Pyrenees, Garrotxa, Santa Tecla (Tarragona) and Merce (Barcelona)
Authors: Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson
We’ve been to Barcelona for the Merce most years this century and didn’t want to miss 2009, especially after the “Miratges” projection show of 2008. It started of with four of us, because Andy and Laura were along for the whole trip, but it snowballed a bit and we arranged to meet Lindsay and Ron for the Barcelona leg and also hoped to bump into John and Sarah who were coming for a few nights for their honeymoon. We also ended up with some surprise specials guests at the last minute.
Cheap flights were announced well before the dates of the festival so we reasoned that we didn’t want to book the wrong weekend and booked two instead, flying out on Saturday 19th and returning on the 29th. When the dates began to look more settled we decided to spend the 1st couple of nights in northern Catalunya, to perhaps have a look at the Pyrenees and to visit Andorra, followed by two nights in Tarragona, where they were having their own festival, Santa Tecla, then finishing up with six nights in Barcelona.
19th September 2009
Our first night was in the small town of Olot in the Garrotxa region, so we picked the car up at the airport just after lunchtime and set off up north. This was Laura’s first visit to the region so we thought we’d drive up past Montserrat so that she could see this famous and spectacular hill. This wasn’t a brilliant idea because we managed to get lost twice on the way, so Laura’s first close-up view of Catalunya was of Fiat showrooms and abandoned petrol stations.
We eventually found the right road, having wasted about an hour, and stopped for a short while below the rock faces for a few photos. Then we headed north, hoping to get to Olot before dark.
CC had read about the volcanic landscape of the Garrotxa region in the early 1990s. Olot is pretty much in the centre of the region and is surrounded by the cones of several extinct volcanoes. We took some photos from inside the car of some interesting looking hills but it was only later that we realised that these were at our destination.
It was just about daylight when we reached the Hostal Sant Bernat in Olot and negotiated our way into a space that we thought we might be able to get back out of in the small car parking area, and we didn’t waste much time unpacking because we were all quite hungry. In common with many towns in Catalunya towards the end of September, Olot was getting ready for a festival and was looking rather pretty. We found our way into one of the town’s squares where we noticed the smell of cooking and at the far end of the square came upon the unusual sight of what we later discovered were 75 sheep/lambs being barbecued. It was at this point when it suddenly started to rain quite hard, so we found a restaurant nearby and settled down to an excellent meal of rather upmarket tapas. Here’s Andy and Laura with some smoked salmon coated in pistachios.
It was still raining hard when we left and we got soaked looking for a bar for a few drinks, but eventually found a pleasant place where a bottle of wine and a couple of jugs of sangria cheered us up no end. By the time we left the rain had stopped, for which we were quite grateful because although the walk back to the hostal was not long the last section was quite steep.
20th September 2009
Hostal Sant Bernat is situated on the slopes of the Volca de Montsacopa, perhaps the most crater-like of the extinct volcanoes in the region and has an elevated view over a section of Olot. This wasn’t immediately obvious first thing because a dense fog filled the hollow between the hills. Not feeling particularly rushed, we went down for a tasty breakfast and by the time we’d finished the sun had started to burn the fog off and it looked like we might be in for a pretty good day.
Our ‘plan’ was fairly loose. The Valle de Nuria sounded as though it would be worth a visit, plus a new country, Andorra beckoned, but our first stop was the nearby village of Castellfollit de la Roca. This small settlement is spectacularly situated on the top of some sheer basalt cliffs and was definitely worth a short detour.
Next was pretty Sant Joan les Fonts where we might have lingered longer had we found somewhere to park in the narrow streets along the river and then it was a longish drive to the high Pyrenees, where we just missed the mountain tram to Valle de Nuria, because we took a wrong turn on the approach to the station. As the trams were infrequent we left Nuria for another day and started on the road to Andorra. It might have been quicker to take a route through France but our rental company wanted an extra charge for this, whereas Andorra was free, so we took the cheap route. Entertainment en route was provided by the numerous cows that wander unconcernedly along the mountain road. One hiding around a bend gave us a bit of a shock.
Most people seem to suggest that Andorra is a bit of a dump. That’s probably slightly unfair, but the bit we saw wasn’t too sparkling. With an extra couple of hours we might have had time to see some of the mountain scenery but the weather wasn’t great, quite cool and with frequent light showers, so we contended ourselves with a decent lunch and a few bottles of duty free vodka and then took off back to Olot.
CC had read that Pedraforca is the second most famous mountain in Catalunya, after Montserrat, and that there was a rather good viewpoint on the side of the mountain, so we worked out a route on the map and went that way.
The road to Saldes from La Seu d’Urgell passes through some lovely scenery in the Parc Natural de Cadi-Moixero and we had a number of stops to photograph some gorgeous views and exquisite villages. There was a parking spot at the Mirador de la Traba from where mist-filled valleys could be seen, illuminated by the afternoon sun streaming through gaps in the clouds. Some of the villages had seemed to have been positioned for maximum dramatic effect.
The afternoon was getting quite old when we reached the turn off for the Mirador al Pedraforca just west of Saldes and we passed a few cars returning to civilisation on the narrow road leading to the viewpoint, but the extra effort was well worth it. With the looming summit of the mountain itself partially shrouded in clouds and no sound except for the clanging of cow bells and the occasional calls of choughs this seemed a remote and inaccessible place.
There wasn’t much daylight left and we had a fair distance to travel and it was a Sunday, so we lingered as long as we thought we dared before getting back on the road, but we did find the time to stop and take a few shots of the mountain as it caught the last few rays of evening sun. Then it was a couple of hours over hills, through forests and past pleasant villages before we got back to Olot rather late where we were grateful to find a bar still serving toasted bocadillos.
21st September 2009
Time for a change of scenery, but it would have seemed rude to visit Olot without having a look at one of the volcanoes, so after admiring the foggy sunrise again and trying the local version of beans on toast we set off on the short but steep walk to the crater’s rim. The walk up and the crater itself provide some attractive views over the town and it really does look like a crater. The path follows the rim and you could probably walk around it in ten minutes, although we took much longer, pausing for more photos every few paces. The weather was glorious, bringing butterflies and lizards out in force.
