was very hot and I could feel it for a few hours. The embers are also very hot and you have to be constantly checking to make sure you don’t have any on you. There is a tamer version of the Carrefoc Parade for the children a few hours earlier, where the fireworks are not directed at those taking part.
There’s also a full on midway down in Barceloneta Beach with rides and games and candle apples and cotton candy. And if you are down at the beach at night during Merce then make sure to stick around for the fireworks at around 10pm… there’s an even larger display of musical fireworks down at Placa Espanya on the final night of Merce, right after Carrefoc.
If you are planning a visit to Barcelona try to time it so you can be there for the Merce Festival in the fall, you won’t be disappointed. And if you’ve been I’d love to hear what you thought about it… all the highlights.