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The biggest, baddest, loudest, happiest, 'fire-iest' mother of a festival ever: La Mercè
People often ask about Barcelona ’s largest cultural, musical arts and communities festival, La Mercè, which takes place in multiple locations in the city in late September. Hopefully this will help to answer a few of the main questions.
Official website of La Merce
What is it?
Marking the end of the summer, the actual feast day of Barcelona’s patron saint, the Virgin de la Mercè is 24th September. It has grown over recent decades and attracted much attention from locals and tourists alike. Although many tourists now include “La Mercè” in their itineraries the majority of attendees and participants are still local. It is a multi-faceted festival encompassing music, fireworks, tradition, the arts, community action, performance and much more. There are hundreds of events and activities of which only a tiny percentage can be sampled in any trip.
When is it?
It takes place over several days, usually leading up to the 24th but the timetable varies each year depending upon the day that the 24th falls. The programme is seldom published until quite close to the start (in 2011 it was early September) which leaves a touch of uncertainty. Normally, the final event is Piromusical which usually happens on the Sunday night closest to 24th September but in 2012 it will be on the Monday night because that is the actual saint’s day and if the 24th is midweek then it moves around.
As a guide, Piromusical and therefore the end of La Mercè has been on the following days/dates in recent years:
Monday 24th September 2007
Wednesday 24th September 2008
Sunday 27th September 2009
Sunday 26th September 2010
Sunday 25th September 2011
Monday 24th September 2012
Tuesday 24th September 2013
Wednesday 24th September 2014
Thursday 24th September 2015 (NB - this date might be non-standard because the whole festival was brought forward because of election dates)
How much does it cost?
Nothing. Almost all of the major events in the festival takes place in public locations and are free of charge. There is a small charge levied for a couple of the BAM concerts (see below) but most of them are also free. Enjoying the wines in the wine festival also attracts a charge but access to the site is free.
What is included?
It would be difficult to try to capture details of all the elements of La Mercè and it is in the nature of the festival and the creativity of those who run it that things change. Even the traditional elements develop and evolve over years. Here are some things that will almost certainly take place during La Mercè.
As the festival is steeped in tradition it seems appropriate to talk about some traditional elements first.
This is the opening ceremony. It takes place in Placa de Sant Jaume in Barri Gotic in between the Ajuntament (the town hall) and the Generalitat (the seat of the Catalan regional government). Tot d’Inici is the first exposure during the festival of the Seguici Popular which is often translated as ‘Popular following”. The Seguici Popular consists of a cadre of gegants (giants), bestjes (beasts – both real and mythical) and other characters that have associations with the city. They exit the Ajuntament and progress through the crowd (which will be big) onto the stage, where they perform a short dance, accompanied by the estimable Ministrils de Cami Ral an orchestra who perform only one single concert each year – this one. Each element of the Seguici Popular has a personal tune and some are well known and well loved. The Gegants del Pi are immortalised in a children’s nursery rhyme that all Catalans know and sing along to and you can easily find this on line and learn it to join in as well.
These are the elements of the Seguici Popular:
All of these will appear and dance on the stage, which in the case of the gegants which are huge and heavy is quite a physical challenge. In addition to this, after the Seguici Popular there is a moment of drama as demons mount the stage to an ominous drumbeat waving fire-cracker be-decked pitchforks that shoot sparks into first few rows of the crowd and explode with loud bangs that make some onlookers cover their ears.
To end Toc d’Inici, Els Ministrils launch into a second rendition of the tune, “Toc d’Inici” which is a rousing march with lots of drums and traditional instruments like Grallas as the Seguici popular progresses back into the Ajuntament. Let go of your inhibitions and clap along. As the tune reaches a crescendo (keep at least half an eye on the band, especially when they guys with the big drums really get into it) the first firework display of the festival begins, surprising any newcomers and passers-by because it is launched from the roof of the Ajuntament and is therefore directly overhead and very loud. If you don’t enjoy this, check your pulse. You might be dead!
Some Toc d’Inici tips:
Getting there early can be a good idea (this will be a common theme in this guide). Toc d’Inici always attracts a crowd and the topography of Placa de Jaume sets physical limits. Being close to the stage is good because you get to see everything close up and you can lean on the barriers for a bit of a rest. It means a long stand, though, so consider taking refreshments.