We had intended to continue the walk through the town, as we hadn’t seen much of it in daylight, but we dawdled so much that we changed our minds and returned to the hotel by the fastest route to get our bags and start the drive to Tarragona.
According to the map, Berga looked like a reasonable place to stop for lunch so this was our target when we left Olot. We had a couple of short stops to stretch our legs and enjoy the weather and the scenery and we were in Berga early in the afternoon.
Berga too was in the throes of a festival, but it seemed to be having the afternoon off There was hardly anybody about as we strolled through the streets and alleys of the town centre..
It took us a while to find somewhere open for lunch but we didn’t mind because the restaurant we did eventually find provided a really nice menu del dia for €10. If you happen to visit Berga, then we’d definitely recommend La Menta on Plaza Sant Joan. In fact I think we’d recommend Berga itself for a short stop for somebody looking for somewhere less frequented by tourists but with a lot of charm.
It was a short distance from Berga to main roads and then motorways, where the only highlights were the views of Montserrat, distant at first but eventually quite close.
The annual festival of Santa Tecla takes place in Tarragona each year in the second half of September. JD and CC had been aware of it for a while but had never before taken the plunge. With two nights before Barcelona’s Tot d’Inici we hoped we’d have a chance to get a flavour of it. We had chosen a hotel in the city centre and despite rather heavy traffic and one-way systems we managed to find an underground car park near to the hotel without too much difficulty.
The programme for Santa Tecla, unlike that for La Merce, is published well in advance and we were aware that there was something happening with fireworks in Placa de la Font but we had lingered too long on the volcano and despite our best efforts we were too late and could only watch them on a big screen set up on Rambla Nova, one of the main streets in the city centre. We could hear them pretty well, though. We then intercepted a parade of gegants, bestjes and musicians on the corner of Rambla Nova and Carrer de Roger de Lluria, where we stood for quite some time and started to notice both differences from and similarities to Barcelona’s festival.
Our first impression was that Santa Tecla is much more laid back than La Merce, with far fewer people and definitely much smaller numbers of tourists. As a consequence it was much easier to get close to the ‘action’. This was a consistent feature of the next couple of days. After the parade we walked through to the elegant Placa de la Font, site of the town hall, where some merriment was promised.There were lots of people here but space to move around and the bars and cafes around the square had set up tables to sell refreshments to the punters. There was a definite carnival atmosphere. A number of gegants arrived with bands in tow and settled down in front of the town hall and then the music began and they all began to dance. We’ve seen dancing giants many times in Barcelona but this was the first time we’d seen so many gyrating in one place. Particularly popular was a Paso Doble that all the local people seemed to know and sang along with. We were to encounter this tune several times over the next few days but most notably later that same evening.
Hunger was starting to take over and we were aware of TeclaTapa, a temporary outdoor food area, so we went to find it. Lots of outlets selling different sandwiches, patatas bravas, tortillas and other traditional foods had set up in a large marquee and this being Spain somebody had brought a disco along as well. And this being Spain the tent was full of people enjoying their snack and generally having a good time. Veterans of numerous rock festivals, Andy and Laura soon found one of the few safe places to sit, but that didn’t help Andy much when he made up his mind to wear the sauce from the patatas bravas rather than eat it. Oops!
After a quick drink in a bar (we really needed to take the weight of our feet by then) we headed up to the vicinity of the cathedral because JD had done her homework and thought there might be something to see. She was right. As we got closer we could see that there was a really big crowd. We were following some members of a band with their instruments and the turned down a side street so we followed them, reasoning that if they were going to perform they would know a way to get to where stuff was happening. After a few twists and turns we found ourselves mingling with the crown on Pla de la Seu. We wormed our way closer to the cathedral steps but eventually had to accept that further progress was impossible without actually standing on somebody. This was the most densely packed crowd of people that we had ever been in.
Despite the crush there was no aggression and everyone seemed ready to have a good time and after a short wait, to a roar of applause, the gleaming golden Eagle of Tarragona appeared, done up in a nurse’s hat with an out-sized hypodermic needle in his beak. The band started up with the Pasa Doble we had heard before and everybody joined in, singing, waving and jumping. You had to jump because usually there wasn’t enough room to dance. This continued for some considerable time as more beasts and giants joined the party and by the time it finished we were elated but exhausted from the singing and dancing. Kind people on the balconies poured cold water onto the heads of the people below and most were glad of it!
By now it was getting late but it felt early so we wound our way through some of the ancient streets near the cathedral, through the Roman walls and out into a park where a local rock band were performing to a few hundred fans. We found a place on the grass to relax and enjoy the ambience whilst finishing off our vodka.
22nd September 2009
JD and CC were up reasonably early and went out to explore Tarragona a bit. After breakfast on Rambla Nova we headed for the cathedral where music was promised. We found a place to sit on the steps and Laura and Andy joined us. Before long the first of numerous groups, ranging from duos to brass bands came up Calle Major and out into the square. All were good and each one played music whilst walking in and then played a tune in the square itself for an appreciative and growing audience.
An hour of this was enough because the sunshine was strong and the steps quite hard so we paid our five euros and went for a look around the lovely cathedral and cloisters. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside, so we can’t show you the interior.
We explored some more of the city including some of the Roman remains and CC and JD recommended going to the seaward end of Rambla Nova to see the impressive view. Surprisingly it started to rain quite hard which caused us to forego the view and retreat to a nearby café where we grabbed a quick lunch. By the time we’d finished the rain had stopped so we walked to the railings (Rambla Nova finishes at the top of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean) and then walked back along the cliff top a short distance to see the amphitheatre.
There is a rather good monument to castellers on Rambla Nova so we walked along the middle, passing numerous Santa Tecla posters and arriving at the statue just as school was finishing. As a result it was swarming with small children using it as a makeshift climbing frame, a use that the artist would surely approve of. It might not be sensible for tourists to join them but we’d encourage you to get up close for an idea of what castellers are really like.
