Impressions of Barcelona

October 1st, 2006

 Timing is everything. Almost exactly three years ago, I was in Barcelona. At the time I was blown away by the city, partially because as soon as I arrived it launched into the festivities of La Mercé. The city's biggest festival, it lasts four days, all day and all night, with continuous live music performed on outdoor stages, parades, gegantes, and a generally festive mood. Imagine my excitement when I learned that the same feste would be going on during this year's visit, by no intentional planning of my own.

The parades bear no resemblance to what I was used to thinking of as a parade. I picture what we have in the US, the somber, serious, sometimes sad processions of the Fourth of July or Memorial Day. I picture the surly high school students in the marching band simpering cynically down the street, the soporific strains of John Phillips Souza sounding out, sometimes in sync, more often not.

 No, there is no trace of somberness or cynicism in the Barcelona parades. They are fun, joyous events, for all ages. From the small children throwing confetti in strangers faces by the light of street lamps to the students in the local liceo tooting happily on their musical instruments and banging enthusiastically on their drums, to the oldest citizen raising a can of beer that he bought from some guy on the street corner. These people are full of energy, and they know how to have fun.

How can you not have fun when marching and dancing with gegantes? These "giants" are double-to-triple-life-size papier-mache creations. Big burly men carry them through the city, making them spin and dance to the music. They are at once noble and comical. And they're everywhere.

Then you have the Castellers. This took my breath away the first time I saw it. Human castles made by standing one upon another's shoulders, up to dizzying heights. The photographs cannot capture the tenseness and excitement as the castells are being constructed, one layer at a time. The base of the castle is a ring of more big burly men, with each succeeding level getting smaller and smaller, until the top person I swear must be two years old. They climb the tower of people, sometimes seven or eight lengths high, with no apparent fear and perfect agility. I have seen one or two topples (although not this year), so that makes it all the more impressive.

I don't think I slept for more than an hour per night while the celebrations were going on. If you're ever in Catalonia during the end of September, be sure to stop by Barcelona for the Feste de la Mercé. And say hi to the gegantes for me.