Over the past few days, I’ve been reliving some of my favourite memories from Barcelona’s La Mercè, the annual festival celebrating the city’s patron saint and Catalunyan culture. During my time in Barcelona, I fit in lots of festivities and parades, from the joyful opening parade to the fire beasts and dragons, to the thunderous wake-up call of the gun-toting trabucaires. And much, much more.
In between visits to Barcelona’s most amazing sights, I stopped by the exhibitions open during the day displaying all of the gegants i capgrossos (giants and big-heads) and dracs i bèsties de foc (dragons and fire beasts). All of the signage was in Catalan, so I missed out on some of the mythology, but learned enough Catalan to know the characters represent the diverse neighbourhoods of Barcelona and the surrounding area, and represent traditional costumes and ways of life. Some gegants were confusing without English translation, like this family of bare-chested bird-headed royalty.
Dragons are popular in many forms, whether large and breathing fire, or compact and colourful.
I wandered among the gegants with child-like wonder, and found some clear favourites, like this set of Gaudi-inspired gegants based on the fantastical chimneys of La Pedrera.
I also really enjoyed the group from La Barceloneta, where I had spied some amazing butterflies earlier in the week.
The gegants and other characters featured in the opening parade, Els Gegants de la Ciutat or the “Giants of the city” belong to the children of Barcelona (legally, the city council) and have a separate exhibition which was popular with festival goers. Within this group, there is a specific hierarchy, steeped in tradition, and it was fun to take notes in Catalan and then eke out a translation on my iPod touch whenever I found some wi-fi. My favourite of the bunch was l’Àliga de la Ciutat or “the eagle of the city,” who was the top character, after the highly-revered king and queen.
It was fun visiting along with local school children. They posed with gegants the same way Canadians pose next to giant strawberries on the side of the road.
There was only one day of bad weather during my visit, which, unfortunately, meant that I missed the amazing castells, or human castles. While waiting for the rain to subside (it didn’t until much later in the day), the castell teams bands took turns playing every traditional song in their repetoire. When they ran out of traditional songs, they started playing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”
Despite the fact I am completely incompetent as a dancer, I was really looking forward to seeing people gather to dance the sardanes or sardana in Plaça Sant Jaume, a Catalan folk dance which celebrates the joy in their culture and their resilience during decades of repression during the Franco regime. It was a lot of fun, but far more complicated than the casual observer may think.
Finally, after a week of unexpected delights, something that truly surprised me. The last parade I watched featured something I honestly had never contemplated, a band on horseback.
If you’re anywhere near Barcelona, there’s still plenty of La Mercè to enjoy, if you can, don’t miss it!