Toc d’Inici is always prefaced by a speech from the Ajuntament, televised on a big screen with sub-titles in Catalan. If you speak any Spanish or French you can amuse yourself by seeing how much of it you can understand but for non-locals this can seem quite uninteresting. In one recent year a highly regarded local orator made a speech that felt interminable and had even his ardent admirers groaning when it appeared that he might never finish. If you want a good view though you will have to stand and wait.
There is often a political protest (this is true for Placa de Sant Jaume on many days). This is nothing to be alarmed about. It is likely to be noisy and highly visible but entirely non-threatening and will probably finish before the Seguici Popular emerges. If you’re a tourist and find yourself close to the protestors, ask them what issue they are concerned about. Hopefully it won’t be tourism.
The devils and some of the beasts bear firecrackers and the sparks from these do end up in the crowd and they are hot. And the explosions are loud. You’re probably more at risk from other people stepping on your toes trying to get out of the way than from the sparks themselves, though.
Els Ministrils de Cami Ral are marvellous. As they are on the main stage which is away from the main action on the temporary central stage they can be overlooked, which is a shame because their exuberant director, Jordi Fabregas conducts a bravura performance. Spare them a glance. Or two.
Since 2008 a new element has been introduced to the festival, a projections show utilising the frontage of the Ajuntament. This uses leading edge audio-visual technologies to create a dazzling 3D spectacle that should have you standing open-mouthed in admiration. A new show has been produced in each subsequent year. Check YouTube and search on “Miratges, Barcelona ” for an example. The first showing of this, which usually airs several times each night during La Mercè is usually immediately after Tot d’Inici and worth waiting for. Unlike most events this is best seen from further away, with the best views being from near the main doors of the Generalitat.
There are few superlatives that do the Castellers justice. La Mercè normally includes two Castellers days, one with local colles (teams) from the Barcelona area and one with Castellers de Barcelona and invited colles from further afield in Catalunya. It might only be a matter of time before international colles attend because the activity is gaining adherents in places as far away as Chile and in India participants in Govinda (Dahi Handi) have similar aspirations as they reach for the sky.
There is a rather good Wikipedia article on Castellers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castell
To describe it in simple terms, each colle strives to construct and then deconstruct a tower built entirely of people that might be eight, nine or even ten layers high. For higher towers the top levels (the enxaneta at the very top, the dossos and aixecador, all of which are specialised roles) will be performed by children whose youth might surprise spectators seeing the activity for the first time.
There are many rules governing the type of tower and the way that it is built and even the way that it is taken down (a collapse, even if the intended height and formation were achieved could count as a failure).
Ok, so it’s people building towers. So what’s the big deal? You probably need to attend an event to understand. Crowds of spectators can be huge. Competitions during La Mercè are held in Placa de Sant Jaume, usually starting around 12:00 and it is commonplace for the roads leading to the square to be closed off for access during the session. It is easy to be swept up in the emotion of the event with courage, pride, commitment and skill on display as each colle (there are usually three or four) attempts to produce perfect examples of constructions that they train regularly and frequently for throughout the year. The tension in the crowd can be tangible as tiny tots scramble up the outsides of taller towers accompanied by the sound of grallas to complete the work and hopefully scramble back down the other side to safety.
Some Castellers tips
Castellers are not restricted to La Mercè or to this time of year and they appear many times all over Catalunya through much of the year, usually at weekends or on festivals and major saints’ days so it’s worth checking whether there is anything happening when you visit. The season runs from 23rd April to the end of November though special events might mean that Castellers appear outside those dates.
Get there early. As already discussed, access might be blocked as the day progresses.
Take refreshments, especially drinks and consider hats for shade (Placa de Sant Jaume is a suntrap at midday) and high sun protection factor cream. The event can last several hours and you might get hooked.
For the more difficult towers, especially the tall ones, help is often sought from other colles and even from spectators. If you’re asked you will be placed near the outside of the bottom level and asked to remove spectacles, wrist-watches etc. Your function will be to add support but mainly to act as a soft landing area should there be a fall. No spectator would ever be co-opted against their wishes but should you be asked and eager to participate, listen carefully to what you are asked to do and follow instructions, especially about where to place and align your head and neck.
The event will be cancelled if the weather is wet, for obvious reasons.
