Festivals and celebrations are a way of reaffirming our roots and recalling our customs, traditions and culture. Each one us has that special memory of a festival that we most enjoyed, a celebration that we most looked forward to every year, a carnival or fair that we just could not get enough of.
Given an opportunity, we would immediately attempt to relive those precious moments, irrespective of how old we are. I got one such chance at the La Mercè festival in the Catalan capital of Barcelona this September.
A vibrant and colorful celebration, the La Mercè takes place towards the end of September to herald the onset of the autumn months, and accordingly, most of the fun takes place in the open. Held in honor of Mere de Dieu de la Mercè, the Patron Saint of Barcelona, the festivities officially kicked off in the year 1902. Since then, the festival has survived the checkered history of the Franco regime to serve as a model for the other festivals in the Catalan region, combining tradition with innovation.
Over 500 big and small events are scheduled at numerous venues throughout the Spanish city of Barcelona, including parades, music concerts, fireworks displays, dance performances etc. But it is the unscheduled and impromptu street performances by talented musicians that truly turn the celebrations into one big street party.
The Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic) of Barcelona with its labyrinth of narrow, winding streets and the multitude of squares and plazas provides the perfect setting to this century old festival-wandering through its narrow alleys, I chanced upon some beautiful snippets from the Catalan culture, like the Sardana dance, the national dance of Catalonia.
Less flamboyant than the flamenco, its steps are no less intricate. The dancers form a circle and with raised hands follow the leader who sets the pace and the movements. The spectators and passersby join the ever-expanding circle or form circles of their own. Looking over the final spectacle of five circles dancing together at the Nova Placa with the 13th century Gothic cathedral in the background, it wasn’t difficult to imagine how it would have been in the olden days.
The Castellers keep alive a cultural tradition that is peculiar to the Catalan region: erecting human castells (a Catalonian word that means castle). Rival groups competed to build human towers, sometimes a high as 10 storeys.
The finishing touch was given by a young child who would climb to the top of the tower and stand up showing a perfect combination of agility, teamwork and balance.
The other highlight of the festival was the opening procession (Toc d’inci), a parade of mythical figures of Giant and ‘big heads’ from medieval Barcelona. At the huge Placa Sant Jaume, the figures danced to traditional music by Ministers del Cami Rala, a group of 40 players of popular musical instruments that meet only once a year for this very purpose. These giant figures participate again at the biggest parade of the festival; they take almost three hours to reach their destination, dancing and twirling for the audiences lining their path.
A recurring theme throughout the festivities is the celebration of fire, whether it is the small but exciting display at the end of Toc d’Inci or the Fire Run, also known as the Correfoc. One of the most momentous parts of the La Mercè celebrations, the Correfoc involved 400 costumed fire-breathing devils running through the streets spitting fire and throwing fireworks. The festival culminated with another exhilarating display of fireworks choreographed to the music from film sound tracks.
Undoubtedly, one of the best times to visit Barcelona, the La Mercè festival has something happening for all interest groups. For example, the open air BAM (Barcelona Accion Musica) music festival featured artists like “La Guardia, one of Spain most popular pop-rock bands as well as other avant-garde musicians. The Wine Festival, which runs concurrently to the La Mercè, provides an opportunity to sample Cava, the high quality sparkling wine produced in Catalonia as well as some other local produce.
On a designated day, there is also free entry to a host of museums and galleries, including the Picasso museum, the maritime museum etc. The Montjuic castle, which was an army barrack not so long ago, provides complete entertainment for the family, with clowns jugglers, acrobats, magicians and trapeze artists vying for attention.
All good things come to an end and so did the festival of La Mercè. For me, this snapshot of the Catalan traditions was like journeying back in time when such simple pleasures of life were highly treasured.