Back in Placa de la Font, nans (people in costume with giant heads), giants, beasts and musicians and others were gathering for a major parade. We watched for a while and consulted the programme for the route, then walked through to the square with the archaeological museum and found a nice spot to stand. As parades go, this was a pretty good one with frequent outbreaks of firecrackers and lots of chances to get close up without enormous crowds. Popular beasts like the bull, the eagle, the lion, the malevolent Vibria and the mule (everybody loves the mule with his jingling bells) were on show, each accompanied by his or her musicians. A man on a real horse, beating two large kettle drums was very popular with the youngsters.
Giants and nans made their way down the narrow street as the evening light gave way to darkness and we were grateful for our stash of vodka and limon to keep us going. Numerous groups of people in costumes including bastoners (traditional stick dancers), maypole dancers and people dressed as knights on tiny horses passed by. All of the time people in the crowd recognised and spoke to people in the parade, underlining what a great social occasion this is for locals as well as the small number of tourists. Strangest of all was a group of people representing the seven virtues wearing grotesque masks, accompanied by the even more hideous seven deadly sins.
After the parade had finished we took the opportunity to get a few shots of the cathedral that was lit quite splendidly as well as a couple of unoccupied gegants in a shop window. Then it was back through Placa de la Font where the parade was finally coming to a very lively end and along Rambla Nova in search of food and music.
A stop at TeclaTapa reinvigorated us (and hundreds of other people) so we were ready for more. We’d seen a large stage being set up at the end of Rambla Nova earlier in the day but took a detour through the old part of the city where all sorts of events were going on. By the time we got to the stage, the Orquestra Christian i Domènech were blasting out their pop classics, tangos, chachachas and others to an appreciative audience that was definitely ready for a dance.
There was electronic music promised in the interesting sounding setting of nearby Passeig de les Palmeres, overlooking the sea and the amphitheatre so we went for a luck. There were two stages set up. The first was playing rap music which we all agreed left us cold. The second had a DJ set but was probably a good hour away from building up much of an atmosphere . There were things to do quite early the next day and so JD and CC decided to head back to the hotel whilst Andy and Laura opted to hang around for a while and finish their beers.
Christian i Domènech were playing a medley of “Raindrops keep falling on my head” and “Singing in the rain” and the number of people dancing had increased so we stopped for a sing-along. A couple of slower songs followed and the support staff started handing out paper flowers (tulips or more likely lilies) that had lit candles in the centre. The effect of hundreds of glowing flowers amongst the dancers was quite charming and when the candles burnt low the heat caused the tissue paper to draw in and catch fire for a pretty finale.
23rd September 2009
23rd September is the day of Santa Tecla and the programme promised “tronada matinal” or “morning thunder” in Placa de la Seu in front of the cathedral. Rambla Nova was almost deserted as we crossed it and Placa de la Font was also quiet which meant that we were able to get some great photos of parts of the popular retinue as it started out for the day. A couple of Sins and Virtues were kind enough to pose for the camera whilst the council drummer on his horse seemed as popular as ever.
In front of the cathedral, things were getting interesting. Groups of beasts and devils were forming and loading up with fire crackers. Gegants were hanging around. Bands and groups of grallers and players of other traditional instruments practised, tuned up, jammed or chatted. Trabucaires did whatever it is that trabucaires do - presumably checked their muskets and ammunition and castellers socialised at the fringes. The fierce Cucafera, with her extendable neck, snapping jaws and long maiden’s hair looked on with a malevolent glint in her eyes. Nans weaved in and out of the crowd in their slightly sinister way and the Eagle of Tarragona gleamed magnificently in the sunlight. El Bou (the Bull) looked menacing, covered in pyrotechnics.
Suddenly several noisy fireworks went off overhead and within seconds it was mayhem in the square with trabucaires discharging their very noisy muskets en masse, demons dancing in a circle with upraised wands of fire and the beasts letting loose with fountains of flames. We were not prepared for this, with just shorts and t-shirts and we were showered in sparks and bits of bursting firecrackers. Within seconds the visibility was down to mere yards. And whilst all this was going on the castellers had built towers of four and were walking them to the front of the cathedral. It was rather like all the traditional elements of Barcelona’s more famous Merce festival condensed into a couple of minutes.
The excitement had given us an appetite and we’d noticed that some cafes had been open on Placa del Forum when we’d walked through there earlier, so that’s where we went, along with seemingly most of the participants in the parades and the morning thunder. There were temporarily discarded knights’ costumes, “patatufs” playing games after finishing their sandwiches, and nans getting ready for the next stage in the celebrations as well as many musicians taking a well-earned rest and getting a bit of refreshment.
Before long the square went from packed to peaceful as the parades got underway again and we went to find a good spot to watch. Again the relatively small number of people about, compared to Barcelona, meant that we could get up close. The Vibria went by in a shower of sparks and the bands were out in force. The Eagle provided one of many splashes of colour and the Mulassa, as ever, was the fastest, careering down the hill at an alarming pace. Mindful of its reputation for biting peoples’ hats off, everyone kept a respectful distance from La Cucafera. We finally caught up with Laura and Andy in a café just before castellers event in Placa del Font, and were soon mingling with the crowds for this very popular and Catalan event. Every town in the region seems to have its castellers and they entertain huge crowds of both knowledgeable experts and astonished visitors. The principle is simple; by getting lots of very strong people at the bottom and progressively lighter and eventually younger and very courageous people in the higher layers, they attempt to build human towers as high as possible. Nine levels seems to be the tallest that tower has ever been built, and this challenging goal is successfully attempted many times each year, but it is not without risk and collapses often happen. The tower is not considered complete until the final person, often a very young child who has scrambled up the outside to a quite terrifying height, salutes the crowd. Here are a few images of a tall tower under construction.
JD and CC have seen castellers at least twenty times now and we’re not even beginning to get bored. Even if it sounds good to you, believe us that seeing it live is so much better and we’ve noticed that it is always hot and sunny, so just standing the crowd is thirsty work.
