If ever there was a time to visit Barcelona, it is, without a shadow of a doubt, during the celebration of La Mercè. La Mercè is Barcelona’s annual weekend-long festival celebrating Our Lady of Mercy, one of the patron saints of the city. I had no idea what to expect as I headed to the opening procession of the festival, but what followed was a weekend that felt, quite literally, like something out of a children’s book.
Some of the most prominent figures of La Mercè (due mostly to their size) are los gigantes (the giants) – papier mache figures standing several meters tall. The wooden frames of the giants are supported by people who stand underneath and act as the giants’ legs. Each of the giants has some sort of significance and background story. One pair, for example, are known as the “giants of the city.” The six most prominent of the gigantes made their debut at the festival’s opening procession, “dancing” in pairs on the small stage in the center of the plaza that housed the ceremony. Throughout the rest of the festival, the rest of the giants (there are A LOT) could be seen parading through the streets in the percussion-led processions that snaked their way through the city almost constantly over the three days.
After the opening procession on Thursday, I got up bright and early-ish on Friday to make it to what promised to be one of the most impressive sites of La Mercè: the castells or human towers. They are exactly what they sound like, but more amazing than you could ever imagine. The teams of builders start by forming a huge and (hopefully) solid base for the tower. Then, they begin adding “floors” one by one, climbing on top of each others shoulders and coming to a standing position. The tallest castell that was built that day was seven “stories” tall, meaning it was seven people high. Watching the tiny children who form the top floor scurry up the human tower comprised of their teammates was incredible to watch. As the members of the team began to shake violently under the weight of those above them, you couldn’t help but hold your breath, hoping the tiny children made it safely to the top and back down. Because I forgot to mention…there is NO safety equipment whatsoever. The photo below shows a progression of one of the towers being built, and you can check out a video I took of it here.
Having already seen giants roaming the streets and castles composed of humans, I couldn’t imagine what was in store as La Mercè continued. The correfoc certainly didn’t disappoint. Correfoc is a Catalan word and translates literally as “run fire.” I can’t imagine a better name for the event. As the start of the correfoc neared, swarms of people began to crowd the street on which it would take place. As I peered down at the gates of hell (a large arch fashioned to look like flames), I couldn’t imagine what was about to come spilling out of it. Before long, I could see a massive bright light that was making its way toward us. As the light neared, I realized that it was a crowd of people dressed as demons and wielding massive fireworks and some of them pushing papier mache dragons that appeared to actually be breathing fire. The fireworks being used were reminiscent of the small “sparklers” we play with on the 4th of July in the states. The only difference was that the sparks were much bigger and projected with a radius of easily ten feet. Those who were brave enough stayed in the street with the fire-wielding demons aimed the fireworks at them. The majority of the crowd was dressed appropriately, covering their heads and faces with scarves and hats to avoid being burned. I never could’ve imagined an event where people showed up to be chased by fire, but it was certainly an experience I’ll never forget.
Continuing with the fire theme, every night of La Mercè featured an amazing fireworks display on the beach of Barceloneta. I don’t have to describe what the fireworks looked like, but I will say that they were the most incredible I’ve ever seen. This was due mostly to the fact that they were being shot off less than 100 yards from where the onlookers sat. At one point, the still-burning ash started falling into sections of the crowd, sending some people running for cover. Despite the potential danger, the proximity of the fireworks made for an awe-inspiring display. At some points, it actually looked like someone had thrown handfuls of gold flakes into the sky. It was, quite simply, stunning.
The most incredible of all the displays happened during the festival’s closing ceremony on Sunday night. Fireworks, dancing fountains and music were combined to create a spectacle unlike anything I’ve seen. Roughly 100,000 people gathered in Plaza España to watch the event, and by the time it was over, I knew why.
It goes without saying that, when visiting another country, you’re sure to discover new and interesting things. But I feel incredibly lucky to have been in Barcelona during La Mercè. From demons setting the streets aflame to giants parading through the plazas, the elements of La Mercè came together to transform Barcelona int the kind of world that I thought only existed in dreams.