Barcelona - Merce 2007
September 18th - 24th 2007
Authors: Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson
We weren't really thinking about going to the Merce this year, with South Africa less than one month afterwards but we found cheap flights and an hotel bargain so we thought 'why not?'.
La Merce is one of Barcelona's main festivals - a brilliant combination of traditional and modern. It lasts for four days, usually around 24th September, although the dates can be hard to pin down. It consists of hundreds of events, many of them free and outdoors. There is little chance that you'll see everything you want so you need to scour the programme and pick out a few highlights then fill in the gaps with anything else that sounds interesting. See below for a few ideas about how to get a lot out of the festival.
We flew with Thompsonfly from Coventry then back into Liverpool with Easyjet. We stayed at the Travelodge in Hospitalet. In common with its sister hotels in the UK and Ireland, Travelodge offer some real bargains for people prepared to book in advance, with double rooms coming in as low as 26 Euros per night. We paid 35 Euros for most of our 6 nights with one night getting closer to the standard rate. We wouldn't recommend the hotel to people unfamiliar with the city because it's a fair way out of town and at the time of writing very few local taxi drivers know how to find it, but we were satisfied with it. The rooms are large and clean and once you get the public transport sorted out getting around is not too bad. There's a risk that any savings you might make in booking cheap rooms could be swallowed up in taxi fares though. We ended up getting a taxi back each night (morning, actually) for about 12 Euros but used local buses and the metro the rest of the time.
There are two obvious ways to get into town by public transport. The number 72 bus stops almost outside the hotel and is quite frequent for most of the day. It doesn't go into the city centre but you can get off at the Placa de Ildefons Cerda (a large roundabout at the junction of Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes) and change to one of the many buses that run along this road, or stay on board through a long tunnel and dismount at Placa de la Reina Maria Cristina from where the metro can easily be accessed. Alternatively, Passeig de la Zona Franca is about a 10 minute walk from the hotel and several bus routes go down here. We used the number 9 most frequently as it goes more or less to Placa de Catalunya. There are several ways of paying for tickets. A single journey is 1.25 Euros (September 2007) but a multi-day pass makes more sense if you're there for three or more days. These can be bought from machines (with an English language option) from many metro stations. You can use credit cards to pay for them as well as cash.
We arrived at Barcelona on time at about 9 p.m. and by the time we'd passed through immigration our suitcase was already on the carousel. We'd made up our mind that we would simply get a cab to the hotel, ask the driver to wait whilst we checked in and then head for the city centre for dinner. Apart from realising that we didn?t have the address of the hotel and the taxi driver was clueless about where to find it (solved through the miracle of mobile 'phone technology when CC asked his youngest, James, to look it up on the internet) this went quite well. Less than 90 minutes after landing we were sitting at the bar of one of our favourite tapas bars, Vendimia on Placa de Antoni Lopez chatting to the Peruvian waiter and a Swedish customer and enjoying several tasty plates of mainly traditional stuff (albondigas, pulpitos, patatas bravas and so on) washed down with an acceptable Rioja and it felt as if we'd never been away. Afterwards we strolled down Carrer Ample and happened upon a cosy looking bar called Pergaminos where we only meant to have a beer or two but couldn't resist the mozzarella, onion and tomato salad. A nightcap in Taxidermista topped the evening off nicely.
We had a couple of days to go before the start of the festival so we opted to revisit the Prat de Llobregat nature reserve, next to the airport, in the hope of seeing Greater Flamingos and other marsh and passage birds. This reserve has never been that easy to get to and we've failed almost as often as we've succeeded. Before that though, we needed to work out some way of getting away from the hotel so we set off down the road in the direction of Montjuic and the Passeig de la Zona Franca. A short way along the road we passed a restaurant called La Vid. This spacious and bright cafe mainly serving people working in the business park surrounding it became our regular breakfast haunt, offering excellent tortillas and hot sandwiches the were considerably more interesting than the choices on offer in the Travelodge. Probably not worth the long trip out from the city centre but if you decide that the Travelodge is right for you, become familiar with this place.
