I’ve been to Barcelona twice, and each visit coincided with important Catalan cultural celebrations. As a Canadian who has watched a couple of significant efforts toward independence for Quebec in my lifetime, I thought I had a decent understanding of what to expect when I visited Barcelona on September 11, 2014. It turned out to be so much more than any one thing – it was a  solemn celebration, a raging party and a plan for the future.

Sidebar: September 11 is La Diada Nacional de Catalunya, an important commemoration of the defeat of Catalunya during the war of Spanish succession  in 1714.

As I write this on November 9, 2014, a referendum on independence is underway in Catalunya, and was the focus of many of the commemorations and celebrations on 11S. I have since described the mood that day as “Canadian Remembrance Day crossed with America’s Fourth of July.” The day itself is a solemn reminder for Catalans, but this year, was fused with hope and excitement for an independent Catalunya in the future.

Since travelers can miss important local cultural celebrations like La Diada Nacional, I want to share some of the sights and sounds of that day, if only as a pitch to think about how you can incorporate local events into your travel adventures. For example, 99% of people were wearing yellow and red, the traditional Catalan colours. I had neither in my very limited travel wardrobe. With slightly better planning, I could have brought a red shirt instead of a blue one and blended in like crazy.

At the Rafael Casanova monument

The stayed near the Estàtua de Rafael Casanova, where the more solemn commemorations occurred. There was a parade spanning many hours, where groups from all around the city laid wreaths at the base of the statue. By the end of the day, the base of a statue was carpeted with these wreaths, representing a fascinating cross-section of the community, from trade unions to veterans groups to football teams, including FC Barcelona.

Sidebar: I ended up leaving at the exact moment the FC Barcelona contingent walked past. It was so exciting, I was stuck in my place and only managed to end up in the background of other people’s pictures, which I have yet to find on the internet.

Arc de Triomf

Largely by accident, I happened upon a massive independence fair at Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf. The Passeig de Lluis Companys had been transformed into a Catalan marketplace, where people in historical costume mingled with independence swag merchants and volunteer groups signing up people en masse to build momentum for the referendum on November 9.

Castells at Mercat del Born

Over at El Mercat del Born, the sunny day made for perfect, if hot, conditions for building castells.

I managed to grab a perfect viewing spot right under the action, just as La Colla Castellera Capgrossos de Mataro built a successful castell. It took two minutes at the most, but each second seemed an eternity as people scrambled up, fixed their places, and held their position as the tower got taller and more precarious.

Sagrada Familia

The more I explored Barcelona, the more I found places normally overrun with tourists were firmly in the domain of the local population on 11S. Even the Sagrada Familia, took part in the celebration and was the centre of a particularly enthusiastic drive-around by a group of motorcycles and scooters.

Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes & Passeig de Gracia

As my day in Barcelona wound down, I tried to fit in as much sightseeing as possible. With the city effectively shut down and every street shut down along with it, the Metro got me from corner to corner quickly. The biggest group yet had assembled on the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, intersecting with the normally-frenetic Passeig de Gracia, both of which were closed to vehicle traffic. On this day, both were overrun with people and for the few tourists in the group, afford vantage points on Gaudi highlights that were normally impossible.

Have you happened upon a significant local celebration in your travels? What are your tips for finding local celebrations? Tell us in the comments or tweet me at @bitesizedtravel!

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