Originally organized to honour Mare de Deu de la Merce, the Patron Saint of Barcelona it has now become a big end of summer four day blowout… and it should not be missed! This is a chance to see Barcelona at its’ best and it has something for everyone.
On the first night of the Merce Festival
, as we wandered through the busy side streets on our way to see La Sagrada Familia (Gaudi's famous Cathedral) by moonlight, we stumbled onto a huge party underway in the square in front of the massive church. Everyone was dancing, drinking (yes public drinking is commonplace in Spain), laughing and enjoying the music. We decided to sit down at one of the outdoor cafes surrounding the square, drinking Sangria, enjoying the music, the warm evening.
There are musical stages set up all over the central part of the city throughout the 4 day festival that runs every year at the end of September. Performances are held at all hours of the day and night (there was a big dance party near my apartment at Placa Espanya that was still booming at 2:30am!).
The Gegantes (or Giants) Parade is like no other parade I'd ever seen before. Yes there were marching bands but they were playing traditional Spanish instruments beating out a rhythm for the parade, not the typical drums, pipes, brass and woodwinds (although there was some of those as well). Instead of floats, the highlight are the giant figures of Kings, Queens, Lords, Ladies and other nobility along with some other characters that parade down the street, twirling around and shaking hands with the children who looked on wide-eyed with huge smiles.
Another must see is the Castellers. It's basically a human pyramid building competition, but taken to a whole new level… literally. Large teams carefully orchestrate their tower, the largest and strongest participants on the bottom with the lighter and smaller team members on each successive level with a small child (wearing a foam padded helmet) scrambling to the very top.
It is a very fast event; those at the bottom of the tower can only withstand so much. Some groups build larger tiers while other groups opt for a narrower tower with members simply standing on each other’s shoulders (though hardly a simple task). Getting to the top is a major accomplishment; the crowd becomes silent as the tower grows in height, finally erupting in loud cheers when the top level is finally achieved. But then the deconstruction of the tower becomes a new challenge… team members have to maintain the integrity of the tower or it will completely collapse.
The most fascinating event though is Carrefoc, literally Fire Runs. Community groups dress up as devils and light fireworks while dancing to the traditional Gralla drum beat. What makes it so wild is that the fireworks are lit and sprayed at the spectators. It is loud, frantic at times, and only mildly dangerous.
Teams parade through the Dragon gate, lighting their fireworks, shooting out streams of sparks that shower down on the crowd, some people will run underneath, hunch down and dance around the sparks.
It’s best to wear something to cover every part of you… from the top of your head (I had to put out one ember that landed in a girl’s hair and my friend got home to discover a hole burned in her sweatshirt) to the tip of your toes, which means long pants and a long sleeved shirt or jacket… no matter how hot it is.
The fireworks ‘spray’ isn’t bad, it’s when the fireworks have almost extinguished they let out a loud bang and usually fire the cartridge and any remaining embers into the crowd. I got hit in the back by one cartridge and I can tell you it was very hot and I could feel it for a few hours. The embers are also very hot and you have to be constantly checking to make sure you don’t have any on you.
There is a tamer version of the Carrefoc Parade for the children a few hours earlier, where the fireworks are not directed at those taking part.
There’s also a full on midway down in Barceloneta Beach with rides and games, candle apples and cotton candy. And if you are down at the beach at night during Merce then make sure to stick around for the fireworks at around 10pm… there’s an even larger display of musical fireworks down at Placa Espanya on the final night of Merce, right after Carrefoc.
If you are planning a visit to Barcelona try to time it so you can be there for the Merce Festival
at the end of September you won’t be disappointed.