August in Barcelona: it’s sweaty, sticky and stormy, and with this year’s heatwave, everyone is feeling like autumn can’t come soon enough. It’s not just a change in the weather that we’re looking forward to; September is one of the best months of the year in which to visit our amazing city. The sun is still shining, the city is still buzzing and BarcelonaTours has some great tips on what to do in Barcelona in September.
What are these street festivals in Barcelona about?
“Why September?” we hear you ask. Well, Barcelona is famous for its awesome street parties which take place throughout the summer and through to the end of September (you may have heard of the Fiestas de Gracia which take place mid-August and feature incredible street decorations), but they’re all just warm-ups and practices for the mother of all fiestas: La Mercé. If you’ve never heard of this week-long celebration of all things Barcelona, then fear not, this blog is here to guide you through. By the end of this article, you’ll have everything you need to enjoy the La Mercé celebrations like a local – and enjoy your Barcelona holiday in September.
Barcelona Fiestas: Gracias and La Mercé
From early spring, through the summer and into the autumn, different neighbourhoods in Barcelona throw their street parties. From the winding alleys of the Gothic quarter to the slanted hillside roads of the Poble Sec, local people get together to celebrate, drink beer and make the most of Barcelona’s famously warm summer nights. When the sun goes down, bands begin to play on small stages that have been erected around the neighbourhood, and local bars will set up in the street in front of their establishment to make the most of the crowds.
Ok, but what is La Mercé?
This annual, week-long festival is held in Barcelona in September and is the last big street fiesta of the year.
Although only an official festival (“official” meaning it is acknowledged by the government as a local holiday) since the 1870s, La Mercé has been celebrated since the 1680s! Much like other local celebrations, La Mercé has its origins in religion. It was time to revere the “Virgin of Grace”, who supposedly relieved the city of a plague of locusts in 1687 (anyone else feel like there were a lot more locust plagues in the old days than there are now? Maybe celebrating La Mercé is keeping them at bay). The Virgin was declared a patron saint of Barcelona – alongside Santa Eulalia, to whom to the Cathedral of Barcelona is dedicated – 200 years after this miraculous saving of the city, and as time went on, La Mercé evolved into the massive celebration of all things Mediterranean, with a particular focus on Catalan and Barcelonese, that we have today (Barcelonian? You know what we mean).
Sounds amazing! What should we see?
During La Mercé, it’s difficult to decide what to do as there is so much choice. Get ready to learn some unfamiliar words for some extraordinary activities…
The castells (Catalan for “castle”) are one of the most incredible cultural traditions in the region of Catalonia, and La Mercé draws teams from all over the area to compete and perform during the festivities.
These human towers are a 200-year-old tradition and, although their exact origin is unknown, it is believed that a strong “castell” was a representation of a strong community, with the older and stronger members supporting the younger generation.
The key to these towers is the base, where dozens of people stand tightly together in order to support the structure that will be built. Men, women and children alike take part, and the tower is not considered complete until there is a young child (very young – we’re talking 6 or 7 years old!) has climbed to the very top! And when you consider these castles can reach 10+ meters in height, that’s a long way for those little legs to climb!
The castells displays will be on show throughout the weekend in local squares – keep an eye out in front of the Cathedral of Barcelona and Plaza San Jaume.
The gegants, meaning “giants”, might seem pretty self-explanatory. They are called giants, they’re giant in size – what else do you need to know? Well, these figures form an important part of the parades that take place throughout the Mercé festival. The figures are hollow structures (made as light as possible as they are carried by one person) and are carried through the streets to music, often in a procession to a local square or church where they will stop to be displayed for a period of time. The people represented are usually characters from local legends or just townspeople dressed in traditional dress. Every neighbourhood of Barcelona has its own signature gegants, so there’s plenty to see over the course of the festival.
The wooden and papier-mâché gegants are put away once evening comes, and with good reason. The sun might go down, but the streets of Barcelona light up with the most exciting parade of the weekend – the enormous correfoc. This translates to “fire run”, and that is a pretty spot on description of this evening parade through the city streets.
Like the castells, these are teams of people that come from all over the region – however, these teams consist of pyromaniacs, who like to dress up and devils and wave around pitchforks with fireworks attached to them.
Like the gegants, it involves structures that are carried through the streets – however, these are enormous dragons operated by the devils, pushed along and spitting fireworks as they go.
This may seem dangerous (and you should probably wear long sleeves and keep long hair tied back!) but these professional fire lovers are well versed in how to keep their fireworks under control. This parade goes all the way down one of the biggest streets in Barcelona and is a spectacle not to be missed.
The big finish
Of course, such a huge celebration would not be complete without a huge firework display. Head over to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the Catalan Art Museum, in the early evening to join the crowds of people that will watch the spectacular display. The fireworks will explode overhead, lighting up the beautiful Montjuic Mountain. The fountains that sit at the bottom of the hill with also be lit up, and the whole event will be choreographed to an amazing soundtrack that changes every year. What a way to end your experience of this unparalleled celebration of all things Barcelona.
I’m in! When is La Mercé?
La Mercé is celebrated from the 21st to the 24th September 2018, with Monday 24th September being a city wide holiday (that’s right, just the city of Barcelona! It’s not a day off in any other city in Spain).
But wait, I’m not here then…
Don’t worry! There are fantastic celebrations throughout the month of September in Barcelona, and the city’s usual awesome attractions are all still there waiting for a visit from you.
Castells regularly happen in different squares around the city during the month of September, and in local town halls and churches, you will find the gegants on display. For example, in the Santa Maria del Pi church, in the Gothic quarter, there are gegants that date back to the 17th Century – you’ll agree when you see the man and woman, named Mustafá and Elisenda, that they look brilliant for their age!
You might also be there for the celebration of La Diada, or the national day of Catalonia, which takes place on September 11th. It’s a great day to experience all things Catalan, including the castells and the gegants; head to Plaza San Jaume, the parliament square, to see the best castellers showing off their best towers.
And when it’s time to relax…
The beaches, the bars, the terraces… there’s so much choice. Many hotels across the city have rooftop “terrazas” with gorgeous views and cocktails to die for. There’s also many a terrace at street level for a beer and some patatas bravas – fried potatoes with a signature spicy sauce – for those looking to be in amongst the local culture.
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