Anyway, it was time to move on again. We had the whole Merce festival ahead of us and a hire car to drop off (and find, because we weren’t sure we could locate the car park!) so we returned to the hotel, checked out and managed to retrace our steps and find both the car park and the car.
We’d had visions of a short visit to the Roman aqueduct just outside Tarragona but forgot to ask directions and our random efforts to get on the right road went wrong and we ended up in Reus instead. Mindful that there were things to see in Barcelona and we had to find our apartment and some vodka and other essentials, we gave up on the aqueduct and followed signs for the motorway, where we actually got a brief glimpse of the ancient bridge because it is just next to this major road.
Returning the rental car was straightforward and we grabbed a taxi into Barcelona because it is simply less hassle and normally quicker. Barcelona has an unfortunately justified reputation for pickpockets. The general explanation for this is that the punishment for petty crime in Spain is trivial, so the risk is well worth the reward for many. Tourists are a natural target because they are mostly pretty gormless, often carry larger amounts of cash and valuables than they would at home, are usually quite obvious and tend to concentrate in certain areas. They are also usually fairly relaxed because they feel that they have already spent quite a lot of money and are supposed to be having a good time. This vulnerability is probably greatest upon arriving and leaving the city, when there’s a fair chance that both hands will be full because of luggage and they will be concentrating on such things as finding metro stops, dodging crowds etc.
There are a variety of strategies for beating the pickpockets, some of which are more successful than others. Money belts seem quite popular but we’ve not been tempted. Blending in seems like a good idea but most tourists don’t really look like locals and anyway locals also get targeted. Also locals don’t really bother much with the tourist attractions so unless you want to tell people that you’ve walked past the Sagrada Familia quite quickly but didn’t really look at it, this seems like a difficult one.
We’ve found that assuming that we will be targeted and trying to reduce the risk works pretty well. Don’t carry a purse/wallet unless you really need to. Don’t take out lots more money than you’re likely to need. Keep money and cards in separate pockets and if you’re travelling in couples/groups then spread the valuables around. The pickpockets are quick and skilful but if between two of you the stuff they’re after (mostly cash) is distributed over four pockets then they hopefully won’t get everything.
In about 10 visits to Barcelona when we’ve been accompanied by up to 10 others we’ve really only experienced two minor and unsuccessful robberies, so that’s probably 300-400 nights in total. Perhaps we’ve been lucky, because we’re not especially careful.
Our taxi dropped us off at the new offices of visit-bcn, just off Las Ramblas. From there we were led by one of the staff to our apartment, Gothic Blue in Carrer dels Escudellers in Barri Gotic. This turned out to be the apartment directly above the one we’d had last year with Andy and Alex. Only 51 steps from street level, but the balcony had a cracking view.
We’ve used visit-bcn for several years and had a pretty good service from them. As expected the apartment was in good order (although the shower curtain was appalling and must have been so for months, so it was well overdue for replacement) and everything worked. We asked for a second key because we knew from experience that we would not be spending all day, everyday as a foursome and were told that one would be provided. It never was, which was a disappointment and a couple of times a nuisance.
A quick trip to the supermarket ensured that the fridge was stocked with a few essentials and then it was off to what is effectively the opening ceremony of La Merce, Tot d’Inici in Placa Sant Jaume. In this elegant square between the Ayuntamento and the Generalitat elements of the traditional facet of La Merce get a chance to show off on a specially erected stage, accompanied by the superb music of Los Ministrers del Cami Rai an orchestra who perform only once each year, under the exuberant directorship of Jordi Fabregas (I hope I’ve got his name right - it’s been surprisingly difficult to research).
We arrived intentionally early but numbers were already building up but we got a great location near the entrance to the stage from where we could see the participants exiting from the town hall.
The stage allows the various beasts and giants to perform a dance for the packed crowd. In the case of the gegants this must be a physical challenge and an effort of balance because they spin around at incredible speeds. La Tarasca de Barcelona is related to Tarragona’s Cucafera and is a malevolent creature of turbid waters and misty marshlands. Many of the beasts dance adorned (almost inevitably) by fireworks. Here is Barcelona’s Vibria and this is the lion of the city, his mouth full of flowers and looking rather more benign than his Tarragona equivalent. Tarragona’s Eagle is golden but Barcelona’s is green.
For us one of the highlights is a devil dance performed to sinister accompanying drums and this was followed by a brief but spectacular firework display, with the pyrotechnics being launched from the roof of the town hall to the tune of a catchy and upbeat march played by Los Ministrers. If you’re ever fortunate enough to get to Tot d’Inici take a moment to look away from the overhead spectacle at then and watch the band instead. Apart from the fact that they are all skilled musicians they really throw themselves into this final tune, standing up, raising their drums above their heads whilst playing them and generally having a great time. They richly deserve the applause they get at the end.
In 2008 something new was introduced to La Merce, a laser projection show called ‘Miratges‘, using the Ayuntamento as a screen. It was played several times each night and was compulsive viewing - we went back to see it six times. It’s worth searching for a video on the internet, which will never do it justice because the incredible 3D effects will be lost, but nonetheless … For 2009 a new show called ‘Enlluerna’t’ was promised. We were slightly nervous that the previous year’s triumph could not be matched but stayed on, along with many others, after Tot d’Inici had finished because the first performance of Enlluerna’t was scheduled. We were not disappointed and the 15 minute projection contained some exceptional moments, not the least of which was covering the entire building with a Catalan flag made of flowers. Strange 3D mosaic windows and a ghostly castellers tower were amongst the striking effects and the music was pretty good too.
We had a fairly late meal at one of our favourites, Vendimia and then went down to Placa Reial to join a good crowd enjoying a set by “The Unfinished Sympathy”. Music for us is a big part of La Merce. On some nights it goes on until very late and the choice is exceptional, with most of the concerts being free. Next on the list was a visit to Placa del Rei which must be one of the most beautiful venues for an outdoor concert, especially at night when the almost entirely mediaeval surroundings are exquisitely lit. With a bit of effort we worked our way into the crowd to catch part of a set by ‘The Duke and the King’ followed by some exciting flamenco from ‘Los Juncales’ nearby on Avinguda de la Catedral. All that remained after that was to return to the apartment, finish off our beers and then retire for a well-earned sleep.
