The highlight of my student years was undoubtedly the five months I spent living in Barcelona, and the festival of La Mercè, which coincided with my enrolment at the University, was in many ways my initiation as a temporary citizen of this crazy, cosmopolitan city.
The festival, taking place between 18-24 September 2015, is a riotous celebration of Catalan culture that honours Barcelona’s patron saint, the Virgin of La Mercè. With hundreds of individual events happening all over the city it can be hard to know where to start, so here are a few things to remember if you want to make the most of your time at La Mercè…
It’s Barcelona’s greatest party
The official date of La Mercè, 24 September, is a public holiday in Barcelona, Spain, and when the holiday falls on or near the weekend, as it does in 2015, most people will take an extra day or two off work and make it into a long weekend – this is known as hacer puente, which literally means ‘making a bridge’.
This tradition was enthusiastically adhered to by my lecturers at the University, who informed us that they would be disappearing for several days, so I had no choice but to follow suit and immerse myself in the festivities. La Mercè brings together not just locals and tourists, but also many of the foreign students and immigrant workers who call the city home, and it was during the festival that I met the people who would go on to become my best friends in the city, ranging from a Guatemalan waiter to a Danish computer engineer.
Entrance to most events is free
If you’re sizing up the cost of Barcelona’s big summer music festivals, and worrying about your budget, then La Mercè is a great way to experience the unique buzz of Barcelona in full-on festival mode without bankrupting yourself. The majority of the events and venues are free to enter, and in most places you won’t be restricted to buying food and drink from an overpriced festival bar.
I also found that I met a much wider cross-section of people at La Mercè than I did the following year at Sònar, which, although an amazing festival in its own right, does seem to attract a mostly young and middle class crowd, with a large British contingent.
You’re not in Spain, you’re in Catalonia!
Relations between Catalonia and the Spanish government in Madrid have always been strained, and things reached a nadir under the dictatorship of General Franco, when the Catalan language was banned and many traditions suppressed. Since the transition to democracy in the late 1970s the region has undergone a real renaissance, and La Mercè is a great opportunity to experience some of the idiosyncrasies of Catalan culture.
The castellers, or human pyramids, draw particularly big crowds: get to Plaça Sant Jaume early to grab a good spot from which to view the acrobatic locals building their vertiginous towers, which can reach up to 10 people tall. You’ll also see people dancing the sardana, a circular folk dance that bears an uncanny resemblance to the hokey-cokey. There’s no real need to learn any Catalan, as everyone speaks Spanish (also referred to as castellano), but it’s worth learning a few words just for the look of confused delight on a Catalan’s face when a guiri (foreigner) manages a few words of their mother tongue.
One of my favourite Catalan phrases to wheel out at any opportunity was ‘Qui s’aixeca de matí pixa allá on vol’, roughly equivalent to ‘the early bird catches the worm’, and which literally means ‘He who gets up early pisses where he wants’.
Normal health and safety rules do not apply
One part of the festival that you definitely shouldn’t miss is the correfoc, or ‘fire run’, a parade in which revellers dressed as devils let off a cacophony of fireworks, with scant regard for health and safety. Even though I had read about this beforehand, I wasn’t quite prepared for the spectacle that I witnessed: the air heavy with the smell of gunpowder, the thundering drums and the devils wheeling around spraying the crowds with a shower of white hot sparks.
The best place to view the action is along Via Laietana, and it’s up to you how close you want to get; you’re welcome to get involved and run the gauntlet of exploding fireworks, but you do so at your own risk. Make sure you dress appropriately, and cover up as much flesh as you can: long sleeves, protective glasses, a hat and a scarf to tie round your face are all recommended.
Discover your new favourite band
One of the things I loved about La Mercè was that it isn’t just about preserving a bunch of historical traditions in aspic, it’s also a festival that embraces the modern.
On the first night I found myself squashed on to a Metro packed full of boisterous young Catalans chugging on plastic bottles of homemade kalimotxo (red wine and Coke – much nicer than it sounds), headed for the vast Parc del Fòrum, one of the venues for the BAM (Barcelona Acció Musical) music festival that runs during La Mercè. A huge sound system was kicking out thumping bass, the seething crowd bouncing up down in the glare of staccato strobe lights, and we stayed well into the night. I couldn’t tell you who I saw play – while the festival sometimes features well known artists, it’s really about showcasing less established local acts.
We also spent a night wandering from Plaça to Plaça checking out the more intimate stages scattered around the Ciutat Vella, our evening lubricated by the ubiquitous Pakistani street vendors who sell cold cans of beer out of a carrier bag for a euro or two.
Sample the legendary BCN nightlife
Of course, you’re not restricted to the official festival programme, and La Mercè was my introduction to Barcelona’s incredible nightlife. A good place to warm up is L’Ovella Negra, a popular student pub near Plaça de Catalunya where you can enjoy cheap and dangerously drinkable sangria. Another venue which frequently set my nights on a dangerous course was Marsella, an atmospheric absinthe bar in the old red light district where Hemingway used to drink.
Just remember that the natives don’t tend to head out until ten or eleven at night, and the clubs don’t really get going until two in the morning, so pacing yourself is crucial! Stumbling out of a club as the sun was coming up became a common occurrence during my time in Barcelona, often catching the first Metro at 5 AM and trying to avoid the disapproving stares of the locals on their way to work. I found the best way to cope with this unusual timetable was to fully embrace it, and I grew to quite enjoy having dinner at ten or eleven at night, though admittedly I never really got the hang of the midday siesta.
What are you waiting for? Book it now!
As you would expect, a giant free festival in the centre of Barcelona draws big crowds, so I’d strongly advise that you book your accommodation well ahead of time, especially if you want to stay near Las Ramblas. However, the old town is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to accommodation; Barcelona is a pretty compact city compared to London or Paris, and it’s well connected by a reliable Metro, which runs all night on Saturdays and the La Mercè public holiday.
Just to the north of the Gran Vía are the gridded streets of L’Eixample, where I stayed in a little family-run pensión when I first arrived, and where I eventually ended up renting a flat for five months. It’s a great area, home to lots of cool bars, modernist architecture and Barcelona’s gay quarter. I also had friends who loved living in El Raval, the Barri Gòtic’s slightly grittier (and cheaper) twin on the opposite side of Las Ramblas, while Bohemian Gràcia is a bit further out from the centre but has a friendly village feel to it, and hosts its own festival in August, which is also well worth checking out.