Pyrenees, Garrotxa, Santa Tecla (Tarragona) and Merce (Barcelona)
Author:s Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson
Just us, this year, for most of the trip. After our stay in Olot last year we wanted to have another go at seeing the Vall de Nuria and found a rather lovely looking place to stay, the Santuari de Falgars near La Pobla de Lillet We flew from Liverpool Airport and for the 3rd time in a row experienced absurd delays both queuing to check-in and then at security. They seem to be getting something badly wrong here and even though we arrived at the airport when the check-in was due to open and went straight into the queue and then straight through to security, we would have missed our flight had it not been delayed. Businesses in the airport must be fed up by now because we had intended to buy breakfast there and there were many other people who were similarly affected.
17th September 2010
Having picked up our rental car at the airport we headed north towards the French border and less than two hours later arrived at the pretty village of Pobla de Lillet with its charming hump-backed bridges, where we stopped for a quick lunch. Santuari de Falgars is about 8 kms from the village up a bendy and often steep road that is clearly signposted from the main road. Although the weather was rather overcast the first impression of the old buildings built with honey coloured stone was pleasing. We were expected, as we were their only guests that night, and we were shown straight to our room.
Simplicity is the order of the day at Falgars. The rooms have painted walls, wooden furniture and wooden floors with minimal decoration and best of all, no TV.
Falgars is situated at about 1200m on one of the high points on a long ridge overlooking the Llobregat and so despite the light rain we set off for a bit of a walk accompanied or perhaps guided by the hotel‘s dog, Blanquetta. About five minutes away to the east is the Mirador Joan Casanova where even in the rain the view down into the valley was superb. After half an hour of getting wetter and wetter we thought we should try another location so set off in the car to see if the weather was better further west, with our intended destination being the mirador below the mountain of Pedraforca. If anything, the weather got worse so we decided to turn back and instead spent the rest of the afternoon in the small and authentic seeming bar at Falgars, where we were delighted to discover that a rather good French cider was available.
We came down to dinner just after eight and had a lovely three course meal that was in keeping with the ambience of the hotel, with fresh ingredients and fairly simple preparation making for a dining treat. The part-baked, part-grilled potatoes were particularly memorable. Having been on the go since 4 a.m. we were glad of the opportunity for an early night. Nothing disturbed the peace of the night save for the calls of a pair of Tawny Owls in the forest that surrounds the hotel.
18th September 2010
Sunrise is quite late in Spain in mid-September, with it still being near-dark at 7 a.m. but by 7:30 CC was off for a pre-breakfast walk, finding plenty of Jays and Crested Tits in the forest around Falgars and hearing what were almost certainly Wild Boars. The rain had sort of stopped and there were a few encouraging gaps in the clouds, but glorious sunshine looked a long way off.
Breakfast was a large plate of cooked meats (fuet, chorizo, iberico, butifarras negre and blanco) and cheeses supported by delicious bread, a tomato salsa, butter, honey and fruit and by the time we had finished we were ready to get out and do something.
Last year our attempt to get to the high altitudes of the Vall de Nuria had been thwarted because we arrived just as a mountain tram was setting off from the station at Ribes de Freser. This year we had only 15 minutes to wait after the one hour drive from Falgars and filled that time by getting a couple of sandwiches from the station café.
The return ticket for the rack railway only was about €40 and we were soon on our way up the valley, climbing 1000m to the top station at almost 2000m asl. The weather remained about the same, with thick cloud cover and very occasional patches of sunlight but after messing around the visitor centre for a short while, obtaining maps and working out which of the numerous paths we wanted to try, we stepped outside to discover that a thick fog, or more correctly, cloud had descended to shroud the summits. A round trip on Cami del Bosc and Cami de les Creus looked fairly straightforward but within a few more minutes the cloud had come down to ground level, reducing visibility to less than 30 metres, so we simply followed a steep but obvious track alongside the cable car. We had hoped to see a few Citril Finches around the valley and we were not disappointed, because they were much the commonest birds in the area, with probably two-three hundred seen in total, particularly on the telegraph wires and in the paddocks and pastures around the children’s area a little further uphill from the station.