24th September 2009
About the only thing wrong with La Merce is that there is so much to see and do that you’re bound to miss something good. We’d picked up programmes and panuelos at the Palau de la Virreina the day before on our supermarket dash and we were glad that we had because we discovered later that they had all gone in a matter of hours - and we’d be lost without them (well the programmes, at least).
Traditional events were scheduled in Placa de Sant Jaume so it was out early for a breakfast bocadillo in Bocatta and then straight into the auditory and visual assault that is trabucaires. One refreshing aspect of Spanish festivals is that they don’t seem to suffer from the corrupted concept of ‘Health & Safety’ that is prevalent in some parts of the world. H&S is a very good idea, but it was originally meant to protect people from unscrupulous behaviour, dangerous cost-cutting and so on. Unfortunately it has been distorted to the extent that is now more of a means of banning things and preventing people from self-expression. The trabucaires in Jaume had formed a big circle and people were allowed into the middle - at their own risk. This is how it should be. Accept that most of the time people will act in a common sense way and if they do something daft enough to get hurt, then it’s probably their own fault anyway. To be truthful, we didn’t much fancy getting into the middle. It was plenty loud enough from the outside and our ears were still ringing from yesterday morning’s ordeal. The participants seemed to be having a pretty good time but we think that they wear earplugs.
Shortly after this it was more castellers and gegants and suddenly it was early afternoon. This being a castellers day, the sun was intense and we were getting quite thirsty so we did a quick circuit around the Barri Gotic, down Las Ramblas and left at Columbus and soon found the wine festival.
This is probably mandatory for any wine lovers in the area during the festival because it offers the chance to try a range of fine wines and cavas from Catalunya and to buy them direct from the producer at exceptional prices. We were disappointed to find that one of our favourite producers, Canals Canals was not present this year, but were cheered up when we went to another of our favourites, Pinord and sampled their delicious sparkling red (not a cava) Reynal. We were even more cheered when we enquired about the price of a bottle and from that moment if became the wine of choice for the rest of the holiday, usefully supplementing our supplies of vodka and definitely a candidate for Piromusical. JD and CC managed to find room for three bottles in our luggage and if it lasts that long one or two will be getting pride of place on the Christmas dinner table.
The wine festival has a very relaxed atmosphere and the concept is simple. You buy a small batch of tickets (with a glass) from booths at either end of the festival area and exchange the tickets for tastings. Each producer has a list on display showing how many tickets are needed for each wine. The same process applies for food. You can’t buy whole bottles with tickets but they’ll happily accept cash and if you want to drink it there and then they’ll try to find one for you that’s suitably chilled. As you will be.
Heavier by several glasses and a couple of bottles of wine we headed back to the apartment to make the evening’s preparations, mostly involving decanting vodka from fragile glass bottles to less vulnerable flasks, in order to get out in time for the Cavalcada de la Merce and more beasts and giants. The cavalcada was due to finish in Placa de Sant Jaume and yet again we were lucky to get a great place to stand. Many of the features of last night’s Tot d’Inici were on show again but there are other ingredients including references to this years themes (there always seem to be subtexts to La Merce) such as the city of Istanbul and Ildefons Cerda, the force behind the planned 19th century ‘extension’ to Barcelona, l’Eixample.
We hoped to meet Lindsay and Ron who had flown out from the UK earlier that day and after a few moments of confusion about which square was which they joined us in time to see most of the parade. As is often the case, the traditional was mixed in with the irreverent and the imaginative. Cut-outs of beasts and giant books were on show to honour the 50th anniversary of the death of revered Catalan folklorista, Joan Amades but is probably not often that the Ayuntamento has witnessed a submarine passing by. Musicians on the stage competed with musicians in the parade in a friendly way.
We had a tight schedule after the Cavalcada but we discovered that Ron enjoyed cider so we watched ‘Enlleurna’t' again and then nipped smartly across Barri Gotic to La Succarena at the end of Carrer de la Merce for a big plate of pa amb tomaquet and a couple of bowls of ‘DIY’ chorizo el Diablo and accompanying bottles of Asturian sidra, a cloudy cider that should be poured from a height to aerate it and then knocked back whilst it’s still bubbly. Don’t wear your best shoes if you want a go at this. CC wanted to see ‘Boat Beam’ in Placa del Rei but the set was well underway when we got there because we lingered in La Succarena for longer than we’d intended. The sang and played prettily and the ethereal tunes suited the venue well and CC got to hear the two songs he most wanted to hear, “Lion Hunt” and “The Rain Pauly” before we had to dash off for the next ‘appointment’, round one of the 12th International Fireworks festival, supplied by Rozzi Fireworks from the US. The best place to see these is probably the beaches at Barceloneta but we didn’t have time to get there and so went down to Port Vell to sit on the harbour wall and see the aerial fireworks reflected in the harbour water. Sparkling wine and fireworks displays go very well together.
Music at Portal de la Pau, on the quay below the Columbus statue was by ‘Club Mestizo Allstars’ and sounded pretty good drifting across the water, so we made our way over there, en route seeing one of Barcelona’s famous nudey men coming the other way, complete with boots and knapsack, and nothing else, although a crooked walking stick would not have looked out of place, and somehow losing Andy and Laura.
We listened to the end of the set whilst waiting for the lost lambs to catch up and then Ron and Lindsay headed back to their hotel for some much needed rest whilst the rest of us had a nightcap in Taxidermista on Placa Reial, one of our favourite bars for people watching.
25th September 2009
La Merce until a few years ago was mostly spread over 4 nights, from Tot d’Inici to Piromusical, but a few years ago a fifth day seemed to be slipped into the middle where not much went on. According to the programme this was the ‘quiet’ day but there were still things to do, however CC and JD had an overdue appointment with a raptor migration watch point, after failing dismally to find it last year, despite about 4 hours of walking.
