Bon Viatge!

Meg and Grant go to Barcelona & beyond

Month: August 2015

Festa Major de Gracia

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Decorated streets

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!)

Japan

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Duplot castle

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IMG_0534^one of my all-time favorites 🙂

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Moulin Rouge (complete with an Eiffel Tower!)

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Circus

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Zoo

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Avatar

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^I thought we were looking terrified, but as it turns out, everyone else looks normal. Ah well.

Amusement park

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Nintendo land

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Festivities

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.

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ALSO

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.

All the small things

You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to fill your days when you aren’t working. Or maybe you would. I have time to sleep, work out, make healthy meals, try my hand at painting, try out freelance magazine writing, explore different dance classes, bike, and go to various summer events happening around the city. It’s like eternal summer camp around here.

Although we haven’t done any big trips lately, we have been busy doing a lot of small things. We are trying to space out seeing some of the lesser-known tourist sites in Barcelona, such as the Sant Pau Hospital, a modernist hospital which at the time it was built offered the most space per patient in all of Europe (also pictured as the cover for this blog post). The architect who designed it, Lluís Doménech i Montaner, is quickly becoming one of our favorites, because his projects focus on bettering the lives of the common man.

We discovered a Gaudí house which is literally less than 10 minutes on foot away from our apartment. It’s Casa Vicens, and it’s currently being renovated to open for tours, so right now you can only look at the facade. We’ve also done more day trips from Barcelona to explore the rest of Catalonia. The more we explore Catalonia, the more I fall in love with the culture. Did you know the Catalan flag pre-dates the Spanish flag? This culture runs deep.

I think it is fair to say that within the 4 months since we’ve moved here, we are pretty well adjusted. When we first moved, I was still very anxious about trying to figure out exactly what we were going to do. I went through some major work withdrawals (I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s so true). Now, I am just loving the time to dabble in various activities and try my hand at some different skills. I judge myself for saying this – but I could live without a job for the rest of my life, no problem. That’s not realistic, and that won’t be happening, but yeah. I have fully relaxed into this lifestyle.

To be fair, it’s also the culture that has relaxed me. People just can’t be bothered here to get upset or worked up about things. Everyone is treated with much more patience and grace. This is like sweet, sweet medicine for my anxious soul. Being in this environment, one thing I have learned about myself is that I will always find something to worry about. But it’s nice to be surrounded by people who aren’t going to yell at you if you’re late and who understand that life happens. I think it is slowly untying the anxious knots inside of me and reminding me to focus on the things in life that are worth worrying about.

Here are some of the highlights of small trips and explorations we’ve been doing lately.

Tarragona

Tarragona is about an hour’s train ride south of Barcelona on the coast. It has tons of Roman ruins, because it was the first major Roman settlement outside of Italy. Who knew? The societies after the Romans just built on top of the ruins, which ultimately served to preserve the old Roman walls and buildings. Now, you can walk through a large part of the old Roman city. Some people say that it has much better preserved ruins than Rome itself.

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We rode with our bikes on the train to Tarragona. In the morning, we did a 40-mile bike ride through some of the countryside beside Tarragona. The countryside was beautiful once we got off the main roads. It reminded us a lot of Sonoma and Napa with rolling hills, fields of produce, and the occasional winery.

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We happened by chance upon this gorgeous modernist chapel in the middle of nowhere. We turned a corner on the road, and all of a sudden there was this beautiful white church shining on hill. We had to investigate up close. It turns out that it was designed by a apprentice of Gaudí who had helped out with the tiling of the facade of Casa Batllo. We could definitely spot the Gaudí influences in the catenary arches and the clean, modernist facade.

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I love biking for these random surprises it gives you – we would never have known this chapel was here otherwise.

We biked into the city to lunch before a walking tour that afternoon. It turns out the place that we lunched was actually built on part of the old Roman circus. After a post-lunch nap in the park, we headed out on a private walking tour of Tarragona. I was so glad we did this, because there is so much to see, and it’s hard to know what’s important and what’s not! It is amazing to see how the Roman ruins are still present in the modern-day buildings. Those Romans really knew how to build structures that stood the test of time.

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It was a long day, but we had a great time exploring this coastal Catalan treasure.

St Miquel de Fai

I found this obscure abandoned monastery on a hiking website, and decided we definitely needed to see it. We took a bus about 45 minutes outside of the city and hiked from there to the old monastery in the mountains.

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We got to see a whole different side of the Catalan landscape. On our hike on the way there, it was like we were in the Grand Canyon or any other desert landscape. The soil was rocky, and the plants were dry and low bushes. We didn’t see a single soul the whole time we were on the trail. A takeaway for us? Maybe take a machete along on hiking trails in Spain. The trails weren’t totally in disrepair, but they definitely weren’t as maintained as we are used to. We passed a local swimming hole on the way, and we were just about ready to abandon the hike and jump in.

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The monastery itself was actually much more crowded than I anticipated. Since it’s no longer functioning, the main attraction is to walk around and enjoy how the structures have been built right into the mountain rock. There were also waterfalls from mountain run-off and caves to go inside. It was a stunning sight to see the monastery nestled among the rocks and waterfalls. It struck me as one of those places where it is definitely not hard to find God.

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On the hike back, we experienced a totally different side of the landscape, which was more like a green forest with shaded trees. It was bazaar to think how close the two trails were to each other and how different they were.

One of my favorite parts of this whole experience of living in Europe is how much Grant and I get to talk and share life. We were so involved in our conversation on the way back, that we added a few extra kilometers going the wrong way. Grant and I are able to talk about anything and everything – all our hopes and dreams, what it’s like to be removed from our past lives, and the beauty that surrounds us on our trips. One of our friends described it like we were on an extended honeymoon. It really does feel that way at times.

Of course, there is strain at times from spending so much time with one other person. I think, on the whole, we are getting better at laughing at ourselves though.

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^No hike is complete without a post-hike snack of patatas bravas and cerveza.

Montgat with Kat

On our bikes rides along the coast, Grant and I had seen an inflatable obstacle course in the ocean. We had vowed to come back at some point and try it out.

Kat was visiting last week and wanted to get some beach time in. Grant found the obstacle course in Montgat, about a 30 minute train ride outside the city. The beach was so uncrowded compared to the Barceloneta beaches, and the weather was nice and overcast. I think it’s the beach to come back to.

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Anyway, we all got to try out this obstacle course, American Ninja Warrior style! There was a rock-climbing mountain to scale, balancing obstacles, a huge slide, and large inflatable steps to scale. It was a real workout! It looked pretty simple, but let’s just say that it’s been a while since I’ve had to pull myself up out of the ocean and onto a raft, much less up a moving rock-climbing mountain (which by the way, I could never succeed at). Grant was like a mountain goat scaling all the obstacles.

fish-spaOf course, before the beach, to have feet that were beach-ready, Kat and I went to a fish spa. Basically, you put your feet in this tub of water with fish, and the fish eat all the dead skin off your feet. It kind of tickles! The time passes very quickly, because you get to watch the fish in action. It was kind of awesome (but expensive). I would totally do it again!

This weekend Kat will be back in town, and the local festivities of the Gracia festival will be in full swing. Stay tuned for more of our adventures during the festival!

P.S. For those of you who are waiting for the promised Cinque Terre post – I have just abandoned it at this time. Next time we talk, I promise that Grant and I will fill you in all on the hilarious details.

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