Story and photography by Barbara Angelakis
Festival Fever In Catalonia
The autonomous region of Catalonia is located in the northeastern Iberian Peninsula and includes the major cities of Tarragona and Barcelona. The Catalans treasure their unique ancient language and culture apart from that of Spain. Annually, they hold traditional festivals in honor of their patron saints; in Tarragona, the Festival of Santa Tecla, and in Barcelona, the Festival of Our Lady of Mercy – Mare de Deu de la Merce. A celebratory demonstration of Catalan culture for millennia, these festivals are held at the end of summer, at the time of the Autumnal Equinox, to welcome the fall. While initially religious in intent (and perhaps to some still are) in general, they have become big block parties where the entire population takes to the streets. Either or both of these festivals should be on every ones bucket list not only to experience but to join in with full enthusiasm.
My “Festival Fever” began in Tarragona, just in time for the final festivities of a celebration that is held from September 14 to 24 – 10 days of merrymaking, dancing in the streets, parades of fantastic statues, marching bands, human towers, fireworks, and partying, partying, partying.
The cult of Santa Tecla began many hundreds of years ago, but it was in 1321 when a relic of the saint arrived from Armenia; that truly captivated Tarragona at all levels of society. It is said the arm of the saint was exchanged for a Golden Throne, horses, and Mallorcan cheeses – either 400 or 4,000 wheels, depending on the source. Regardless, the relic was of major significance as one of the stories surrounding the death of Tecla recounts that she was caught in a cave avalanche and only her arm was found, protruding from the stones. For those unfamiliar with Tecla’s history, she is considered one of the most important early followers of Christianity, being a Disciple of St. Paul.
Tecla’s Story: Tecla (also Thecla) was an extremely beautiful young girl from a Patrician Roman family betrothed to the scion of another prominent noble family. Upon hearing Paul’s “discourse on virginity” she determined to remain a virgin and refused to marry. So outrageous was her rebellious rebuff of her duty to serve her family's interests, that she was threatened with severe punishment unless she recanted. But Tecla held firm and for her piety was sentenced to be burnt at the stake. Saved from death by a huge storm that put out the flames, she was freed and traveled with Paul to Antioch. Tragically, there she was assaulted by a nobleman enticed by her beauty, and while defending her honor, injured him and again was sentenced to death, this time to be devoured by hungry lions. Her second life saving miracle was that the lions – all female – declined to attack her. Tecla may have been the first woman rights advocate and a role model for thousands of young women who resisted being forced into marriage, arranged or otherwise.
Fast forward to the Santa Tecla’s festival in Tarragona! Most of the parades, musical performances, and street celebrations, had been going on for days by the time we arrived on September 23. Enthusiastically we took to the streets to seek out the musical performances for the evening. We followed the crowds down the main thoroughfare, Rambla Nova, leading towards the Mediterranean Sea, until we came across dancing throngs at the bandstand where the Estelada Orchestra was playing. The group consisted of 11 musicians, with a male and a female singer that played classical salsa into the wee hours of the night. Pasodoble; cha-cha-cha; meringue; plus waltz, pop and rock tunes; all crowd pleasers and music to dance to… and dance they/we did... young and old, good and not so good, filling the square with smiling, perspiring, laughing, dancing bodies; a joy to behold and to join. Afterwards, we checked out an ultra-modern group that was not to our liking, and moved on to the Placa De La Font and the Bühos i Cimarrón band that played well known songs from famous American groups, as they were silently performed by the original artists on a large projection screen at the rear of the bandstand. The crowd was vibrating with energy and much more tightly packed, more or less dancing or jumping up and down in place. Sadly we departed while the music was still going on, to rest before the big day of September 24, the day of the Human Towers or Castells (castles).