At the top station for the cable car it was obvious that the fog was too thick for safe progress into the mountains, so we found a seat and ate our sandwiches, getting infrequent glimpses of marmots scuttling between rocks and boulders nearby, before heading back down again by the same route. The scenery may not have been at its best but we still managed a few decent photos, including a rather lovely Pyrenean Mountain Dog keeping ‘guard’ at the rear of the complex.
We spent some more time looking at the displays in the visitor centre and then noticed that the cloud had lifted and the valley floor at least had become visible, so we set off for a walk around the lake. By the time we were halfway around the cloud had descended again, to the extent that the lake could barely be seen from the path, so we decided that enough was enough and returned to the station just in time to get a tram back down.
Another hour's drive had us back at Falgars where the same fog was also restricting views, but we had a bit of a walk, admiring some of the local fungi, including some enormous examples of Parasols, Lepiota procera. La Pobla de Lillet is something of a centre for mushroom collecting and has its own mushroom festival that sounds like fun.
It seemed like a good idea to give the bar another try and considering that there was still sidre on offer this turned out to be a good choice. We occupied the large table but were pleased to move to a smaller one when a group of people arrived and their presence made the place seem even more cheerful.
When we came down to dinner we noticed that another table of two was set and also one for sixteen and before long the quiet restaurant that we’d had to ourselves the night before became a lively and bustling place. As the evening wore on, a birthday cake was produced from the kitchen with the numbers 10 and 50 written on it in icing and delivered to the large group. The 50 was for the birthday of one of the party but we were very impressed by the rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” that she got from her friends and after they kindly supplied us with glasses of cava we discovered that it was also the 10th anniversary of their choral group. We (the two of us, the other couple and the staff) were then treated to an impromptu and polished free concert of Catalan folk tunes - a memorable way to finish off our last night at Falgars.
19th September 2010
Two nights were all that we could afford at Falgars if we were to see some more of Santa Tecla, but in terms of sheer scenic beauty, this morning was the best of it. The clouds overhead had gone completely, to be replaced by a peerless pale blue sky as the sun crept over the horizon. CC was champing at the bit to get out (the Hostal doors are locked at night and if we return we’ll have to work out how to make an early morning exit) but had to wait awhile on the balcony, listening to a pair of black Woodpeckers making a fuss in some nearby oak trees. After this is was straight down to the Joan Casanova mirador, passing through pastures glistening from the overnight rain from where the high summits of the Pyrenees could now be seen, although the valley below remained shrouded in clouds. JD soon joined him and lots of photographs were taken before breakfast.
The Hostal was certainly looking its best in the early morning sunlight and for the first time since we arrived the sundial was showing a time.
After checkout we headed for Pedraforca and the Mirador de Gresolet in the hope of seeing a few birds of prey. This being a Sunday, the parking area for the viewpoint was packed and we had to drive about a kilometre back down the road to find a suitable spot. We put our binoculars and camera in the backpack for the short walk, hoping to get some shots of the butterflies that we had seen from the car, but seconds after reaching the lower platform, overlooking a formidable vertical drop to the Riu Saldes below, we noticed a big bird high above the cliffs of Pedraforca. We scrambled to get the binoculars out but were in time to get a great view of a bird that at first we weren’t really sure about, having expected an eagle or maybe a Griffon Vulture but when we finally made sense of what we were seeing we realised that it was a fine Lammergeier, our first in the Northern Hemisphere and a species that we had hoped to see here but hadn’t really held out much hope of finding.
In addition to the Lammergeier we saw five Griffons and several unidentified large raptors as well as getting great pleasure from the aerobatics of a couple of very showy Peregrines.
As the morning wore on, the birds dried up a bit and we started to feel peckish so it wasn’t hard to drag ourselves away in search of lunch, which we found a short distance down the road at the restaurant at Camping Can Susen near Macaners. At more than €40, the fixed lunch menu was a little more than we usually pay for a midday meal, but the restaurant was packed for a reason (we were lucky to get a table). The food was fabulous and the setting pretty good too.
Tarragona was a fair old drive which we did in one stretch, pausing only to refuel and to get a look at Tarragona’s fine Roman aqueduct, the Pont del Diable, viewed from a pull-in on the motorway just before the Tarragona exit and then we needed to find somewhere to park not too far from the Hotel Placa de la Font, easier said than done because much of the city centre was blocked off for a cycle race.
