Story and photography by Barbara Angelakis

Catalonia Human Tower

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.

Catalonia Crowd in Street

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.

Catalonia Orquestra Estelada

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).

Catalonia Tower Children at top

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.

Catalonia Barcelona Gaudi Building

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.

Catalonia Giants

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. 

Catalonia Barcelona Dancing Waters

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.

Catalonia Barcelona Fountain and Fireworks

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 pyromusical 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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