“Li-ber-tat! Li-ber-tat!” The chant was sweeping across the square like a Catalan wave. The crowd ignored the soaring heat to remind the world that their pro-independence leaders were still in exile or jail. “Libertat-del-presos-politics!!”
But we weren’t here for the politicians; we were waiting for one of city’s most anticipated traditions - the Castellers de Barcelona. Dating back to the 1800s, these human towers originated in southern Spain and have been gleefully adopted by Catalonia.
“Do you think we’ll become part of the foundations?!” chuckled my new American crowd-friend. Before I could answer, dozens of mauve-shirted castellers surged forward, pushing us apart. As they jostled into position, the big men lined up in four directions to form a base. Like an organic mass of human endeavour the climbing began. Feet on shoulders, hands on sashes, arms on waists.
Squinting up, we could make out a young girl in a red helmet scrambling towards the top. The crowd was told to shush. Plaça de Sant Juame fell silent as we held our collective breath. Then there she was, eight levels up raising her hand at the top of the castell, and the cheering erupted again. This was, after all, the peak of La Mercè.
La Mercè is Barcelona’s ‘festival of festivals’, a tribute to the Patron Saint Virgen de La Mercè who is credited with ending a plague of locusts upon the city. What began as a religious observation in the Middle Ages is now a heady mix of street theatre, dance, music and pyrotechnics with over 2,000 performers taking part.
I was one of approximately 1.5 million visitors expected over the five-day festival, and being the geek I am I downloaded the app, threw on some walking shoes and off I went. The wide-ranging schedule meant killing time between the afternoon and night activities but luckily I had two Spanish friends to keep me company in the sun-drenched Plaça Reial – Señor Paella and Señorita Cerveza…
Well-rested after a few hours of listening to live music, I left for the next event with some trepidation. The waiter’s words were ringing in my ears: “You are going to wear protection, si?” Walking briskly to the closed-off Via Laietana I could feel the energy rising in the dusky air; the Correfoc de la Mercè was about to begin.
Bang, BANG! A gang of silhouetted devils and fire-breathing dragons danced towards us, spouting flames and tossing fireworks. I realised too late why I needed protection, as sparks shot out from the devils’ pitchforks and landed in my hair. Owwww.
The smoke, the sparklers and the drums made the fire-run totally addictive and very surreal – somewhat apt in the city of Gaudi.
Of course, Gaudi and Barcelona are nearly always mentioned in the same breath. It’s hard to walk the Catalonian cobblestones and not be in awe of his curvy creations. While not officially part of La Mercè, the night experience at Gaudi’s La Pedrera certainly should be.
La Padrera is Spanish for ‘the quarry’, which reflects the amount of stone used in building this monumental house that is officially known as Casa Milla. Constructed between 1906-1912, it was Gaudi’s last building before he spent the rest of his life working on La Sagrada Familia (un-fun fact: Gaudi was killed by a tram).
As expected, La Pedrera brings to life Gaudi’s fascination with marrying nature to architecture: an attic shaped as the spine of a whale, pillars based on palm trees, water tanks in the form of snails and balconies that look like seaweed on waves. The non-linear lines and organic shapes continue all the way up to the rooftop terrace where the night illumination begins.
In true Gaudi style he didn’t just create chimneys, he created warriors. And it’s on these rooftop warriors that a 20 minute audio-visual show projects the rise and fall of civilisations, the immensity of space and the origins of life itself.
Noting that the UNESCO-listed building is now run by Catalunya La Pedrera Foundation, our guide explained that, amazingly, below us still lived three families who have tenancy for life – including an elderly lady and her dog that has its own rooms.
Suitably impressed post-show we wandered around the terrace, taking one last glance at La Sagrada Familia’s lit towers as sirens faded off in the distance. It was finally time to return to earth, having enjoyed being at Barcelona’s Mercè.
Getting there: Fly to Barcelona via Singapore
La Mercè festival: Held annually around 24th September, child-friendly and free
Other activities: Guadi, paella, shopping, flamenco
Visa: No visa is required for New Zealand nationals for stays up to 90 days.
Travel tip: Book tickets for all museums and Gaudi buildings well in advance.
Original publication: New Zealand Herald