The hotel is situated on a square in the city centre where we knew a number of the events of Santa Tecla would take place. We checked in and were given a pleasant room on the 5th floor with a balcony overlooking the square and as we were unpacking a parade was already starting with various beasts, bands and traditional societies passing underneath to the unmistakable and addictive strains of ‘Amparito Roca’, the Paso Doble that seems omnipresent in Tarragona during Santa Tecla.
The view from the balcony was fine, but we really wanted to get down amongst the crowds and so we spent the late afternoon and early evening wandering around the city centre enjoying various parades and displays before stopping for a meal of pizza and pasta at the rather nice Pulvinar overlooking the Baixada Misericordia and as good a place for people watching as any. A concert in Placa de Rei didn’t do much for us, so we headed outside the city walls to look for a reggae/ska event listed in the Santa Tecla programme, but this had been rescheduled so we commiserated ourselves with a bag of churros from a stall that was just shutting for the night.
Back at Placa de la Font, despite the late (or rather early) hour there were still lots of people out and about, with all the bars and cafes looking very lively, so we settled down for a couple of beers until waking the poor concierge at the hotel for the first time to let us in so we could go to sleep.
20th September 2010
There was no need for an early start after a late night, so we headed out mid-morning to return the hire car, it having been less expensive to keep it in a car park overnight than to pay the excess for a Sunday evening drop-off. Next we went in search of breakfast which consisted of pasta in sauce washed down with a bottle of Asturian sidra or two - a fringe benefit of not having to drive again that day. On our previous visits to Tarragona we had not been down to the port area so we remedied that omission, and after a reasonable walk and scrutiny of the interesting statuary of the Serallo district found ourselves sitting outside the Donosti restaurant, which we were attracted to by the sign on the wall proclaiming “La Sidreria”. The sidra came from a large barrel just inside the door and was pretty good, as were the patatas bravas, a couple of plates of which made a rather splendid lunch.
We walked lunch off a bit by returning to the city centre via the beaches and a diversion to the small headland just north east of the railway station, where we sat and watched lots of egrets flying by, including a couple that were probably Great Whites.
An event was scheduled nearby that seemed to have something to do with maintaining the tradition of Santa Tecla so we joined the crowds and got a nice close up look at the sinister and dangerous Cucaferra that was, luckily for us, not indulging in its famous habit of snapping peoples hats off their heads with its terrifying jaws.
Next up was the Correfoc Infantil on Rambla Nova - the fire run for children - an activity that would have health & safety obsessives the world over shuddering in anger and reaching for the ‘phone. Although this apparently uncontrolled and dangerous parade where very young children are allowed to dance around with fireworks is actually very effectively wardened and monitored, it must still be very exciting for the participants.
There was more excitement on the cards according to the programme but a stroll to the front of the cathedral gave us an opportunity to watch the final rehearsal for tonight’s ‘El Retaule de Santa Tecla’, an interpretation of the life of Santa Tecla in dance. We sat and watched this for a while, entertained by the dancers and the orchestra until we were distracted first by a peripatetic pilar of castellers that actually managed to negotiate the cathedral steps twice and then by a band in a nearby alley that were parading through the streets playing lively tunes, including, of course, ‘Amparito Roca’.
We stayed with them for ages, until they had to give up through exhaustion, after which we returned to the cathedral to watch the full performance of the Santa Tecla dance, which was mostly very pretty - though detailed knowledge of the story in advance might have helped. Then we had little more to do than turn around, find a place to sit on the top step and wait.
At midnight the Diables del Voramar were celebrating their 20th birthday and everybody was invited to the party. Before too long, the steps were crowded, as were the lanes leading of the square below the steps. There was a little activity on the square, including the laying of what looked like two long plastic tubes across the square and down Carrer Major and then almost without warning two men walked up Carrer Major and touched flaming torches to the ends of the tubes.