After breakfast we walked down to the Ildefons Cerda roundabout and found that there were two buses heading for Castelldefels, numbers 94 and 95. We jumped on the first one to arrive and realised that with the large amount of road building going on we did not recognise where to get off. Instead we stayed on to the centre of Castelldefels. We'd been here several years ago after similarly failing to find where to get off for the reserve and thought that the town was little more than a beachfront strip, so we were a little surprised to discover that there is a thriving town centre dominated by a rather nice castle on a hill, surrounded by gardens. The sun was shining so we decided to have a walk around the gardens and take some photos. We found a few birds around the castle, including our first Sardinian Warblers of the year, Lesser Kestrels, a Hoopoe, Serins and lots of passage Pied Flycatchers. There were a couple of Red Squirrels knocking about and plenty of butterflies and dragonflies too.
A quick lunch in a restaurant was followed by a return bus trip where we got of at a petrol station near Viladecans which we thought must be near to the reserve entrance. The first thing that we noticed when we got off the bus was the large number of hookers standing at the side of the road (which is near enough a motorway at this point) and the second thing we noticed was that we weren?t where we thought we were.
We set off to walk in the general direction of the airport and sea, which is where we knew the reserve was but after several dead ends and barriers formed by road works we decided to give up and get the bus back to Barcelona.
Back in the city we took the mandatory saunter down La Ramblas, pausing to take some photos of some of the Gegants and Bestjes that we would see often during the festival, in the Palau de la Virreina, where we were also able to pick up copies of the Merc?rogramme, including a helpful insert in English picking out a few highlights.
Next we wandered around the Port Vell area for a while, inevitably feeding the remains of CCs breakfast baguette (a tortilla sandwich large enough to feed a small family) to the fish in the harbour and then grabbed a bus back to the hotel. We were due to meet some friends (John and Sarah) that evening. They had changed their holiday schedule to fit La Merce in, so we showered and were back in the centre a couple of hours later were we met up at Taxidermista in Placa Reial, as fine a meeting spot as we can imagine. We had a couple of drinks together and caught up on how the Italian leg of their holiday had gone and then made the short trip to Bar Celta on Carrer de la Merce to eat. This was Sarah's first experience of a Spanish tapas bar and fortunately she's not too timid about food and was soon sampling tiny octopuses and all sorts of other goodies. This is another rather excellent place to eat and drink. If you?re on you own or a couple then the bar is the best place to sit, but any more than three people should try to find a table at the back. There's always a friendly buzz about the place and the food is pretty good too.
To top this off we headed down the same road towards Via Laietana, where we stopped in one of a run of rather pleasant bars selling Asturian Sidra (cider). Our favourite, probably because it was the first we tried is the one nearest Placa de Antoni Lopez, La Succarena, but the others are pretty good too. The sidra is usually served in a slightly gimmicky way, poured from height into the glasses to get the liquid lively. They recommend that you knock it back in one and only 'pour' small amounts at a time. It?s much closer to an English scrumpy than say to Strongbow and a couple of bottles feels like a lot, even though it is only 6% alcohol by volume. Another speciality is Chorizo del Diablo - the excellent Spanish sausage flame cooked at your table in a strong alcohol. After a couple of bottles of Sidra, a plate of Chorizo and a few shots of Leche de Pantera you'll begin to wonder where you are and what you were doing in the first place. If you don't want to mince your brain, then the bars all sell a superb selection of cooked meats and sausages. Fuet and Cecina (beef prepared in the same way as Jamon Iberico, apparently) are worth trying.
La Vid sorted us out for breakfast and set us up for the train ride to Girona. Many people have told us that Girona is lovely but this was our first visit. The train was easy to use and after a little more than an hour we were on the streets of the city armed with a useful map picked up from the small information desk in the railway station.
The old city is the obvious place to head for and you're very likely to approach it over the Pont de Pedra (Stone Bridge). If you?re interested pause for a while and have a look along the river. We didn?t have to wait long for the first of several sightings of Kingfishers. There were Cetti's Warbler and possible Savi's Warblers in the reeds on the upstream side.
There?s an excellent Tourist Information office just past the bridge where we got an even better map and then headed on to explore the old town which is an attractive maze of narrow lanes, arches and ancient steps where there is a surprise around every bend. Stopping frequently to take photos we ended up on a square in front of the cathedral where we sat for a while listening to a couple of competent buskers (violin and guitar) who had attracted a small but appreciative crowd.
