Spain may be hovering on the brink of disaster, but Barcelona is not the kind of city to allow the prospect of bailouts, cuts and economic collapse to interfere with the essential rituals of the Spanish summer. On Wednesday night the middle-aged football fans leapt from the couch in the opposite flat and came out onto the balcony to shout ‘gooaaaal’ after a Messi strike against Real Madrid in the second round of the Supercopa. Soon afterwards the streets were filled with bleeping horns and shouting in celebration of another defeat inflicted by Barca on Mourinho’s not-quite dream team.
In my old neighbourhood in Gracia, the streets have been decked out in their usual finery for the Fiestas de Gracia, the largest and most elaborate Fiesta Major (Neighbourhood Festival) in the city. Every August Gracia residents drape their streets in fantastic decorations for a week of street parties. Some of these guarniments (Catalan: decorations) are amazingly elaborate and creative, transforming entire blocks into fantasy environments populated by aliens, giants and undersea creatures.
Many of them are the result of more than a year’s work by local residents, and competition for the first prize is so fierce that there have been rumours of sabotage during previous years. Here’s a photograph of this year’s prizewinner, with a J.M Barrie/Peter Pan theme (not a choice that I agreed with, but I’m often mystified by the criteria of the festival judges):
These incredibly vibrant fiestas leave Royal Wedding street parties standing. They are primarily intended for the benefit of the Gracia residents – so much so that their organizers once refused to change their traditional dates to coincide with the 1992 Olympic Games, despite the inducement of a not-inconsiderable sum of money from the city council. Nowaways the festival is a huge tourist attraction. Every night tens of thousands of people swarm through the neighbourhood to dance, drink and listen to the array of bands, discos and orchestras blaring from streets and plazas.
For many of Gracia’s residents sleep is impossible until about three or four in the morning, and even then the sound of horns and exploding fireworks is likely to wake people up around eight o’clock. No one seems to mind, and those who do will at least put up with it for the week. Even young children stay up with the parents and grandparents till way past midnight, and there are activities for all ages, from lindyhop classes to punk bands and live opera.
Spain’s economic woes are not entirely absent from the celebrations. When I was last here three years ago there were clashes between riot police and local anarchos, who argued – somewhat unreasonably in my opinion – that the fiestas were ‘repressive’ because people were only allowed to party until the early hours rather than the whole night.
This year one street has been decorated with rows of anguished theatrical masks and a giant pair of scissors in protest against les retallades (cuts). Apart from that, and the festival goes on – as in Spain and Catalonia – it always will. An indispensable component of Catalan neighbourhood festivals is the Correfoc (fire run), my favourite Catalan tradition, in which processions of devils, and sometimes dragons, parade through the streets dancing and igniting chains of fireworks.
British standards of health and safety are generally absent from these gloriously anarchic processions. On Wednesday we followed a Correfoc through the twisting alleys and streets of the Barrio Gotico in the San Roc neighbourhood near the old Gothic cathedral.
For an hour or so, devils danced and twirled, holding forks containing fizzing fireworks, and the ancient streets of the Gothic quarter were filled with smoke and fizzing fireworks and deafening explosions, in a joyous parody of hell, accompanied by the manic rhythms of a local samba band. I don’t have a camera, but this picture gives you a pretty good idea of the mayhem involved:
It was a hugely enjoyable spectacle – a tribute to the appetite for irreverent mischief-making and unbridled lunacy which has always coexisted seamlessly with the very practical, mercantilist Catalan temperament. On Sunday we’re going to another one on the last day of the Gracia fiestas and I can’t help thinking these processions would make a terrific accompaniment for a papal visit to Barcelona. I can see Ratzinger’s dark hooded eyes peering warily from the glass PopeMobile, waving his hand to bless the dancing devils and dragons.
Now that would be a Correfoc to remember.