There was a deafening and blinding sequence of explosions and flashes and when we recovered from the shock the lane was completely filled with smoke, emitted by numerous flares burning at ground level. So that’s what the plastic tubes were about. There was an ominous and insistent drumming somewhere and gradually demons started to appear from the gloom, waving pitchforks and dancing around. The crowd picked up the drum rhythm as it got louder and the lights from the flares changed colour and got brighter and then suddenly four demons were at the bottom of the steps, holding aloft pitchforks loaded with flares that lit up simultaneously, sending a huge geyser of sparks into the sky that dropped onto the people below. It was about now that we became grateful that we had stayed near the top. What a way to begin a birthday party.
And it just got better. A statue made up of lots of demons with pitchforks keeping perfectly still in the middle of the square was followed by a long sequence of demons coming in from our left and circulating anticlockwise with hundreds of firecrackers. Most people covered their ears when extra loud screaming fireworks were introduced, the sound magnified by the enclosed nature of the square and there was constant pyrotechnical activity for about twenty minutes. Then it was time for the finale. The fireworks stopped and the smoke cleared, leaving the drummers on the same beat that had accompanied the whole display so far. The crowd started to clap in time and the square gradually filled with demons until some flares at the bottom of the steps created a curtain first of light and then of smoke. As it partially cleared a row of demons could be discerned at the bottom of the steps facing away from the onlookers. Pinpoints of light appeared through the murk, the drumming got louder, the clapping started again. Firecrackers on a couple of pitchforks spewed sparks into the smoke that was now so thick that no one at all could be seen and as these exploded numerous fireworks went off to cheers and rapturous applause. Don’t try this at home. Happy birthday, Voramar.
21st September 2010
Another late-ish start meant that we walked out into a beautiful late summer morning and after a pleasant breakfast, without cider, we explored a bit of the city, taking in the scant remains of the old Jewish Quarter, the Call, before enjoying views of the sea and the beach from the end of Rambla Nova and taking a look at the street market. JD even bought some sandals for €5. When we’d built up a bit of an appetite and with not much on the programme for a while we started to feel a bit nostalgic for the patatas bravas in Donosti so we made our way down to the port again and found room for a plate of calamari too.
Browsing the map we noticed an easy way back to the city centre, utilising some escalators to do the hard work for us. This took us close to some Roman remains including the Forum, which had been closed when we were in Tarragona in 2009. This time it was open and better still today was ‘Portes Obertes’ which meant that the entrance was free. We’d already decided to have a look at the Roman Circus if time permitted and we were pleased to find, as we hoped, that entrance to this, probably the finest of the city’s Roman treasures, was also free.
With time to kill before the late afternoon fireworks we simply wandered around the city centre, remembering finally to get a photograph of what might be the oldest door on earth until we found ourselves back on our fifth floor balcony, wondering if there was likely to be any danger from the powerful explosives arrayed not far below. Oh well - that’s one of the joys of being a grown up. From time to time you get to make decisions that might not be in your best interest.
In the event it turned out that the biggest risk was to our eardrums. Most of the bombs went obediently straight up and only the occasional frightened pigeon was in jeopardy. We stayed on the balcony to watch a parade of Gegants, bestjes and societies start off around the town and to enjoy the antics of the kids collecting the glitter and detritus from the spent fireworks.
There were two big items on our agenda for tonight - the Bal des Gegants in front of the Ayuntament when the parade returned and the thing that, perhaps more than anything brought us back to Santa Tecla, the Baixada de l’Aliga, the eagle dance.
The giant’s ball is a joyful affair, with many Gegants and lots of people too dancing along to a vigorous ’Amparito Roca’ but the eagle dance is compelling with so many people packed into a small space and intent on having a good time. One of the highlights was the progress of Mulassa, with a small girl on his back who looked to be having a really good time and even though it is discouraged, the people on balconies pouring water and sometimes beer down into the crowd were definitely appreciated by some. We’d taken our own vodka, of course, so managed to resist the temptation to get soaked to the skin.
In between the two we happened to pass the headquarters of the Tarragona Castellers, the Xiquets de Tarragona. The doors were open and there were lots of people inside so we went to have a look. There was a practice session in progress and CC was delighted to be asked to ‘assist’ - only on the bottom layer of course, but without a solid base any tower is doomed to failure. We’ve seen hundreds of towers over the years but this was the first time we’ve been asked to take part.