Large birds of prey and other species pass down the Spanish coast on their autumn migration to Africa and many follow the line of hills of the Parc de la Collserola. We had some breakfast and then asked in Tourist Information about how to get there. There seemed to be no suitable buses (actually the Tibibus would do, getting off at the stop before Tibidabo, but this only runs on days when the Tibidabo amusement park is open) so we bought a map with the approximate location on it then rode the Metro to Vall de Hebron from where we guessed we might find a taxi, which we did having walked the short distance to the hospital and gone up the escalators.
The Mirador del Arrabassada is the nearest landmark, although it took three taxi drivers to work out where we wanted to go - however even closer is the ‘Centre d’acollida de animals de companyia’ (a sort of pet rescue centre) and it’s possible that the drivers might know this. The taxi to here from the hospital was about €7.
The track to the centre, and to the watch point leaves the main road at the top of a tight hairpin bend that has yellow road dividers to discourage drivers from taking it too quickly. Follow this for about twenty minutes, avoiding the inevitable consequences of there being a lot of dogs in the area as well as you can, looking for signs for the Turo de la Magarola, as the track turns into a metre wide rock path between trees and shrubs and you’ll eventually come out at the watch point with an impressive view over the city and 360 degrees of sky. We were slightly surprised to hear voices when we approached the watch point, even more surprised to realise that they were speaking English and almost astonished to learn that one of the voices belonged to somebody we knew, Catalunya-based British bird-watching guide, Stephen Christopher. We had been out with Stephen in 2008 on an excellent day trip to see the steppe birds of northern Spain, including our first ever Great Bustards.
Stephen regaled us with tales of the Eagles that he and his party had seen about 30 minutes earlier (about when we were looking for the taxi L ) but then picked out a Honey Buzzard at long range giving us a chance to get a good look at it as it drew closer. He then found a Hobby high in the sky that we’d never have found ourselves, so we forgave him his eagles. Stephen left with his clients for Las Filipinas reserve near the airport leaving us to enjoy the weather and a few more birds, best of which was a very close Goshawk. One the way back down the hill JD narrowly avoided stepping on a large praying mantis.
Returning to civilisation presents something of a problem. From 2008 we remembered that a rough track leaves the road a few hundred metres downhill and drops steeply down to built up areas and eventually buses and metros but we were hoping to avoid this. The timetable on the bus stop at the start of the track said that buses were every thirty minutes but didn’t say if they ran every day (they don’t) so we sat on the fence to wait and tried to flag the few taxis that passed by. After about 25 minutes we decided to walk and headed off for the start of the track. Just as we got there we managed to hail a taxi and we were soon back in Placa de Catalunya.
The square was overrun with clowns, one of whom ‘stole’ CC’s hat. We watched the performances for a bit and then popped into the Ayuntamento for a look at some of the Correfoc beasts and works of art on display, after which we made our way down to Bar Celta for something to eat. This popular tapas bar at the end of Carrer d’Avinyo is a nice place to sit, especially at the bar, and their pulpo de gallego is deservedly popular. We hadn’t been there for long when Julie spotted John and Sarah in the doorway. They had just got married and were on their honeymoon, having arrived in Barcelona only a couple of hours before. We had hoped that our paths would cross but it was a nice surprise to bump into them here.
We agreed to meet up later for chorizo del diablo and a look at the parade of the bestjes del foc and then went down to Port Vell to check that the wine festival was still doing alright.
The evening was fairly steady. The cider and chorizo was good again and it was nice to get a view of the correfoc beasts without the other distractions of correfoc itself. Music at Portal de la Pau, Los Impagaos, was lively and fun, but The Go! Team at Placa Reial were a disappointment, even though they seemed to be trying hard to get an atmosphere going. It was only afterwards that we realised that whilst we were being rather bored in Placa Reial, James Hunter, who CC in particular was very keen to see, was performing in the Parc de la Ciutadella.
26th September 2009
Correfoc day and a really packed schedule with a possible very late night meant that we had a bit of a lie in, then it was breakfast in Bocatta followed by a walk around a very hot Barri Gotic. Placa del Rei is a pretty good setting for music in the daytime as well as at night and we could hear somebody doing a decent cover of Elton John’s “Your Song”. This was the Paul Kazan Stay Band and they followed this up with a few songs of their own mixed in with some pop classics. The Beatles, Take That, Timbaland and Prince all got an airing for a small but appreciative crowd. We leaned against one of the ancient walls and enjoyed the music and the sun.
Despite the festival, normal tourist life goes on. There’s an entrance to the city museum from Placa del Rei and tour guides with their clients pass through. One small party was trailing obediently behind their guide when several of them realised that they’d just walked through a square full of people who where having a really good time singing along to a spirited rendition of “Let It Be” and stopped to watch. They clearly had no idea and their ‘guide’ who presumably had a schedule to keep to and an itinerary to follow stood near the top of the steps with her hands on her hips until the group dutifully caught up and filed into the museum. We can’t help thinking that maybe a bit of flexibility on the part of the guide was required here and her clients moved off looking as if they really wanted to stop a little longer.
The famous Barcelona Correfoc seems to have settled into a pattern in recent years, starting from in front of the Mercat de Santa Caterina and continuing down Via Laietana to the end. It was in front of the market that we found ourselves in the afternoon and we were delighted to discover that not only had the gates of hell been erected but the gates were open, which meant that for the first time we got to go through them.
From here, a wander around the narrow streets of the Born district beckoned with a look at the gorgeous modernista Palau de la Musica. Although not exactly off the tourist route, Born always seems more peaceful that nearby Barri Gotic.
The Merce programme promised cuines asiatiques as part of the Festival Asia in Parc de la Ciutadella and we were getting hungry and have been known to enjoy the occasional curry so that was our next destination. Bright sunlight made patterns in the spectacular displays of bunting and we felt drawn to the Nepalese outlet over by the ‘hivernacle’ where we got an excellent meal for not too many Euros.
Something about the way the sun was shining seemed to whisper “cava” so it was no big surprise that we found ourselves back at the wine festival where we finally met up with Andy and Laura. As the afternoon wore on we remembered that we had stuff to sort out for Correfoc, so we returned to the apartment to get overdressed and stocked up with vodka and limon.
