24 September, the feast day of Our Lady of Mercy, or La Mare de Déu de la Mercè in Catalan, is the spill around which Barcelona’s biggest, most spectacular festival revolves. The festival, in honour of a saint who saved the city from a locust plague back in the 1600s, has been held in one form or another for centuries.
All Barcelona becomes a stage
This year Barcelona will once again welcome between 1.5 and 2 million people from 22 to 25 September. For four days the city becomes an enormous stage, transformed by visual spectacle, musical abundance and artistic expression that takes as many forms as the human imagination allows.
The programme is jam-packed with street parades, featuring giant puppets and fire cracker-wielding demons, spectacular fireworks, human tower building, mind-bogglingly creative street theatre, traditional Sardana circle dancing, bell ringing and musical performances as diverse as lyrical pipers’ songs and frenetic acid house. Astonishingly, the events are free – a gift from the city (and its sponsors) to the people!
La Mercè events are listed in four main categories: the Traditional Festival, the Festival of Light and Fire, The MAC street arts festival and finally, the Music Festival, which is divided into popular music events and independent music happenings, called BAM – Barcelona acció Musical.
The Traditional Festival
The Traditional Festival features events that celebrate age-old traditions in Catalan culture. The opening procession on Friday evening kicks off at 19h00 with a parade of the gegants – giant puppets, originally devised by the Catholic Church to illustrate Bible stories to illiterate churchgoers. In the line-up are the Eagle, the Lion, the Mule, the Ox, the legendary dragon Tarasque and the mythical Giants of the Pine and Santa Maria del Mar. They are accompanied by the Minstrels of Camí Ral who come together only once a year during La Mercè to play the dances associated with each of the traditional figures.
One of the highlights of the traditional festival is the Carrefoc – a risky, adrenaline-inducing fire run, which takes place on Saturday night. During the event people, who are dressed up as demons and beasts, pour through the symbolic Gates of Hell and run through the streets with fire crackers mounted on pitchforks, showering the crowds in sparks. Visitors who want to enjoy the pyrotechnics up close should wear protective clothing.
Equally spectacular is the feat of human castle building, a Catalonian tradition that UNESCO declared in 2010 to be amongst the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Groups of agile people, called castellers, practise all year round to build magnificent human towers. During La Mercè they show off their skills in amazing feats of co-operation that allow them to build human towers as high as nine storeys.
The Festival of Light and Fire
La Mercè turns Barcelona into an explosion of light and fireworks at night. The projection light show against the façade of the City Hall at Plaça de St Jaume transforms the building into a magnificent luminous canvas. On Saturday and Sunday night visitors are treated to the pyrotechnic mastery of some of the leading international companies and artists in the field of fireworks displays on Barceloneta beach. This year’s show is designed by Sigga Soffia of Reykjavik, a specialist in contemporary dance who marries her love of dance with firework choreography, and TFG Producers, a Panamanian fireworks company.
The MAC Festival
Mercè Arts de Carrer (Mercè Street Arts; MAC) Festival is a potpourri of dance, street theatre and music performances in the Ciutadella Park and surrounding areas. It includes performances as diverse as circus cabaret, vertical flamenco, puppet shows and bastoner stick dancing. One of the highlights of this year’s MAC Festival is Eyesberg dome, which features an immersive film about the dramatic beauty of Iceland – this year’s guest city at the Mercè.
The Music Festival
The best way to get a sense of the astonishing variety of musical events at La Mercè is to page through the programme: http://lameva.barcelona.cat/merce/en. There is something for everyone’s tastes – traditional Catalan folk music, classical, pop, rock, acid, jazz and choral, produced by international stars and promising newcomers on stages across the city.
The Grande Finale
La Mercè ends with a bang on Monday night at the Magic Fountain of Montjuic, close to where the sailors of Hercules’ Nona Barco (ninth ship) are said to have settled. Legend has it that the sailors were blown here by a storm while going in search of the Golden Fleece with Jason and the Argonauts and that they were so enchanted with the coastal splendour that they opted to remain in Barco Nona (Barcelona).
On the last night of the Mercè festival Montjuic does its legendary origins justice when light, gunpowder and music transform the city and the people who come to watch the annual Fireworks and Music display. Enchantment electrifies the night sky and the temptation is strong to succumb to the enchantment forever as Hercules’ men did.