After the eagle dance, the rest of the ‘evening’ is a bit of a blur. We joined the parade from Placa del Rei as it wound towards Placa de la Font. This seemed the obvious thing to do, as it meant we would eventually get back to the hotel. The parade was a delight. Everyone was in high spirits and the streets were really, really packed. Friendships were made and forgotten in moments and Amparito Roca was played over and over again. We woke our unfortunate concierge at about 3 a.m. and opened our balcony windows before going to bed - there were still people partying in the square two hours later.
22nd September 2010
It was our last morning in Tarragona (well, sort of morning, although in a sense we‘d already used up three hours of it) so we checked out, left our bags in a safe place and ventured out. The cathedral bells were due to sound a special peal before the Concert Vermut in front of the cathedral, but I think we were about the only people to look for a place to hear them properly. We didn’t want to leave it too late to set off for Barcelona because we were due to meet Tony who was flying in from Belgium to join us there but it was quite difficult to drag ourselves away from the fun of this open air concert of bass bands and groups playing traditional instruments.
A taxi down to the railway station was only a few Euros and the train to Sants in Barcelona was not much more. For the first two nights we were back in the Barcelona Travelodge. Not the most convenient hotel but for €10 a night a real bargain. We knew we’d spend money on taxis but even adding that on the price is exceptional. The chain have frequent sales when rooms can be obtained at prices like this.
After checking in we went down to the new metro station, about 10 minutes walk from the hotel and bought a T-10 ticket to get into the city. These are a convenient way to get around, saving quite a bit on normal tickets and usable on buses and the metro. You have 75 minutes to finish your journey from getting the ticket stamped (automatic machines at the station gates and on buses) and can transfer between buses and trains in that time. Two people can travel on one ticket as long as you validate it twice.
We visited the Bosc de Fades, not an experience that I imagine we’ll ever repeat and the walked up the street to the Virreina Palace where we hoped to pay our respects to La Tarrasca and maybe pick up some Merce programmes. In previous years this has been a glossy pamphlet with photos, lots of detail and a great pull-out timetable. This year, perhaps as a way of reducing costs, it was printed on newsprint and provided by El Periodico. Not as convenient as earlier incarnations, but as ever, free, so it’s churlish to complain too much.
While we were enjoying a plate of Pulpo a la Gallega in Bar Celta and browsing the programme, Tony sent us a text message to confirm that he had arrived so we arranged to meet at Taxidermista on Placa Reial. He was on his own, his wife Kay having remained at work in England. It would have been nice to see her but we weren’t too surprised as they are mostly living in different countries at present until they can get various work arrangements sorted out.
With no particular sight-seeing agenda and feeling a little peckish we paid return visits to some old favourites like La Succarena on Carrer de la Merce and Vendimia on the Post Office Square. Feeling peckish no longer and in need of a walk, we accompanied Tony back to his hotel near Placa d’Espanya before getting a cab back to hotel.
23rd September 2010
Day 1 of La Merce but plenty of hours to go before Tot d’Inici to Piromusical, so after a good breakfast a La Vid near the hotel we met up with Tony at Placa de Catalunya (after a brief mix-up over stations) and then caught a train and then a bus and then a funicular up to Tibidabo, in the hope of seeing some of the raptor migration from roof terraces of the church. Tony had not been up here on his previous visits to Barcelona so was interested to make the trip as well. Conditions seemed pretty good for birds but there was not much about. One large bird of prey (a harrier, perhaps) flashed by but we couldn’t tell what it was and apart from that all we saw were a couple of kestrels.
Binoculars are heavy so we opted to head back to the hotel, drop unnecessary stuff off and then meet up again at the wine festival on Port Vell, that was due to start at 16:30 according to the time table, giving us time to have a glass or two before making the short trip to Placa de Sant Jaume for Tot d’Inici. CC was also hoping to meet up with a few people from TripAdvisor. We didn’t want to miss too much and had dawdled a bit at Tibidabo and in our rush we left the hotel with only a video camera, all three of our digital cameras having been placed on the bed whilst we changed.
Tony called to say that the wine festival was not due to open until 18:00 so he would find us then but it was about five thirty when we got to the festival sight and they had started to sell tickets. Presumably they had turned so many disappointed people away that they opened ’early’ to avoid further let downs.