A couple of arches at the back of the square are irresistible and beyond them there is access to the town walls. Sensitively restored in part and not quite so sensitively in others, the walls are worth an hour or more of anybody?s time, although some sections might be a bit much for vertigo suffers. We picked out a Short-toed Eagle over some nearby hills before setting off to explore the towers and elevated paths that took us round in a loop and eventually back down to the river near the Pont de Pedra.
We stopped at the first likely looking cafe and sat under the trees. JD enjoyed a bowl of mussels whilst CC tucked into a cherry crepe. Another stop at the bridge on the way back to the station gave us close views of a kingfisher that had caught a fish rather too large for it to deal with. It spent a considerable time bashing it against the ramparts of the bridge, even though it was dead, presumably to break the bones up enough for it to get it down in one piece.
We?d been advised to try a tapas bar in Barceloneta by the Swedish woman we'd been talking to in Vendimia on the first night. She had lived in Barcelona for some time and declared it to be the best. We're not going to divulge its name because we didn?t see any other tourists in there, but suffice it to say the place was lively and friendly and the food and drink was excellent. The house red wine was served like proper vodka in thoroughly chilled glasses, which worked much better than you might imagine. If you're intrigued by the sound of all this, go and find it for yourself. At worst you?ll find somewhere else good in that intriguing neighbourhood. Our only clue is that it isn't on either the sea or the harbour front, but if you know the area you've guessed that already.
Later on we met Sarah and John again for drinks and to discuss our 'plans' for La Merce and ended up in the charming Aguelo bar on Avinyo.
This was day one of La Merce but there were hours to go before the opening ceremony so we decided to have a look at some parts of the city we hadn't been to before. We took the bus up to Sarria where we had a late breakfast in the appealing Forn de la Vila on Placa del Consells de la Vila. Try the doughnuts and the bocadillos. The area is good for a wander around and we somehow managed to work up a lunch appetite by the time we reached the newly opened (September 2007) market hall. This is presumably an older market that has been refurbished and they've done a great job, combining traditional elements of Spanish indoor markets with clean modern lines and great lighting. We enjoyed tortilla, olives, boquerones and more at one of the market cafes.
Next we took a couple of long bus rides across town to the northern edge of Barcelona, thinking that we might check out the birding possibilities of the mouth of the Riu Besos. The number 43 bus is probably the best way to get here although the last bit on the map seemed to take ages, possibly because of a diversion due to road works.
There were quite a few passage migrants in the reeds and bushes along the edge of the river with lots of Common Redstarts and a few Whinchats. Kingfishers flew past several times and there were half a dozen Kentish Plovers on the shingle islands but the best bird was a fairly showy Spectacled Warbler that let us get several decent views as it worked its way towards the sea.
After nipping back to the hotel to shower and change we returned to the city centre to check out some of the first night attractions. We walked from Placa de Catalunya down towards the Cathedral, stopping at an oriental buffet-style restaurant for some fuel for the evening. The food was a little lacklustre and we won't bother eating there again. On the Corte del Ingles side of the square a team of workmen were loading scooters and motorcycles onto the back of a truck because they'd parked inside the exclusion zone. The atmosphere on the cathedral square was very upbeat and on the stage a traditional band was playing sardana music and a couple of large sardanas had started up. This is a Catalonian dance that involves groups of people forming circles and holding hands and performing a cycle of fairly gentle steps. When done more or less spontaneously, like this (sardanas were breaking out all over the place) it is rather charming and the music is fun too. Oddly enough we?ve seen quite a few sardanas over the years, but apart from in competitions we've never seen one either start or finish so presumably they have some sort of immortality, slowly drifting from one part of the region to another then back. Who knows?
