The Catalan Festival of La Mercè



September 24, 2018

La Mercè is the annual Catalan festival of Barcelona, Spain, and has been an official city holiday since 1871 when the local government first organized a program of special activities to observe the Roman Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Mercy, La Mare de Déu de la Mercè in Catalan. The actual feast day is today, September 24, however as we have discovered, this event begins a few days beforehand and “festivities” are ongoing.


Thus we are fortunate enough to serendipitously happen upon and to enjoy unexpected, crazy, fun and unusual antics, yet we are also subject to crowds and business closures. So today we logged eight miles of unfruitful wandering. That’s unfair – we did gather fruit – it was just not what we set out to pick!!



The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, popularly known as the Barcelona Catedral, was our first destination of purpose and we found it was closed until 2:00. Though we couldn’t go inside, we did join the throngs in one of the more popular and interesting parts of the cathedral – its cloister, with its own series of side altars and chapels, an enclosed garden, a fountain and a pond. This secluded Gothic Cloister was completed in 1448, and at its heart is the Fountain of the Geese (Font de les Oques), providing a home to 13 white geese who honor Barcelona’s young martyr, Saint Eulàlia, born in 290. img_8392-1

The loud sound of cackling geese can be heard throughout the cathedral. In days past they warned against intruders and thieves, however, the number of geese and their reason for being are explained by the story of Saint Eulàlia. She is the co-patron saint of Barcelona, alongside Saint George, and was only 13 when she died a martyr’s death and suffered 13 tortures after refusing to deny that Christ is the Son of God during persecution of Christians by Romans in the reign of Emperor Diocletian.



Second on our itinerary – Mercat Santa Caterina, a fabulous, huge and bustling, open air market, where we hoped to repeat a wonderful dining experience we had in May. Darn – closed for the holiday!



As I mentioned yesterday, among the favorites of the La Mercè festival features are parades of papier-mâchè “Giants” (introduced in 1902), and the popular Catalonia dance of the “Sardana”. The Catalans were banned during Franco’s rule from speaking their language and performing this dance, therefore today it is a proud symbol and celebration of their culture and independence. img_0365-1

According To Wikipedia, “During the week-long festival, close to two million people attend cultural and artistic presentations held throughout the city. The most traditional activities of the festival are based in the popular culture of Catalonia. Especially noteworthy are the street parades, originating from the spectacular processions which took place centuries ago for the celebration of Corpus Christi. Each day of the festival is celebrated with its own parade filled with mythical characters and traditional drumming.”



Well believe you me – we experienced some of those two million people being part of and watching one of the parades and a series of dances on our way to, through and away from Plaça Sant Jaume. It was more like three thousand but it felt like two million because we were crushed and carried in procession like a river of people. And there was an astounding and ridiculous number of baby carriages!! It was actually on the brink of terrifying as I could not stop recollections of historical tramplings from bombarding my mind. We thought that we were trapped once we reached the square, where two Giants were dancing together in the middle and the other many “Big Heads” were lined up on opposite sides, seemingly awaiting their turns. Luckily there were other likeminded folk attempting to depart the action and we slowly swam upstream in our team created tunnel until at last we were free!! IIIIIEEEEEEE!!



Free to make our way to a favorite breakfast spot from our last visit, Benedict. The holiday had us waiting some for our table and it was well worth it and thankfully they were open!!



Again From Wikipedia, “There are about 600 events spread throughout the plazas, streets, museums, and parks. All entertainment is free. Barcelona’s metro trains run all night during the festival. Street theater is a distinct element of the artistic events. Dance, circus, bands, fringe, and touring shows make up the bulk of the events. In order to bring Barcelona’s people closer to different cultures, each year, through the “Guest City” program, another city from elsewhere in the world is invited to present its culture and artists.” This year the Guest City is Lisbon, Portugal. img_0537

Among more recently introduced traditions are the annual Catalan Wine Fair, a 10 km race and the pyro-musical – a display featuring synchronized fireworks, water fountains and music conducted at the base of the Montjuïc mountain. There is also a special correfoc (which means ‘firerun’ in Catalan). The correfoc is an incredibly popular Catalan tradition always seen at neighborhood fiestas. It consists of “colles de diables” (groups of devils) chasing and dancing to the beat of drums and spewing out sparks from fireworks attached to forks!!!Additionally, there are also many “Castellers” (human towers) competitions and performances but we didn’t have the good fortune of running across any of these displays or the dancing, fire spewing devils. I am not sure whether to be disappointed or relieved about that!!



We decided to walk to and along the waterfront assuming there was a good chance that it would be “open” in spite of the holiday. It was!!! Plus there were bands playing as we strolled. Always great people watching and the overcast skies and slight sprinkles of rain were a welcome gift after weeks of 80+ degree temperatures! img_0461

We made a sweep by Mercado de la Boquaria – nope, closed for La Mercé…

Being tired out, we rewarded ourselves with some delicious tapas and sangria. We did, however, forget to go back out for a Cathedral tour. We did muster for a 7:00 dinner at long time neighborhood restaurant, Bodega Las Palma and appreciated more tapas, vermut and wine. After a tequila nightcap we even managed a three way game of cribbage! Buenos Noches!



One response to “The Catalan Festival of La Mercè”

  1. This was a remarkable day in a city that I have grown to love….. if I ever transplant from Seattle, I think I would migrate to Barcelona. The food, the people, the history and the vibe….. I love it all !!

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