After collecting our glasses our first action was to look for the Canals Canals stall but as in 2009, they were not represented. Pinord were there, fortunately, along with plenty of other favourites. JD was delighted to note that one of the gentlemen on the Pinord counter remembered us from last year so we had a chat with him and sampled a couple of wines before buying a bottle of red Reynal to drink. Reynal is a sparkling wine (not a cava) that is perhaps not as dry as most wines that we usually enjoy but it always goes down well in the open air and comes in white and pink varieties too.
We were delighted to connect with a couple of contacts from TripAdvisor and it seemed only a short time before we had to move on again, to go and enjoy the real beginning of La Merce, Tot d’Inici. Every year the same and every year different. The band, Els Ministrals de Cami Rei, get better every time they perform, which is just once each year.
As in 2008 and 2009 there was a superb projections show on the Ayuntament after the closing Tot d’Inici fireworks and then we walked the short distance down Ferran to Placa Reial because JD had noted an entry in the programme about the Bestjes del Foc there and it was also getting close to time for the Xambanga parade to arrive. When we reached Placa Reial numerous dragons and other monsters were filing in from one side of the square and parading around the outside until they formed three sides of a rectangle, facing into the square and completely lining one side of it. Not everybody was expecting what happened next. Almost simultaneously, all the creatures started spewing fire into the centre of the square, causing no small amount of panic and equal amounts of delight. See here for a short video for an idea of what it was like - - click the link entitled ‘Plaça Reial, Barcelona Merce 2010‘.
After the explosions, the bestjes filed out of Placa Reial and onto Las Ramblas where they and their accompanying samba bands joined the back of Xambanga. We nipped through onto Ferran to watch and found ourselves directly under the balcony that contained the most popular (and most photographed) tourists in the city. A group of young girls were dancing enthusiastically to the rhythms of the samba bands, getting smiles of approval from both the bands and just about everybody else.
It was getting late, so after the parade had finished we found a taxi, dropped Tony off and headed back to pack because we were swapping hotels the next day.
24th September 2010
Two nights on the cheap in the Travelodge were followed by three nights of luxury in the recently built and stylish Barcelo Raval Hotel, paid for in part by Tesco Clubcard points - in fact we only put £54 of our own money to it. A taxi from the Travelodge was not expensive and saved us an hour on public transport but it was quite early when we arrived at the Barcelo. We had one large rucksack (actually a design classic, a 1980 Karrimor Jaguar VI which is still in superb condition despite 30 years of rough treatment) and a couple of day sacks as our luggage and when we arrived all three people at reception were occupied with guests, so naturally we stood a polite distance back and waited. Incredibly a female guest then came and stood right in front of us, presumably deciding that our ‘scruffy’ luggage meant that she had a right to jump the queue. We are always polite, but we are also not too shy to stand up for ourselves so we pointed out that we were already waiting which earned us a ‘humph’ and a disdainful sneer, but the first member of staff who became free had spotted all this and beckoned us over. We acknowledged that it was early and that if no room was available all we needed was to drop off our bags and we could return later to check-in properly and he told us that none of the standard rooms were available but that he would be pleased to offer us an upgrade to a deluxe room. Naturally we were equally pleased to accept.
Our room on the 8th floor was very pleasant indeed with a king-sized bed, a well designed bath/shower and great views over Rambla de Raval to the sea and to Montjuic. The views were even better, though from the 360 degree roof terrace bar on the top floor. If you’re looking for a reasonably upmarket hotel in central Barcelona you could do a lot worse than Barcelo Raval.
Carrer de l’Hospital was our chosen route into the city, where Castellers were scheduled and we paused for a look around the Hospital de la Santa Creu, a tranquil and shady oasis a few minutes from Las Ramblas. The café there was not really open but we found a late breakfast on a small adjacent square.
On crossing Las Ramblas we came upon a parade of Gegants and others with inevitable musical accompaniment that we stopped to enjoy for a while.
Placa de Sant Jaume was already packed for Castellers by the time we got to the square and as expected it was intensely hot and sunny, so we were glad that for once we’d remembered to buy some bottles of water. With four groups taking part, the different structures were constantly being announced from the stage. JD had brought the long lens for the camera and as a consequence managed to get a few good detailed, close up shots that really seemed to capture the spirit and appeal of Castellers. The achievements were celebrated by the cognoscenti and by visitors equally.