For many people, this is the highlight of the entire festival. There are many Correfocs around Catalunya at different times of year for different reasons but Barcelona ’s is amongst the biggest.
What is it?
There are normally two Correfocs that run back to back – the Correfoc Infantil or children’s Correfoc and the main Correfoc. It’s a spectacular parade consisting of groups of demons from various city districts and beyond, each accompanied by their own local bestjes and music, most often samba drum groups. The demons and monsters carry firecracker which are lit at short intervals as they progress down the road. Sounds ok? The catch is that anyone can join in by running into the road, jumping through the sparks or attempting to stop the demons and creatures from getting by. And these sparks can hurt, or worse. This is a high adrenaline event that assaults all of the senses – you can taste the gunpowder in the air soon after they start.
When is it?
Difficult. Check the programme. When Piromusical is on a Sunday, then Correfoc is on the Saturday, except when the Saturday is 24th (the saint’s day) when it is on the Sunday, at the same time as Piromusical. If Piromusical is not on a Sunday then Correfoc is probably on the preceding day, but as already said, check the programme.
The Correfoc Infantil generally starts around 18:00. It is a safer version of the adult parade (the fire-crackers are smaller and don’t go off with a bang and the bestjes are smaller too) and is extremely well marshalled but not so much that the kids don’t have a good time –and some of them are tiny. Despite all the precautions and care it would almost certainly not be allowed in many countries and all credit to the authorities, the organisers and the parents for maintaining the tradition and all the hard work on the day.
The main Correfoc begins after dark, sometime between 21:00 and 22:00. The programme usually shows a finish time of 23:00 which is seldom achieved.
Where is it?
As with much of La Mercè it is the same every year and different. It has started from somewhere in the vicinity of the Santa Caterina Market in recent years and finished by the main Post Office. More often than not it starts from the Gates of Hell, which were increased in size in 2011 forcing it out onto Via Laietana so that the full width could be accommodated.
There is normally an ‘opening ceremony’ featuring an entirely satanic character addressing and cajoling the spectators, with drummers and other acolytes. Find the Gates of Hell and you’ll most likely be at the start – although sometime the gates have been situated at the end. They like to keep you guessing.
Is it dangerous?
Of course it is. Just take a look at how the participants dress. The demons wear thick canvas costumes, gloves and goggles and there is very little skin on display. It is advisable to take suitable precautions to protect your eyes, hair and skin. Many people don’t and they dance in the sparks and have a fantastic time so it’s really all about assessing your personal risk and ensuring that any youngsters in your party are properly looked after. There’s no danger of looking silly. Many people in the crowd will be covered up and resilient fabrics like canvas and denim tend to be better than cotton because the sparks are more likely to bounce off. Definitely don’t wear your best clothes!
Also be aware that there can be surges in the crowd, particularly near the start where people are often crammed together (the parade ends up filling the length of Laietana so movement gets easier as the spectators spread out down the street) and flinch back from an approaching fire-breathing dragon or worse. Sturdy shoes help to reduce the risk of crushed toes. Very few people get knocked to the ground but it is advisable to be aware of the nearest kerb, lamp-post etc.
Some Correfoc Tips
Yet again, get there early if you want a good view of the opening ceremony which can be spectacular and impressive and take refreshments. It will be crowded around the Gates of Hell so take a sense of humour and patience too.
Spraying of the crowd at the end of the Correfoc by the bombers (firemen) from the hoses mounted on their engines seems to have become traditional, so watch out for this if you don’t want to get wet. Or of course you can join in the madness too.
Watch how the locals behave. At first it can appear chaotic but it isn’t and there are protocols to observe. Safety of the official participants is paramount – it is just so well done that it has to be looked for to be recognised. Tourists will be allowed to run into the sparks at their own risk but respect for the tradition, those taking part and those watching should be observed.
If you’re not sure how much you want to get involved, find an area where the pavement is wide. Correfoc stays on the road so it should be possible to assess how scary it might be without getting hit by sparks and then you can move closer if it feels right.
The flames and explosions are the aspects that have the most immediate impact but don’t ignore the rumba bands in between each group. Some are fantastic and can get the pulse racing as effectively as the pyrotechnics. The areas occupied by the musicians are ‘out of bounds’ for the bestjes and diables so can be a safe haven if you want a rest from the fires of hell.