Correfoc is “at your own risk” and you can get as close as you like and dance with the devil to your heart’s content, but if you get hurt then don’t blame anybody but yourself. There are sparks in the air and there’s fire in the mouths of dragons. Cover your hair, wear long sleeves and long trousers, preferably of something that will give you a bit of protection (canvas or denim) and that is not too precious. White linen shirts might not be the best choice (Charlie) even if they look the part - and if you decide to wear goggles, nobody will laugh at you.
Correfoc is prefixed by the junior version, Correfoc Infantil and this was due to end at the gates of hell so that was where we arranged to meet Lindsay and Ron, with plenty of time before the start of the main event. The atmosphere in the period leading up to Correfoc, as the different groups get together and start their preparations, putting on make-up and safety gear, beating out rhythms on their drums and so is quite highly charged to the extent that outsiders wandering around to get the odd photo might also feel something of an intruder.
Correfoc Infantil is of course a mild version of the adult Correfoc but the flames and sparks are just as hot so the safety precautions are rigorous. Adult supervision is diligent but not excessive, which must be great for the younger participants and the gates of hell, now closed, made for great photo opportunities at the end.
And as the daylight dwindled and the children’s correfoc came to a finish, a more menacing atmosphere arose. Drum rhythms became more insistent and some of the spectators began to get a little edgy in anticipation of the mayhem to come. Then it began. Satan went past shouting curses and threats to the crowd and the first of the beasts and demons issued forth from the gates of hell, lighting up the streets with their fire-fuelled dances and showering anybody brave or foolish enough to be close by with sparks.
Correfoc assaults all the senses simultaneously and no prose, photos or videos can ever really convey a true impression of what it’s like to be there and in the thick of it. You can feel the explosions and taste the gunpowder. The smell of sulphur is all pervading and the noise leaves your ears ringing if you happen to be next to a fire-cracker when it finally explodes - and there are tens of thousands of them and when it isn’t exploding fireworks it’s the pulsating beat of hundreds of drums that helps to keep the adrenaline flowing.
Some of the beasts have their specialities and the Gaudi lizard has a penchant for standing on its hind legs and filling the sky with fire. Some of the drummers walk casually along but others dance. Blink and you’ll miss something - unless, of course you’re already hiding from something.
If correfoc doesn’t turn out to be one of the ten best things that you’ve ever done in your life, then you’ve had an enviably exciting life.
One advantage of digital photography and cheap storage is that you can take lots of photos. JD and CC took about 3000 over ten days. This means that every now and then, if you’re not paying attention to the background you can get some unusual results. We’d been standing in front of (and hiding behind) a kiosk opposite the market for over an hour of correfoc without paying much attention to what was on it, but this pic of Ron and Lindsay made us laugh when we first saw it - after the initial shock!
With too much still to do, we didn’t follow correfoc to its inevitable noisy, explosive and watery conclusion (the fire brigade are present in force and there always seem to be hoses in use down by the post office as midnight approaches) but instead went back to the apartment to get rid of our warm clothes, because the evening was mild and quite humid.
Photography is not the only benefit of the digital age. The internet allows access to all kinds of information, much of it wrong but some of it useful. The BAM listings had been out for a few weeks and CC had been researching. One of the bands mentioned, The Pepperpots, were featuring at Avinguda de la Catedral and we fancied sampling their cheerful sixties Motown sounds. They were great, although we didn’t manage to relocate Lindsay and Ron in the crowd (or Andy and Laura who had somehow got lost, until much later on).
Late entertainment was on the cards and shortly after midnight we all agreed that we still had the energy and inclination to make our way down the metro half a dozen stops to Parc del Forum where music was on offer until the small hours. The band we really wanted to see was CatPeople and they were just getting underway as we got to the stage which is set at the bottom of a huge amphitheatre. CatPeople’s influences seem to be Joy Division out of The Doors with a pinch of Editors thrown in - dark and brooding with plenty of guitars and some decent tunes. They didn’t disappoint and it was a bit of a guilty pleasure to be sitting at the edge of the sea in the early hours of the morning with cones of chips and glasses of beer watching a band that we would happily pay money to see.
Tiredness and vodka eventually took their toll so we got the metro back into town, emerging from the Jaume 1 station just as the clocks struck four. We felt as though we’d had a pretty full day.
27th September 2009
Sleep is not too important when it’s a castellers day and a glimpse out of the window confirmed that it must be, with not a cloud in the sky. The programme offered a mati de falcons in Place de Sant Jaume before the “main event” and CC and JD decided to view that as best we could from the upstairs window of Bocatta. Falcons are related to castellers but tend towards complexity and elegance when compared to the strength and commitment of their tower building cousins.
There was a big crowd for castellers and we felt the need to mingle with it because it’s definitely more fun up close - indeed if you get close enough you might even be invited to add your weight and strength to the bottom layer. As is often the case, each group entered the square en masse, as a pillar of four although how they get through the crowd without trampling dozens of people is a mystery to us. A dozen or so impressive castells later we were starting to feel quite dehydrated so we pushed through the crowd (we later found out that Lindsay and Ron had only been a few metres away and that Ron even got invited to participate), got some cans of drink and jumped in a taxi for Parc Guell to do a bit of normal tourism for a change. The Parc is our favourite bit of Gaudi but we don’t visit every year, however it’s at its best in good light that brings out the vivid colours to great effect. We even managed a picture of the fantastic lizard without somebody standing in front of it, but Woody Allen seems to be able to get it all to himself. There’s plenty written about the park elsewhere, but if you get the chance to go, make sure that you make time to sit awhile on the ‘bench’ around the terrace. We read somewhere that this is the longest public bench in the world and it’s not every day that you get the chance to sit on a work of art.
Back in town and there were sardanas in front of the cathedral and it’s always a pleasure to linger for a time to admire this simple looking but actually rather complex regional dance - and the atmosphere is always fun and friendly and you can have a go, if you dare.
