Barcelona parties in style. It always has done and it always will do. But in this pandemic world, things are a little different. Normally, this is a city pulsing with music and colorful fiestas. Wandering the streets of this beautiful Mediterranean town, there is normally a surprise around every corner. And the sound of music is usually never far away.
Despite this year's lockdowns and restrictions, there is always a moment to celebrate with your beloved ones. Let us show you a bit of Catalonia's culture and traditions.
September has always been the big one for Barcelona. After a long, hot summer, the locals return from their holidays, the sun is still shining, the skies are blue and the beaches are empty.
No wonder why Catalonians have chosen to celebrate some of their most important festivities during this month.
For almost 120 years, this is the week in September that the people of Barcelona have set aside to celebrate their patron saint. It’s Barcelona’s major street party and it’s simply known locally as “La Merce”.
Ever since 1902, the good folk of Barcelona have been using this week to put the long hot summer behind them and to open their doors to the cooler months of Autumn that lie ahead. The Fiesta is held in honour of Barcelona’s patron Saint Mare de deu de la Mercè. But the locals simply call it La Merce.
Usually, this great urban party takes place all over town and the streets are filled with hundreds of thousands of visitors (and locals) enjoying events, markets, parades, bands, drummers, fireworks and for the ultimate thrill seeker, the Correfoc - the ultimate fire run! But this year, due to Covid-19, it was a much more limited affair.
So, we thought we’d look back with optimism at what normally happens during this week of celebration and remind ourselves of what we have to look forward to next year.
So, let’s start with the Correfoc. Correfoc is the Catalan word for “fire run” and that is exactly what this event is. At dusk on Via Laietana, a broad street leading to the superyachts in the Marina ahead, crowds start to gather early. At the top of the block, a giant archway is constructed (and decorated) around which the devils gather in their hundreds.
These devils are members of community groups drawn from barrios across the city and they take over the streets throughout the year during events such as this. It usually starts with a children’s Correfoc - a slightly tamer affair. And then the adults get together for an altogether more dangerous event. The devils gather (by barrio) at the base of the route before setting off at their allotted time to dance and run up and down the streets throwing loud bangers and fireworks around them at random, as they are cheered on by the crowds lining the street.
Many of the devils even have sparklers strapped to their arms, backs or heads, spitting out fire and showering the crowds with hot, burning sparks. Devils will push strange dragon-like creatures and giant birds of prey (made of papier mache) down the street. These effigies have been adapted to shoot out fireworks and spit out real flames from their mouths and eyes and everyone jumps and dances themselves into a frenzy.
This becomes more and more decadent (and less and less safe) as the evening progresses. Devils dance with pitchforks, dragons carry fiery catherine wheels and everything goes crazy for a few hours until the event ends and everyone heads to their favourite bar or rooftop terrace to enjoy the rest of the evening in calmer surroundings!
Land of the giants
But that’s not all that happens during La Merce. During the daytime, Los Gigantes (the giants) will roam the streets in formal processions. These are huge representations of kings and queens and couriers, often towering 6 metres high, accompanied by drummers who beat out a rhythm, dancing with each other (and occasionally with the locals).
Light shows and lasers
And then (as you would expect from the home of Gaudi, Picasso, Dali and Miro), Crowds normally gather to watch magical light shows that are projected onto extraordinary architectural monuments such as the town hall in Placa St. Jaume or the gorgeous Gaudi masterpiece, known as the Sagrada Familia, or the extraordinary Lizard-like building, Casa Batllo.
Human towers - the beating heart of the community
However, if there is one of the proudest traditions of all, it is this one of the Castellers (or human towers). Surely, one of Catalunya’s most impressive traditions. Castellers from local barrios will have spent all year practicing with their neighbours to build the most impressive human towers.
During La Merce, thousands will pack out Placa St. Jaume to watch these castellers build human towers that sometimes reach up to 20m into the sky. The crowd of team members at the bottom (all dressed in traditional costumes) form a solid base by linking arms in a seething mass of bodies. Then, layer by layer, the castellers will climb over their friends' backs and shoulders to reach the sky. One by one, another casteller will scamper up to build the next level of the tower, each level slightly smaller than the last.
Eventually, only two people are left, swaying in the wind at the top of a 20m tower before a young child, with only a small bike helmet to protect her, slithers up the backs and shoulders of all below her to stand proudly at the top before waving her flag in the air and then scrambling and slithering down the tower again.
All the time, the crowds push and sway against the base making the whole thing even more unstable. This takes extraordinary courage, teamwork and organisation, not to say lots of practice. But the result is one of the great traditions of the world and is well worth checking out if you’re ever in Barcelona.
"La Castanyada" - The Chesnut Festival
Tradition, fun and fall harvest food come together to celebrate the night of October 31st. While the anglosaxon world celebrates Halloween, in Catalunya we celebrate what is known as the Castanyada. The name comes from the main protagonist of the celebration: the chestnut (castanya in Catalan and castaña in Spanish)
All around Barcelona you will to find little cute stalls where the "castanyers" and "castanyeres" roast the chestnuts and sell them to local and visitors in paper cones, which also serve to warm up your hands when the temperatures start to go down at this time of the year.
Together with roasted chestnuts, two other sweet seasonal dishes are typical. Firstly, the panellets, which are small balls of almond and sugar covered with pine nuts and, secondly, sweet potatoes cooked with sugar or cinnamon. All these dishes are always accompanied by delicious sweet wine like muscatel.
More than anything, this celebration means sharing with your beloved ones. It's typical to gather with your family or some friends at home and get cozy in front of the fire that will serve to roast the traditional chestnuts or sweet potatoes. The simplest joy.
The origins of the Castanyada date from back in the 18th century when the people at the time used to gather together the night before 1st November to pray and honor the deceased. In these gatherings, chestnuts, panellets and sweet potatoes were typical at their tables.
Other sources talk about the time when the toll of the bells was typically heard on the night of 31st October to honor the deceased and the bell ringers used to eat comfort rich foods like the above mentioned to get strength for the job.
In any case, if you happen to be in Barcelona at this time of the year, do not forget to enjoy this tradition of the Castanyada.
Viscata espadrilles - hand made with love
Our shoes were born out of these traditions and that’s why we love this wonderful part of the world. The extraordinary Mediterranean way of life is reflected in the casual Mediterranean styles we design into every pair of our shoes. The sense of adventure is reflected in our wide range and our constant commitment to reinventing and redesigning the espadrille for the modern world.
The history of La Merce is an echo of the same traditional craftsmanship that our artisan shoemakers use as they make our shoes by hand using centuries old methods. And the pride that the locals take in their traditions in Catalonia and the Mediterranean region reflects the same pride that we feel every time we see somebody stepping out in a pair of Viscatas.
So, if you're looking for a pair of shoes that match the passion of this great autumn tradition, then keep an eye out for our Fall styles, featuring softer autumn colors, leather looks and practical styling for those long, comfortable Autumn walks you know you’re going to take.
Check out our fall winners and how to combine them now!