La Mercè 2016
[This story originally appeared on 10Cities10Years.com]
We arrived in Barcelona just before noon on Saturday, the 24th.
Our Pueblo Ingles program had ended the afternoon before, so after staying a night in Madrid, we jumped up early (well, crawled) and drove to Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport.
As we stood in the security line, we saw one of our fellow Diverbo volunteers who happened to be flying back to the States through the same terminal. It felt like a reminder that even though the week’s program was over, these people would still be in our lives.
After arriving in Barcelona, we took the train into the city. Insider tip for those, like me, who are used to New York City subways: The doors don’t open automatically on the Barcelona Metro, you will need to press a button, similar to exiting a bus here in the States.
We stepped out onto La Rambla which was, perhaps typically, crowded. This was my first experience of the famous, tourist-drawing street, but it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t a normal crowd. As we pushed our way through with bags in hand, trying to make our way to our hostel, we caught sight of the attraction:
We had stumbled upon a parade of giants, or “gegants” as they would say in the regional Catalan. The gegants (and capgrossos, or “bigheads”) were marching in celebration of La Mercè, a Barcelonian festival held annually since 1871. Like most of Spain’s region-specific holidays, La Mercè is a Catholic celebration, commemorating the feast day of Our Lady of Mercy (La Mare de Déu de la Mercè falls on September 24th, but the festival lasts the full week.)
There is a great deal more to be known about the festival, but there’s nothing I’ll be able to write that I wouldn’t just be cribbing from the Wikipedia entry. Read up.
Instead, what I can offer is a visual experience. Sunday night, the final night of the festival, we left our hostel to head to the Coco Vail Beer Hall (I name it only because it’s operated by a friend of my companion, and it’s worth a visit, especially if you’re an ExPat in Barcelona looking to watch some American Football).
On our way, we were sidetracked. In the distance, we saw flashes of lights and could hear the faint crackle of explosions. We considered briefly and then decided to investigate.
As we got closer, the flashes grew more intense.
We had stumbled onto a parade unlike any I’d seen. During La Mercè, there are parades every evening, so I can’t say if the one we witnessed that night was particularly unique, but it felt unhinged and riotous, truly like a last hurrah.
Pushing past the crowds and into the heart of the party, I was suddenly surrounded by fire.
There were people dressed as monks and demons, armed with fireworks similar to roman candles and weaponized sparklers. This was not some piddly 4th of July parade. It looked downright militaristic. I was having flashbacks to video footage of riots.
They were not playing around. Not only was the night lit up with explosions, but they had no qualms about aiming right at whoever dared approach. I stood in a rain of fire.
There were firebreathing dragons and assorted hell beasts as well, spewing an inferno on anyone who got in their way. But onlookers were no safer. They would turn in an instance and spray the crowds who thought they were safe because they stood on the edges.
No one was safe.
It was majestic. The closest experience I could relate it to are the parades at Mardi Gras, but whereas in New Orleans all you had to watch out for was the occasional medallion rocketing towards your face, in Barcelona almost no one walked away unmarked by the sparks. My companion had her hair singed and my left eye was still stinging from a flyby a few minutes after we left.
It wasn’t all hell unleashed. Revelers flowed through the street as drumlines and floats blasted infectious rhythms into the night, stirring the crowd into a frenzied but joyful dance. It was a party to behold.
Our night continued on as we left the festivities behind and met up with friends. But there was no topping what we had, by pure chance and without planning, simply stumbled upon.
We both walked away having felt the touch of fire, but that’s to be expected when you dance with the devil.