The centre of Barcelona runs slightly downhill towards the sea and as it is inclined to do, gravity had its way and we ended up at the wine festival again where we met up with Charlie and Anna and eventually Andy and Laura too. Spectacular events deserve spectacular wines and we were anticipating spectacle later that evening so we stocked up on bottles of fizz from Pinord and then nipped across the bridge to the Imax centre where we had a late lunch in the new branch of FresCo - and bumped into Ron and Lindsay who were just leaving after filling up on their excellent salads, pastas and pizzas. There are several FresCos in the city and if you’re on a tight budget their one-price buffet, including a drink plus unlimited tea and coffee is great value for money. In fact it’s pretty good if you’re not worried about how much you spend too.
After correfoc, Piromusical is perhaps the most anticipated event of La Merce. The crowds for this grande finale of fireworks, fountain and music are colossal - we’ve seen 300,000 quoted - so we bought some odds and ends for a picnic and arranged to meet up about two hours before the start.
We were a bit later than planned but we easily found Lindsay and Ron and shortly afterwards John and Sarah. Charlie and Anna were hoping to get there later on (they did, but too late to be able to push through the crowds to find us). We found ourselves a spot where we could sit on the edge of the small fountains that line Avinguda de la Reina Cristina to wait for the fireworks, enjoy our drinks and snacks and sing along with the music (well, some of us).
Piromusical seems to get better each year and it’s hard to imagine a friendlier crowd, with huge numbers of Barcelonins turning out in family groups or with lots of friends. A charming new tradition from the last few years has been a pause in the 30-40 minute long display when tens of thousands of people light up sparkler and wave them overhead.
And then it was over. 300,000 people take a while to clear so we lounged around chatting and finishing off whatever was left of the picnic and when the numbers seemed to have thinned out sufficiently made our way down to the Placa d’Espanya metro station en route for a nightcap or two in Taxidermista.
28th September 2009
Carrer d’Escudellers was quiet on the Monday morning compared to the last few days but we had a whole day and a good part of Tuesday to look at Barcelona without the festival, so CC and JD went out for a walk. Unfortunately Laura wasn’t feeling too great so she and Andy decided to have an easy day.
After a look around Barri Gotic we thought we might make our way up to Tibidabo for some photographs and to see if the raptors migration route took them past the church (we thought it probably would). The easy way to Tibidabo, when the amusement park is operational, is on the Tibibus from Placa de Catalunya. The nicest way, when it is operational, is to take the Tramvia Blu and the funicular. The park wasn’t operational and neither was the tram, so it was a metro train, a bus and then the funicular which took the best part of an hour.
The top section of the church at Tibidabo is the newest (presumably that’s normal on buildings) and to us at least seems a rather vulgar edifice but the lower part has an impressive Romanesque façade and the views are great. Inside the main part of the church there is a lift that you can use (€2 pp) to get access to the roof and even better views and it was here that we went to look for birds. It was soon apparent that the most likely route for migrating birds from the watch point was straight past the church and we didn’t have to wait long for the first bird of prey overhead, surprisingly another close Goshawk. Numbers and frequency were about the same as on the visit to the watch point and possibly a little closer in general, because of the height of the church.
There is a viewpoint at the highest point of the church just below the huge statue but this is impractical for birding because the walkway is so narrow that one person standing there blocks it completely, so probably best to keep a look out from the level below where there is plenty of space.
Tibidabo and the raptor watch point have different merits, but probably much same in terms of birds. The watch point seems more remote and wild and you’re more likely to bump into other birders there. It may also be cheaper to get to if you get close by public transport before taking a taxi (you can of course walk if you’re feeling particularly energetic). Tibidabo is definitely easier to get back from, because there’s a funicular that delivers you back to the public transport whereas from the watch point the options seem to be to walk or get lucky with a taxi. Surprisingly, Tibidabo is possibly more expensive to get to, with the funicular and the lift (and the tram, if it’s running) adding up to more than the taxi, for a couple. However if you’re a birder in the city from August to November a visit to either locality is probably an interesting way to spend half a day.
One of our favourite bars in the city is Jaj-ca in Barceloneta, so that was where we went next, only to discover that it was closed on Mondays L We found an alternative and then made our way back to the apartment where we were able to be a little more civilised than normal because we didn’t have anything exciting to rush out for. Laura was feeling somewhat better and we decided to try to find a restaurant recommended by one of the staff at visit-bcn. It was still in the process of opening up when we found it, in an area of Barri Gotic that we all though we hadn’t seen before, so we stopped in a bar for a couple of quick drinks. This area of Barri Gotic, El Call is rather pleasant and quiet at night, and worth a look. The restaurant was subtly lit and served a variety of well prepared and interesting dishes which we shared, tapas-style. Vinateria de Call is worth seeking out if you’re not intimidated by narrow alleys.
Barri Gotic was transformed compared to the previous few nights with streets that had been thronged with people almost devoid of life. A few people hung around on the steps in Placa del Rei where two nights before there had been thousands.
29h September 2009
A fairly typical ‘last day of the holiday’. We packed our bags and went out to experience a fairly typical day in Barcelona. Some scenic photos of the Barri Gotic and the harbour, a demonstration in front of the Town Hall, buying a few Christmas presents and then guiltily writing all those postcards at Bar Jaj-ca with a couple of plates of their patatas bravas. Then a final visit to Placa del Rei for a bit of sunbathing and it was off to the airport for an uneventful flight back to the UK.
A final observation about Catalan festivals
It was perhaps more noticeable in smaller and more intimate Tarragona but almost certainly applies equally to Barcelona and all the smaller towns and cities and districts that have their own festivals, but these events must really contribute to social cohesion and community spirit. Although some of the activities (castellers, correfoc, drummers) taken in isolation might be seen as attractive and ‘cool’ others, again taken in isolation, like grallers and bastoners, both of which seem to attract large numbers of young people would be seen by many British teenagers as nerdy and twee. Put them altogether into something like La Merce and Santa Tecla and the effect is admirable. How could you not want to take part if you were able to do so? And to take part must bring with it a sense of belonging and who knows, even social responsibility. Perhaps it’s reading too much into it and perhaps it wouldn’t work so far here in the UK, with our unpredictable weather but who knows? Maybe it’s worth a try.