Tony had managed to find us in the crowd and we went for a lunch in Barri Gotic followed by a walk around Parc de la Ciutadella before returning to the Palau de la Virreina from which members of the Seguici Popular were emerging for another parade, to see whether a better Merce programme might be available.
It was only a couple of minutes to the hotel and the weather was fine, so we took Tony to see the roof bar of the Barcelo Raval to get a few photos. The Hospital de la Santa Creu is in the foreground of this one.
The day was wearing on and we still hadn’t been to the wine festival so we addressed this omission immediately. Having found space at a table we got ourselves a few bites to eat and were soon joined by a group of local people who had brought a large picnic with them, which they very kindly offered to share with us. Excellent chorizo, the best manchego we’ve ever had, delicious olives and other goodies were offered with enthusiasm and accepted equally enthusiastically.
Darkness had fallen by the time we were ready to move on and a few minutes after leaving the festival we were waiting for a train at the Jaume metro station in order to get to Parc del Forum. The park is a few miles north-east along the coast and late-night music festivals have become a regular feature of recent Merces. It was surprisingly cold with a strong wind coming off the sea which perhaps kept the crowds down for competent local rock band San Leon who put on an entertaining performance but when they had finished it wasn’t difficult to convince ourselves that we should find somewhere more sheltered and we were quite happy to pay the rather inflated prices for beer and chips at one of the bars. However Goldfrapp were due on stage at midnight so we headed back into the chill, wishing we’d brought jackets with us and found a spot in the lee of the crowd. It was a good set but we might have enjoyed it more if we’d been warmer. There was another band on that we quite fancies seeing but they were not due on stage until 03:00 and Tony had a flight to catch in the morning because of work commitments so we returned to the city centre, saying our farewells because we were getting off at different stations. When JD & CC emerged from the Passeig de Gracia metro stop it was raining quite hard. Fortunately there were plenty of taxis about for the short trip to Barcelo Raval, but we were pleased we hadn’t stayed at Forum longer.
24th September 2010
As it was likely to be another late night and another active day, we allowed ourselves a fairly late start and a gentle beginning with our first stop being the hotel’s roof bar, from where in addition to the exceptional panorama of the city we saw both a Hobby and a Sparrowhawk that seemed heading determinedly southwards. The skies above Tibidabo looked peerless so with evidence of raptor migration already seen we thought we’d head up there again, this time using the convenient and inexpensive Tibibus that runs during the warmer months whenever the Parc d’Attractions is open.
An hour on the terrace, with view across to Montserrat that had definitely not been possible two days before was more rewarding than the previous visit, with one very close Short-Toed Eagle, three Honey Buzzards and three Sparrowhawks amongst thousands of migrating hirundines, mostly House Martins and lovely Firecrest around the back of the church, near the bus-stop, where we saw a couple more Sparrowhawks and a larger bird of prey that we didn’t ID.
A return to the hotel was warranted to drop stuff of and pick things up. Binoculars were exchanged for suitable clothes for Correfoc (and maybe Parc del Forum again) and vodka flasks were refilled. Our first intent was to spend a little while at the wine festival and we passed the Columbus statue to find that he was overseeing preparations for Correfoc.
The parade can be quite lively so we decided not to take our festival wine glasses in case they got broken. Some of the producers have a stock of their own plastic glasses so we went to see our friends at Pinord, bought a couple of bottles an asked if they had any glasses. A couple were promptly produced and we said our thanks and made to move off but we were called back. “Where are you going?” we were asked. “We’re going to drink this.” (pointing to the bottle of Reynal). “Nobody leaves here with an empty glass!” was the reply and with a smile and a flourish our free glasses were filled to the brim with Pinord’s delicious red, Chateldon. Will we go back there next year? You bet we will.
After the wine festival we called in at Vendimia for a bite to eat and then cut across to Via Laietana where the parade had already started, so we quickly donned our protective gear. For several years Correfoc has overrun by several hours and this year, presumably in an effort to get it to finish on time, the Gates of Hell had been moved nearer to finish and then utilising the width of Laietana two groups set off side by side. This meant that some of the action was very concentrated and the air filled with even more smoke and firecracker detritus. Zombie samba bands don’t seem to feature in horror movies, but perhaps they should.