This is a frivolous parade that mirrors the more sedate Cavalcada. In addition to the Seguici Popular, many districts of Barcelona and many other towns and cities in Catalunya and the rest of Spain have their own traditional figures and monsters and this is a chance to see many of them. There will be an abundance of gegants, bèsties, capgrossos and others in Xambanga inevitably accompanied by music, drums and lots of other noise. Fancy dress is the order of the day for the human participants with all sorts of costumes on show, some reflecting themes of this year’s festival and others just for fun.
This is usually a late night parade which is lively and full of fun. Confetti is thrown and perhaps sweets for any children staying up late (there are many and lots taking part too). There’s also a tradition of throwing flour which is officially frowned upon and doesn’t happen a lot but there is always a bit of it about.
The route can vary from year to year and it seems less fixed in the calendar than some of the events. It will almost certainly proceed along a section of Las Ramblas (often to the astonishment of the surprisingly large number of tourists who’ve managed to arrive in the city with no clue that there is a major festival happening) and then go down Carrer de Ferran to finish off at the Ajuntament. Ferran can be an excellent place to watch Xambanga because it is well lit and straight so you can see what’s coming and get some great photos.
Cavalcada de la Merce
This is a rather more formal parade, but fun nonetheless. It takes place in the daytime, usually afternoon to early evening and is similar in many ways to the Xambanga. Again Carrer de Ferran is often a good place from which to view it. Some members of the Seguici Popular are likely to be present and the Cavalcada is often led by the mounted band of the Guardia Urbana who cannot fail to impress with their impeccably behaved horses, perfectly creased and spotless ceremonial uniforms and glittering brass instruments.
The final and one of the finest elements of La Mercè which almost inevitably takes place at the end of Avinguda de la Reina Maria Cristina in front of the magnificent National Museum of Art.
What is it?
It’s a fireworks display set to music but with a difference– the famous Fonts Magica or Magic Fountains are incorporated. The display lasts about half an hour with a brief interlude when thousands of people in the crowd light and hold aloft sparklers (there are probably a hundred words for these around the world – they are hand held fireworks that emit sparks when lit)
When is it?
See the details at the start of this article.
Some Piromusical tips
Whilst many of the other events in La Mercè attract crowds, Piromusical is huge. 300,000 spectators are sometimes recorded and for the special Piromusical that coincided with the end of 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures and which used Barcelona ’s beaches rather than the usual site had an estimated crowd of over 400,000. It is possible to enjoy the fireworks from a considerable distance away, but if you want to see the fountains then yet again, get there early and take a picnic. The roads is closed and you might want to sit down whilst you wait so don’t wear expensive clothes because apart from the road or pavement there are not many places to sit. It’s a convivial crowd, though with many families and groups of friends arriving together so the time can pass quickly with a few bottles of cava and some cheese and chorizo.
Unless you’re in a big hurry to get back to your lodgings, don’t rush off at the end because the congestion around the metro stations in Placa d’Espanya reduces everyone to shuffle speed at best and it is quite easy to get separated from companions. Waiting 10-15 minutes whilst the bulk of the crowd disperses will make for a much more relaxing experience– and you might even get a seat on the metro.
Music can be traditional, too, but lots isn’t and music is an essential part of La Mercé.
BAM – Barcelona Accio Musical
BAM is almost like a festival within a festival and is probably the musical experience that will most impact visitors to the city, in part because of the locations where BAM takes place and also because of its diversity and the possibility of internationally renowned acts alongside local favourites and up-and-coming talent. BAM concentrates on the rather broad field of popular music.
Where is it?
Lots of places. There will be several stages set up in public places and it is also likely that some existing venues will be used. There will probably be BAM events in the following locations:
Placa Reial – a large stage in this popular square attracts big crowds to concerts that go on until late.
Place del Rei – in one of the loveliest parts of the city, expect something moody and artistic here. There are sometimes day time concerts that can be fun but the location comes into its own after dark when the stage lighting complements the wonderful setting. Can get very crowded.
Parc del Forum – this is for hardcore partiers. If you head out of town for a Forum concert, don’t be surprised if it’s daylight before you get back.
Antic Fabrica Damm – the single concert here usually includes one fairly well known international act. There is a small charge for entry.
MACBA – another large stage on the square in front of the modern arts museum.
