Festes de la Mercè
 Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

It’s rare for me to visit a place twice. Even when it comes to visiting friends, it takes me ages. Without friends though, it practically never happens. There’s one big thing different this time that brings me here.

En route to visit my friends Gemma and Ramon deeper in Catalonia, timing led me to make an impromptu weeklong stay in Barcelona, just in time for the biggest cultural festival of the year. (Shoutout to Rob for telling me about it, and sorry the timing didn’t work out for Valencia!) They set me up with their friends in Barcelona, Mar and Ignasi, who could not be more welcoming and hosted me despite a week where were all too busy to actually hang out beyond a dinner or two. It’s still enough to form another fast friendship, and I hope we find an opportunity to pick things up again just as I’ve been doing with others on this trip.

While waiting for the main attraction on the weekend, before and after my weekday remote work hours, I spent a whole lot of time aimlessly walking around Barcelona. It’s nice for once to not have any pressure to see the sights or do touristy things, to relax at home whenever I felt like without feeling a loss of time, and to have a mix of old and new.

In terms of the touristy things new to me, Mar recommended the Hospital de Sant Pau to me, an architectural marvel aimed at making comfortable surroundings for recovering patients. And on a pleasant afternoon, I took the funicular up to Montjuic for sweeping views of the city. Mixing old with new, I decided to revisit Parc Güell again just for kicks, but was more enamoured by the wandering through steep, stair-filled Gràcia to get there.

In afternoons wandering the Gothic Quarter, Eixample, and Barceloneta again, the old itself felt new again, time having dulled a bit of the memories of I city I mostly just remember feeling overwhelmed in. But this time rather than looking at the fancy buildings, my eyes were more on other things.

Well, mostly food. I certainly had a lot of absolutely fantastic meals. With a larger wallet than last time and more command of the Spanish language, it was fun to waltz into any place, sit at the bar, joke with the staff, and take their recommendations on food. Whether having the classics, something innovative, or something in between, there’s just an endless amount of quality options showcasing an unmistakably Barcelona identity.

But primarily, Barcelona is a lot more ethnically mixed than I remember, and I wonder whether I simply ignored this the last time I was here. Mar and Ignasi’s neighbourhood is basically Chinatown, and while questions of how integrated they are remain, it’s pretty cool to see their restaurants serve both Chinese and local food (even tapas!) to an equally mixed clientele, and the effort made at least to serve in Spanish if not also Catalan. In nearby Raval, Indian subcontinent and Middle Eastern immigrants dominate in an even more beguilingly mixed neighbourhood that I wished I spent more time in.

The other thing though is the much, much stronger presence of Catalan identity this time as opposed to ten years ago. Far more shop signs in Catalan, far more Catalan heard on the streets and in restaurants (away from the tourists at least), and of course, far more Catalan-independence flags with the blue triangle and white star hanging on balconies, part of the political fallout from the last few years. For me, speaking Spanish thus felt like a bit of a compromise, since it’s not the locals’ first or preferred language. And hey, Ignasi inviting me along for post-football dinner and drinks with his team might have been both the most typically Catalan and most testosterone-filled table I’ve ever been a part of. (Maaaaybe more of the latter than the former.)

And again, it’s Catalan culture that’s brought me here: it’s the weekend of the Festes de la Mercè (Festival of Our Lady of Mercy), with large event spaces and stages set up all over the city for five days.

Most prominent and ubiquitous were the presence of the gegants at multiple events, a centuries-old custom representing individual cities and neighbourhoods, with each pairing presenting their own unique dances. With many moving parts, even in their simplicity, the giants looked graceful in motion, if a little heavy for the single dancer carrying each one on their shoulders!

There were definitely a lot more performance art events going on too. Dozens of stages rotated through renowned local and international musicians all weekend, some even going until 2 am. Perhaps in a sign of my age and energy levels, I ducked out halfway through a 10 pm show, a fantastic set from a Catalan rumba artist who really got the crowd going with his fingerwork on the mesa rumbera, and his renditions of classics invoking spontaneous sing-a-longs in both Catalan and Spanish.

In the daylight hours, there were traditional dance events, from the balls de bastons, a rhythmic stick dance, performed by a long parade of groups, to the sardanes, circle dances open to all in a public plaza. What looks a bit staid and boring from the outside turns out to be surprisingly intricate, and I was impressed seeing locals of all ages enthusiastically joining and expanding the circles, knowing the very long footwork routines by heart without skipping a beat.

The schedule was overwhelming in choices, but hey, I had to prioritize. And there’s absolutely nothing like the shared excitement and suspense of being packed in a crowd watching some precariously-constructed human towers: castells, a signature Catalan tradition.

In what feels like just a minute, a team assembles a base, a mass of gripped wrists. Then it’s pure choreography: larger men forming a tier of 3-5 people, with more men and tiers forming above them, some biting down on their shirt collars to bear the pressure. Then it’s a tier or two of women, generally lighter in weight and nimble enough to climb up fast. Faster still and the most nerve-wracking of all? A child — yes, a child, at least wearing a helmet! — clamouring all the way to the very top, raising their hand in the air before immediately commencing an even more nerve-wracking disassembly of the tower, first deconstructing each tier down to a single person leaving a narrow tower, before the rest carefully climb down. Somehow they do this without all collapsing. (It happens sometimes.)

Seeing just one was riveting. But then casteller groups representing various neighbourhoods and cities each entered the square, squeezing the crowd even further, and took their turns… before all of them constructed their towers once more, but simultaneously. What a sight — it left me and everyone in the crowd breathless, without words, jaws agape. I’ve never seen anything like it. Everyone went wild, especially the castellers themselves, celebrating their success.

And then by night, the gates of hell open, the devils come out, and the fireworks go off…into the crowd.

Parading down a jam-packed Passeig de Gràcia, large monsters armed with sparklers and small fireworks fire into a willing crowd, some of whom run and dance under the sparks in a tradition called a correfoc, literally a fire run. (Before you ask, most are wearing protective clothing and goggles. Some throw caution to the wind and don’t.)

Crushed in with the revellers, I feebly attempted a run myself before quickly realising that I’m scared of literally anything, and retreating further back into the crowd, amongst families and children and other scaredy-cats. And even then I wasn’t fully safe, as parading “devils” swung their sparkler-pitchforks directly over the crowd, and a few sparks stung my head even through a hat. This would never fly in overprotective Canada. Hey, all in good fun. Evidently not everyone minded the noise, the flashes, or the pain, as I stood by and watched groups of youths congregate around and under the sparklers, jumping along to the beating drums without a care in the world.

Looking down the street, a sea of glitter.

Ten years later, the typical allure of travel to big European cities like Barcelona isn’t what it once was for me. (And I also no longer harbour any more starry-eyed dreams of living in another city!) I’m just not into things like nightlife, fancy churches, museum overload, football, parties… all things Barcelona’s great at and well-known for. It’s a globally-minded city too, but those tend to share a lot in common with each other, including my own city. And while highly livable, there’s so many people, it’s loud, it’s gritty, and it’s a little too exhausting for me.

But these are also some of the many factors that give it great character and thriving culture, that bring so many people together in one place both regionally and internationally, that give its streets and neighbourhoods so much life, and what makes such a euphoric celebration of that possible. To put it plainly, this was so, so, incredibly fun. I’m glad to come out of my way to experience it, and I’m sure the city will draw me in again in the future.

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