I have never seen a festival quite like the Festa Major de Gracia. Its reputation certainly preceded it, and we were told even before we moved to Gracia that it was one of the largest and most fantastic festivals in Barcelona. It did not disappoint!
The whole community came together to make the festival happen. Not only were there spectacular concerts and performances every night, there were between 5 and 10 events happening at any hour of the day for a full week (tortuous for my FOMO – fear of missing out – side!). It was incredible how the party just went on and on. The closest celebration I’ve been to like it has been Mardi Gras in New Orleans (the real one in the actual neighborhoods, not just Bourbon St!).
Gracia was originally its own village outside of Barcelona, and it was eventually absorbed by the city. The most characteristic part of the festival is the street decorations. About 12 different streets in the neighborhood work for months ahead of time to create and build beautiful themed scenes that you can you walk through. All the decorations are made by residents who toil tirelessly outside of work hours to produce whimsical worlds.
The festival was also the first time that we’ve truly seen Catalan traditions in full swing – including human towers, giant paper mache figures, drums, traditional dances, and lots of fire and fireworks.
Opening weekend with Kat
We were so lucky to have Kat visiting us the first weekend of the festival! I got to experience the beautiful Sagrada Familia with her as well as explore the streets of Gracia for the first time. We caught the large opening parade on Saturday, but unfortunately, it started raining pretty hard right as the parade was supposed to happen! We grabbed a table under an awning and tried to wait out the storm. Luckily, it ended in time for the gathering in the main plaza to take place. The mayor of Barcelona even attended. I was excited to see her, as she is the first female mayor of Barcelona.
First, the Gigantes danced. Basically, these are paper mache figures that are larger-than-life people. The queen and king danced together a few times in the square.
Several cultural groups performed traditional dances with ribbons and other props.
Then, the castellers started to perform. For me, this was the highlight of the performances. The castellers are human towers. In order to build them, people form this strong base at the bottom and other people literally climb up the base to form the structure. The strength of the bottom support is really important, and there are at least 50 people on each casteller team (most of the people serve to help support the bottom layer). The structures are characterized by how layers of people high they are, as well as how many people are on each layer. There are always at least three kids at the top who scale the whole tower of people to make their way to the top. Once at the top, the highest kid blows a kiss to signal that the structure has been made. There is stunned silence in the crowd as the structures are formed. A band starts playing when the structure is close to complete, but the crowd doesn’t go wild until the kiss has been blown. Then everyone goes crazy.
It is amazing to be up close and watch the whole process. Each casteller member wears a tightly-wrapped elastic around their lower back to protect their backs. As the structure is built, each casteller member just stares directly ahead with a hypnotized expression. We later learned that this is because they are focused on balancing by focusing intently on one object in the distance. There is a director who is yelling out directions, instructing people when to climb.
One of my favorite parts of the whole process is people getting down. They literally slide down the backs of the other people. It is an ingenious and amazing things to watch. When we were in Tarragona, we learned that the casteller tradition originated near there. Peasants came to the city demonstrating this as their contribution, and it’s been a tradition ever since. This was the most unique tradition I had ever seen in Catalonia, and it is definitely something to see in person!
The biggest surprise came next! All of sudden, guns were being fired and fireworks shot off into the gathered crowd. The colla de disables had arrived to kick off the festival! These are people who are literally dressed as devils. They have these sticks with huge sparklers attached to them that they light and then spread out into the crowd. Some even have these sparklers attached to fantastical animals and figurines – especially dragons, as these are special in Catalan culture. The whole plaza was filled with light, sparklers, and smoke. Needless to say, it took us by surprise. 🙂 Grant also wondered how he never knew that he could have been a part of the festival by running around with fire.
We got to walk all the different decorated streets. Basically, the decorated streets made the whole neighborhood like a fairground since the party just continued between the decorated streets. We have seen people working on these decorations for the last couple of months. Excitingly, the decorated street right next to ours won first place in the competition; it was themed “Japan”. It was the street that we got to see evolve the most. All the decorations are made from sustainable or recycled materials – for instance, the bamboo in the picture below is made from putting coke and beer cans on a stick and then wrapping it all in green tape. Many of the decorations are paper mache and everything is handmade from scratch – barely anything bought. It is amazing.
Here are a few examples (ok, a lot more than a few!)
Moulin Rouge (complete with an Eiffel Tower!)
^I thought we were looking terrified, but as it turns out, everyone else looks normal. Ah well.
As I mentioned, there were activities pretty much constantly. Grant and I got to experience some of these other fun activities: kids’ magic show in Catalan, a pole dance show, a bollywood dance show, swing dance band concert, and lots of spontaneous drum parades.
In other important news, Grant found a good burrito place here, FINALLY! It took him a few times of ordering to figure out how to order it the way he likes it, but he finally got it. This is good news, because his burrito meter was getting dangerously low.