It is impossible to verbally dramatize how enthralling this activity is... you have to be there to appreciate the energy, excitement, and awe these towers inspire. The raison d’être has been lost to time but it is possible it was initially a stairway to God - Cartoixa d’Scala Dei (in Catalan Escaladei) – similar to the Carthusian ladder symbol, based on a shepherd’s dream of angels descending from the sky on a ladder. The Carthusian Order was very prominent in Catalonia for hundreds of years and perhaps influenced human tower building. Whatever the origin, groups of up to several hundred brave individuals from a neighborhood or area get together, and practice all year long to perform in the Santa Tecla Festival. Hundreds of people all dedicated to one purpose, to build a tower to heaven. A large group forms the base, over which designated people begin to climb to form a central core, usually 3 to 5 persons per circle. The core builds; perhaps hundreds of feet high in the predetermined configuration, where everyone knows their place, until a small child, 4 to 6 years of age, climbs to the top and holds up his or her hand. During the formation of the tower the crowd is silent but when the arm is raised that’s the sign for the crowd to roar its approval and they continue to shout and cheer until the tower is completely undone. And then another tower forms! All the groups wear colored shirts decided by their club with white trousers, and there are periodic competitions for excellence. Given a taste of what’s in store, we move on to Barcelona.
Barcelona is the Capital of the region of Catalonia and Spain’s second largest city.
The Patron Saint of the city is Mare de Deu de la Merce (Our Lady of Mercy) and her 5 day annual celebration was held on September 20 - 24. The opening festivities include a fire run (Correfoc) complete with fire spitting dragons and the parade of “The Devils”. Devil clubs dress up, as... you guessed it as devils, and accompany the dragons, spraying the crowd with sparklers as they go. Care should be taken to wear protective attire or stand well back from the revelers as the sparklers spew hot embers. Fortunately or un(fortunately) we missed this event and went right to the main event, the Parade of Giants (Gigantes). As implied, these are huge figures that tower above the crowds and are effigies of Kings, Queens, Nobles, Dwarfs, Historical and/or popular figures. A single person maneuvers each figure from underneath, which is no easy task with the crowds, the heat, and the sheer weight of the figures. The giants represent different neighborhoods in Barcelona, and are extremely popular with tens of thousands gathering to join the parade through the Gothic or Old Quarter of the city, accompanied by percussion groups that wail and beat drums. While in the square - Plaça de Sant Jaume in front of City Hall - the Gigantes take turns spinning around and dancing, all to the delight of the crowds.
Once the Gigantes depart the square the excitement begins to build in anticipation of the Castellers, the groups that will form the human towers or castells. First one goes up, then another, and another, larger and higher then the ones before; brightly colored shirts in a jumble of humanity until a little one holds up a hand before shimmying back down the sea of bodies under them. The crowd’s cheers stop and everyone holds their breath as one of the Castellers slips, but resume once the person is caught by their base members and is seen not to be injured. The sheer intensity of the scene before us rendered me breathless in wonderment, as I watch ordinary people build a stairway to heaven with their own bodies. At night we heard that there were projections of the day’s events on the side of the buildings in the square, but we were far away and missed it.
Thinking nothing could top the Human Towers (sic) we were in for still another outstanding spectacle of the festival… the closing fireworks display. On Montjuïc Hill, a lovely green space and home to the 1929 Expo, the 1992 Olympics, museums, sports facilities, theaters and gardens, there is the spectacular Magic Fountain, a dancing waters fountain of music and lights with performances open to the public several nights a week during the summer. The fountain fronts the Palau Nacional (National Palace) which houses the Museu Nacional d’ Art de Catalunya (The National Museum of Art of Catalonia) a neo-Baroque building which is strategically lit at night to full effect.
For the closing night of the festival, crowds gather at the broad boulevard leading to the fountain, perhaps as many as 300,000. At 10:00 P.M. the show begins… the lights dim…the crowd grows silent… and the music blares forth with The Blue Danube by Johan Strauss, a gesture in honor of the city of Vienna, invited this year to the festival of La Merce. The music continues with compositions from composers such as Vivaldi and Handel and moves on to feature Catalan folk and pop music, all synchronized to the changing colors of the dancing waters and the fireworks exploding overhead in a massive piromusical extravagance. At one point the music stopped and the fountain was turned off as the announcer addressed the crowds, where upon thousands upon thousands of hand-held sparklers lit up the night sky. Then the program continued … a fitting finale to a spectacular cultural event that the Catalans gift to the world.
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