Our next mission was to ensure that we had sufficient lubrication for the evening. Barcelona has many enjoyable bars but almost everything exciting is happening outside so if you fancy a drink then you need to carry your bar with you. Vodka is best. Our strategy is simple but effective. Find some cheap vodka in a shop - no need to spend more than 10 euros but there are bonus points to be earned for spending less. Anything below 6 euros wins our approval but should probably be treated with caution. Glass bottles are heavy, so get some half litre bottles of a fizzy pop that you don't mind too much, drink a bit out of the bottle and top up with vodka. Do this until you've used the bottle (which you should dispose of carefully) up and have a day sack full of vodka and Fanta Limon or similar. Thus equipped you'll be ready to face whatever the night has to throw at you.
Suitably tooled up we made for Placa St Jaume where La Merce proper gets under way with a bang. The opening ceremony (Toc d'Inici) is like a distillation of many of the traditional parts of La Merce It's a chance to meet some of the important characters that you will see from time to time over the next few days ? Els Gegants del Ciutat (the giants of the city), the eagle, the dragon, the big mule and the lion, amongst others. Most of them will dance for you on the stage in the middle of the square to musical accompaniment from a band that performs only once a year, at this ceremony. Representatives from all the groups that make up Correfoc in their demonic costumes will also dance and there will be a brief but explosive fireworks display directly overhead at the end. As ever, Jaume was crowded with tourists and Barcelonins alike and a friendly atmosphere prevailed as the giants were put through their paces.
We wanted to see at least one of the fireworks displays that make up the annual international pyrotechnics competition so were making our way to the harbour side of the square when the opening ceremony reached its climax we fireworks being launched from the top of the town hall. We were showered with the remains of dozens of rockets, but a well positioned fire engine bore the brunt. La Merce had begun.
Sarah and John were located and we all went to find somewhere to watch the fireworks. The best location is probably the beaches of Barceloneta, but we didn't have much chance of getting there on time so we went down to the harbour and sat by the water's edge on the seaward side of the Imax/aquarium area, where we had a pretty good view. After this we wandered around the city centre taking in some of the music that was on offer. Contemporary North African music near the harbour, jazz in Placa del Rei (CC and JD really can't get the hang of jazz, but what a setting!), something traditional and impressively robust in a flamenco kind of way in the main cathedral square and best of all the Orchestra de Montgrins in Placa Reial. Actually, this should have been the worst because the music is really the sort of thing that grannies like (they even did a version of Leapy Lee's 'Little Arrows') but the atmosphere was infectious and young and old alike entered into the spirit of the evening waltzing, jiving and finishing up with the biggest conga you ever did see. Somewhere along the way we seemed to lose all our vodka.
This wasn't a day for a really early start but as we left the Travelodge it was still morning and we heard a familiar bird calling high above but couldn't locate it. We stayed on the bus as far as the World Trade Centre and heard the same call. Looking up we saw a flock of about 30 Alpine Swifts overhead, no doubt heading south towards their wintering grounds. We met up with John and Sarah at a festival of Basque food and culture in Rambla de Raval, an area that appears to have improved in terms of safety since we were last there, several years back and wended our way down to the harbour side where the Mostra de Vins y Cavas had started.
Now this is really good and there are probably few better ways to spend an afternoon. Dozens of stalls occupied by some of the very best wine, cava and food producers in Catalonia. There's a system to follow. At either end of the rows of stalls there are tents that sell tickets. For a small layout you get a wine glass and half-a-dozen tickets and a little earthenware dish and some more tickets. Present some tickets and either your glass or your dish at one of the stalls and they'll give you either a generous measure of the wine of your choice or a dish of their edible products - cheese, sausages and so on. There will also be restaurants doing samples of some of their signature dishes. And of course you can buy direct, either to eat/drink on the spot or to take away with you.
We started off at one of our favourites, Canals y Canals where we sampled a glass or two of their consistently excellent pink cava, then we spent a while chatting to the nice people on the Just Presents stall who very kindly offered us a few free tastes of some of their excellent organic wines. They were so friendly there that we just had to buy a few and we've got a bottle of their Sensacions cava earmarked for Christmas Day. Julie found Forn Franquesa, a bakery stall selling big slabs of a sort of sugar coated foccacia that went surprisingly well with a chilled, dry cava and we 'wasted' most of the afternoon dangling our legs over the harbour wall tearing pieces of bread off and throwing the odd morsel to the fish whilst getting the better of a couple of bottles of fizz.
