I have been returning to Barcelona since I first visited the capital of Catalonia in the fall of 1967. It is a city that has change as much, more so, than I have. It continues to change, and all for the better. When I first arrived, Barcelona was a sleepy city on the Mediterranean, a place where one passed through to change planes, catch a boat, take a train to a final destination.
There was history here, of course. Antoni Gaudi’s amazing architecture, the Gothic Quarter, and Las Ramblas, a long tree-lined promenade that draws visitors from around the world to shop, for an evening strolls, a drink at a sidewalk café and where to watch the world walk by. Las Rambles stretches from Placa de Catalonia to the monument to Christopher Columbus. This towering statue overlooks the harbor and the Columbus figure gestures, not to America, but in error towards the Balearic Islands in the midst of the Mediterranean. (Oh, well, the city can’t get everything right.)
In 1992 Games of the XXV Olympiad changed Barcelona in dramatic ways, mostly through architecture, like Frank Gehry’s Fish sculpture in front of the Hotel Arts and the Tore Mapfre in the Olympic Village. New avenues were built to reduce the density of the traffic in central city, the El Prat Airport was expanded, new hotels, new parks and new museums all constructed.
The Games made Barcelona a ‘happening place’ and that summer, and all the summers since, sleepy Barcelona has become the destination point for young people traveling the world. Today it is an ultra-modern city with an ancient history and traditional Catalonian charm. What more could one want?
All Politics Are Local
To understand the obvious pride of Barcelonans one has to realize that they are first Catalonians. While part of Spain, Catalonians see themselves as an independent ‘small country’ with a thousand years of history, a rich culture and a distinct language. They are quick to point out that Catatonia’s territory and language date to the high Middle Ages. The kingdom of Catalonia began in the 12th century with its legal identity reconfirmed in 1714, and more recently in 1979, when the Spanish parliament reformed Catalonia rights of self-government.
When To Go!
The best months for sunny days and cool evenings are April, May, June and again in September, October, November. The Mediterranean warms late for fall swimming and Barcelona has 5 kilometers of sandy beaches within the city.
La Merce Festivity
La Merce is named after the city’s patron saint. It is a long weekend of celebration in September in Barcelona, from pyrotechnical parades and drum-wielding processions, to streets filled with giant devils, demons, kings and queens. Every day is marked by ‘castells’ (human towers), as well as, concerts in the main squares of the Gothic Quarter. The nights conclude with beach-side fireworks.
‘Castelers’ Human Towers
The focal point of the La Merce Festivity (as well as other festivals of Catalunya, such as the week long Santa Tecla festivities in Tarragona (photos here) to honor the patron saint of the city) are human towers, called ‘castells.” The Castells come from the 18th century, and originally from a small town (Valis) near Barcelona. They began as sporting events, and this tradition has continued. Today’s the towers are the same as they were in the 18th century and are the center event of any festival.
The city of Barcelona began to build towers in 1969 and the team, Castellers de Barcelona, has refining their skills and techniques so by the ’70s it reached 7-levels in high. Today the Barcelona human towers are up to 9-levels.
A tower always consists of three parts. The basis is the “Pinya” onto which the weight of the load above is distributed, and which stabilizes the structure.
On top of this, the actual tower is built. The “tronc”, Catalan for trunk, consists of several levels with a specific number of people, the castellers. Depending on the number and distribution of the up to 9 people of a ring. Climbing to the top of the tower is only allowed for young children, because of their size. They form the “pom de dalt”, the tower dome.
Watch as they are quickly build and unbuild. It is dramatic and breath catching. The whole process takes place in less than three minutes, and within the crowded square, one castell follows enough, as the ‘human towers’ from clubs and regions compete for achieving the highest height, speed and complexity.