The Catalans’ seemingly endless enthusiasm for festivals and parties means that there’s scarcely a week in the year that doesn’t include at least a couple. These range from the full-on traditional knees-up, with giants, dwarfs and dragons wheeling through fireworks, to gentle street fairs selling artisanal honey and sausages, and perhaps laying on a bouncy castle.
The array of religious events and old-fashioned pageants, all of which spotlight what makes Catalonia unique, are supplemented by a wide variety of more modern celebrations. You’re just as likely to stumble across a festival of rock documentaries, graffiti art, hip hop or cyber sculpture as you are to see a traditional parade: Sónar alone attracts 80,000 people each year.
The key annual events are September’s Festes de la Mercè, the main city celebrations that offer a wild variety of events. The Mercè and the other 30 or so neighborhood festes share many traditional ingredients: dwarfs, castellers (human castles), and gegants (huge papier-mâché/fiberglass giants dressed as princesses, fishermen, sultans and even topless chorus girls), and two unique exercises: the correfoc and the sardana.
The correfoc (‘fire run’) is a frenzy of pyromania. Groups of horned devils dance through the streets, brandishing tridents that spout fireworks and generally flouting every safety rule in the book. Protected by cotton caps and long sleeves, the more daring onlookers try to stop the devils and touch the fire-breathing dragons being dragged along in their wake.
The orderly antidote to this pandemonium is the sardana, Catalonia’s folk dance. Watching the dancers executing their fussy little hops and steps in a large circle, it’s hard to believe that sardanes were once banned as a vestige of pagan witchcraft. The music is similarly restrained; a reedy noise played by an 11-piece cobla band. The sardana is much harder than it looks, and the joy lies in taking part rather than watching. To try your luck, check out the sardanes popular held in front of the cathedral (noon-2pm Sun Jan-Aug & Dec; 6-8pm Sat, noon-2pm Sun Sept-Nov) and in the Plaça Sant Jaume (6pm Sun Oct-July).