This couldn't go on forever, of course, because this was the day of Correfoc and we needed to get back to the hotel to get dressed, so we parted company with Sarah and John and agreed to meet them after dark. Correfoc is a major part of La Merc?nd should be on everybody's list of things to do before they die. There are other Correfocs in other Catalan towns and cities but the Barcelona version is huge and exciting. It comes with an 'at your own risk' warning because there is a real danger of getting burned if you are unlucky or careless.
The tradition seems to be about driving evil back into Hell but the spectacle is primitive and enthralling. After a musical build up, different groups from around the city come through the gates of hell and parade through the streets. Many are dressed up as demons and each group has one or more of the famous bests of Barcelona. The Big Mule, the Lion, the Gaudi Lizard, the Pig (one of our favourites) and numerous dragons, dinosaurs and other monsters will be there, interspersed with groups of drummers and other musicians. Every few metres the groups will stop and set light to numerous fireworks attached to their beasts whilst the demons charge around with firecrackers attached to their pitchforks. Sparks are everywhere, loud bangs almost continuous and after a few minutes the smell of gunpowder permeates everything. Drums beat out primitive rhythms and men, women and children scream as a fire breathing dragon or a pitchfork wielding imp bears down on them. Get close and you will be hit by sparks - and yes they do hurt. Cover up, wear a hat, a fire resistant jacket (thick denim or canvas will do), goggles even - no one will laugh and you?re in for one of the most exciting experiences imaginable - and it goes on for hours. You'll be breathless from laughing, running and dancing during this earthy and mysterious procession.
Sadly we didn't manage to stay on until the end of the Correfoc, but with good reason. The Undertones were scheduled to perform in Place Reial. We finally located John and Sarah at one of the bars around the edge, Canarias, where Sarah had discovered some addictive patatas in garlic sauce. We didn?t have to wait long before the band came on stage and we wormed our way down near the front to hear them belting out an array of punk classics, culminating in the timeless 'Teenage Kicks' which almost everyone in the crowd seemed to know.
By the way, if Correfoc sounds a bit too much for you, there is also a children's Correfoc, the Correfoc dels Petits Diables that takes place earlier in the evening and is a little less threatening, but nonetheless there remains an element of danger and the youngsters who take part are very well wrapped up because the flames and fireworks are still real. It is very, very cute.
Coincidentally, for the 2nd night in succession we ended up with no vodka left. Quite a mystery, really.
Our first stop in the morning (after La Vid, of course) was the Mostra d'Associacions that takes place in Placa de Catalunya. Dozens of stalls are occupied by various charities, unofficial bodies and special interest groups. We bought a handful of t-shirts from Amnesty, the Castellers de Barcelona and other bodies. It was hot and the sun was shining, a group of people were learning clown skills, a couple of bands were playing live music and there was a carnival atmosphere. On one stage a 5-piece were playing suitably steamy samba so we stopped to listen for a while. They were followed by a performance from a group who are keeping alive traditional dances from earlier centuries.
It was a day for drifting around and we eventually found ourselves for the first time in our many visits to Barcelona in the beautiful Palau del Lloctinent (Viceroy's Palace). The venerable exterior conceals a bright and colourful interior where arched and vaulted colonnades surround a central courtyard with a small reflective pool. A touch of sensitive modernity is provided by the impressive 1975 St. Georges Door by Josep Maria Subirachs. Outside, the Placa del Rei looked almost entirely mediaeval with the exception of the temporary stage and seating.
Next on the agenda was a return trip to Placa de Sant Jaume for the Castellers. This is another of the traditional events that ends up being more exciting than it sounds. People have been building human castles in Catalonia since the 19th century and it attracts an enthusiastic local following supplemented by hundreds of open mouthed tourists. Starting off on the concrete and flagstone floor of the square dozens of hefty men, many of whom would look pretty fearsome on the front row of a rugby scrum link together to form a solid base. At some signal another load of slightly lighter people swarm up the sides and create a second level. This goes on for another 4 or five layers until a trio of small boys or girls start scrambling up the sides of what is now a very tall column. The last and smallest, wearing no more protection than a hard helmet reaches the top, raises his or her arm in the air as a salute to the crowd and then descends as quickly as possible on the other side. The castle disassembles itself with surprising speed but the whole construction often takes five or more minutes - an incredible feat of endurance for the strong men propping the whole thing up.