Surprisingly, during the parade and despite being heavily ‘disguised’ with hat and face covering, CC was recognised by a couple of guys from New York who had read his advice about getting the most out of La Merce on TripAdvisor and who were having a whale of a time.
With Ash appearing at Parc Del Forum we thought about having an early finish to get a good spot at the front of the crowd but instead opted to see the whole parade pass by and we were glad we had because the last three Bestjes del Foc where guests - the Dracs de Molins del Rei. There were three of them, Cuc, a multi-segmented caterpillar-creature, L’Entxuscat, a more traditional dragon and best of all, Camel a strange concoction that seemed to be part horse, part camel, part hippopotamus and 100% weird. It had a long extensible neck that meant that it could spit flames and sparks high above the heads of the crowd and it was attracting a lot of attention.
Our vodka flasks were offloaded at the hotel after Correfoc because the gate staff at Parc del Forum enforce strict rules banning people from taking alcohol and bottles onto the site and then we hastened to the metro and almost ran from the station to the arena because midnight was fast approaching and that was when Ash were due on stage. Ash are one of the foremost British guitar bands of the late 1990s and early 21st century and they have a reputation for crowd pleasing sets and blasting out their standards. We’d already seen them once in 2010 in front of a whole lot of people at Coventry’s Godiva Festival and even with a smaller crowd they didn’t disappoint. ‘Shining Light‘, ‘Burn Baby Burn‘, ‘Kung Fu‘, ‘Oh Yeah’, ’Orpheus’ and ‘Jack Names the Planets’ all got the audience dancing and singing along but ‘Girl from Mars‘, surely one of the very best rock tunes of the last 20 years was, as ever, the standout song.
Not much can top a good Ash gig so we made our way back to the hotel, getting back to Rambla Raval at about 02:30 where in complete contrast to the previous night the weather was mild and pleasant, so we bought a kebab and a beer and found a bench to watch the world go by.
26th September 2010
When there’s a Correfoc there must be a Piromusical soon after and what is effectively the finale of La Merce is much anticipated. We thought we’d go up to Montjuic to see what the various circuses and other childrens’ activities were like so set off in the direction of Paral.lel, finding a café on the way that put together some delicious breakfast sandwiches for us. The funicular and cable car is as good a way as any up to Montjuic and we arrived at the top to find a big top and numerous other things for youngsters to do and see. The circus seemed to be proving especially popular with the very young. Giant inflatables made an interesting contrast to the military setting but small children really can’t resist having a go on the coastal protection. As we’d taken the easy way up, we walked back down and continued our walk into Barceloneta where we hoped to get a drink and some lunch in one of our favourites, Jaj-Ca on Carrer Ginebre, but it was absolutely packed so instead we had an excellent meal in the nearby and rather more sedate Como.
We were still thirsty after the meal so yet again made our way to the wine festival where we started with this pretty bottle from Pinord and after yesterday’s free drink we’re happy to plug them shamelessly. We found a table and then noticed that an English lady nearby was collecting festival glasses from anybody who had finished with them. We have a couple of dozen at home so we passed our over and used the plastic ones from the day before. We were soon chatting like old friends and yet again we were invited to share the picnic food. Hours passed surprisingly quickly and it was suddenly time to make our way to Placa d’Espanya for Piromusical.
Our policy for this epic closedown of La Merce is simple. Get there early, take a picnic and don’t worry too much about sitting on the road. You won’t be the only one. We picked up some chorizo, some crisps and a pack of mixed cheeses from a supermarket and they made for an excellent snack with some cava from the festival and our last bottle of vodka (hint - if you take wine, don’t forget a bottle opener. One group of youngsters had done their preparation well except for that one thing and looked like they were in for disappointment until JD stepped in and saved the day).
We never get bored with this annual music, fountain and firework spectacular which is typically attended by 2-300 hundred thousand people - and the new tradition of people lighting tens of thousands of sparklers in the crowd makes it all the more charming. And after the final exhilarating and explosive crescendo, it was all over for another year. The longish walk back to the hotel was no great hardship but we had to pack and had a flight to catch in the morning, so we didn’t dawdle. Much.