Castellers don't just perform at La Merce but can be seen at other times and it's sometimes possible to attend their practice sessions. If you're in Catalonia and there are Castellers nearby, go and see. You won't regret it.
The day was getting warmer and the Castellers crowd was close-packed and hot, so the wine festival beckoned again. We spent an enjoyable time at the Pinord stand sampling a pretty dry rose wine and a gorgeous red called Clos 15 but as is often the case a bottle of Canals & Canals pink cava won the day.
We picked up a few sticks of fuet, a pungent and tasty dry sausage and made our way down to the harbour's edge again. Later in the afternoon the Forn Franquesa got a second visit and yesterday's sugar coated foccacia was beaten by the same thing but with chocolate paste inside! It probably shouldn?t really be eaten with a dry cava but it seemed to work fine. The fish didn't get quite so much this time.
After a walk around the gothic quarter we decided to nip into Vendimia for a few plates of tapas before the evening's highlight, Xambanga. This is a noisy street procession, centred on the Gegants from different parts of the city accompanied by drummers, bands and people in fancy dress. Huge quantities of confetti are thrown into the crowds that throng the route of the procession along with more than a little flour. This later activity is apparently frowned on officially but we didn't mind and it showed up quite well on CC's dark t-shirt. This year's Xambanga was due to finish on Placa de Sant Jaume so after watching the start at Placa dels Angels we caught up with the front again just before it reach La Rambla and then nipped through part of the Barri Gotic to Carrer de Ferran to see the last leg. We got there before the parade and found a good spot to stand. It was there were we realised that lots of tourists were staring at us because we were covered in coloured confetti and a bit of flour - and it was clear that some visitors were spending time in the city without even realising there's so much going on.
There was more music in Placa Reial and we had worked up an appetite so we went back to Cerveceria Canarias where we shared a table with a trio of girls from Cork who had visited Barcelona without knowing much about the festival but were having a thoroughly good time and were already planning to return.
Canarias is a lively bar, well placed for watching the comings and goings on the square and the patatas with garlic sauce is excellent and inexpensive but the staff we came in to contact with were just about the most surly and unwelcoming we've encountered anywhere in Spain. The size of the tips we all left were testament to that.
This was the final day of the Merce but also the day we were due to fly home - an unfortunate accident of timing caused by the difficulty of determining the actual dates in advance. However our flight was not until early evening so we had time for a bit more fun.
Fotomerce takes place in the Palau de la Virreina on La Rambla each year. It?s a free exhibition of photographs taken at the previous year's festival. It's worth at least half an hour and if you weren't at last year's Merce you'll wish you had been.
There was music outside the Palau and we quickly found a procession of Gegants heading along La Rambla towards the Columbus statue. Each annual festival has a loose theme and in 2007 it was Barcelona?s maritime associations. One of the last events is the Cavalcada de La Merc?nd the unusual twist this year was that all the giants and beasts taking part in the Cavalcada would arrive by boat at the Portal de la Pau, We wouldn?t be able to see the parade but at least we caught the giants heading down to the sea.
A stroll around the harbour was followed by a final visit to the food and wine fair where we found a couple more bottles to take home with us, then a last look at some Castellers in Jaume followed by a late lunch in Vendimia. After that it was back to the hotel to pick up our luggage then a quick taxi to the airport and an on time flight back home.
Barcelona is a fine city to visit at any time but it may be at its best during the festival. We missed one major event, the always brilliant Piromusical which is effectively the grand finale and several musical concerts that might well have been good but were too far out of the city to fit in with the other stuff going on in the centre.
The Travelodge is probably a decent enough base for anyone who knows the city and doesn't mind a trip of up to an hour but probably less than ideal for newcomers to Barcelona - however the special offer prices might be so tempting that the extra expense of a night-time taxi is easy to ignore. In our opinion the very best way to enjoy the city is to go with a group of friends and rent a large apartment - which is exactly what we hope to do next time!
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