BAM doesn’t have the monopoly on music, especially if it is something other than ‘pop’. So if you’re after folk, rumba, habaneros, traditional music, chamber orchestras. samba or just about anything else, there’s a chance.
Where is it?
Placa de Sant Jaume – concerts most night and often going on until late. Usually very well attended and often Catalan performers.
Avinguda de la Catedral – a big stage in a large public space– multiple genres represented over the year.
Placa de Catalunya – usually one large stage with concerts at night and some small stages as part of the Mostra d’Associacions.
Arc de Triomf
Parc de la Ciutadella
Some other Mercè activities
This ‘tradition’ began in 2008 with the awe-inspiring“Miratges” which can be tracked down on Google, YouTube and similar and has continued since then. Two or three times each night a spectacular laser show is projected onto the front of the Ajuntament. The effects are astonishing (in one sequence during Miratges the entire building disappeared down the‘plug-hole’ of the city clock) and the creativity to be marvelled at. There are usually several themes and many people return repeatedly to see additional shows. It usually lasts about 15 minutes.
Wine festival (Mostra de Vins i Caves)
There is a wine festival on Moll de la Fusta between the Columbus Statue and Moll d’Espanya throughout most of the festival. Actually this seems to get worse each year as it has become more organised, but it is still a pleasant way to pass a few hours and sample a few excellent local wines and cavas. The Penedes wine producing region is just down the coast and many high quality goods are available to sample. There is also a food section to help soak up the alcohol.
Changes seem almost annual but in 2011 the set up was thus:
Wine sampling tickets could be purchased from the ticket desks.
These tickets could be exchanged for samples of wine (usually two, three or four tickets dependent upon the wine quality and cost) at the various stalls representing different producers.
A glass could be purchased from the ticket desk. This was one of the 2011 changes. The glasses were actually quite good quality but they weren’t commemorative glasses for the Mostra so for most people they weren’t much use. In previous years the glass had been part of the ticket price. Buying a cheap glass or two in a supermarket might be a better alternative.
If you are particularly taken with any wine or cava that you try, bottles can be purchased from a central marquee. This seems a retrograde step. It used to be possible to buy a bottle direct from the producer. This had several benefits. For example if you wanted a bottle of cava to drink there and then, you could get one that was chilled. There was much less of a mark up so the bottle was cheaper. The people manning the stalls for the smaller producers are almost always people associated with the label – indeed it is often possible to meet the vineyard owners and their families. It’s nice to try a wine and then buy a bottle or two and hopefully this is a two way benefit if they take a pride in the product and get to meet some customers.
Wine festival tips
Take a picnic and share with people nearby. This can be fun.There are glass washing facilities provided – usually on the inland side of the stalls.If you get the chance (if it’s not too busy) talk to some of the people working there and ask about their wines. You will learn a lot.Try something new. There will be lots of small producers who you might never have heard of and some exciting and original wines to be sampled.
NB - according to press reports in June 2012, the 2012 Mostra is relocating to the area of the Arc de Triomf. Check the 2012 programme for confirmation.
What is it?
This is a bit different to much of the festival. It is an opportunity for various interest groups, charities, sports teams, dance groups and so on to get a very public showcase and perhaps contact people that they wouldn’t normally meet. International, national regional and very local bodies will be represented, for example world-renowned groups like Amnesty, the Spanish ornithological society, Catalan independence pressure groups and local medical charities. For visitors it’s a chance to see an aspect of local society that is not often exposed and meet activists and people with causes and also to see how global issues that they may well be aware of from their own socio-political context are perceived and debated in a different culture.
When is it?
Most of the days of the festival, during “business hours”.
Where is it?
Placa de Catalunya.
The event is not necessarily as dry as it seems. There is often live music, demonstrations of arts, dance, even circus skills.
Some of the larger organisations might have customised gifts such as t-shirts and bandanas on sale. Amnesty, for example consistently come up with some great designs that may only be on sale in Catalunya.
What is it?
FotoMercè is an annual competition with prizes for the best photographs from La Mercè. The best photos from those submitted are displayed during the next year’s festival. Free entry and the standard is high.
NB - although the competition was run in 2011, after La Merce, there was no exhibition in Palau de la Virreina and the staff there were unaware of it.
When is it?
Usually a day or two before the festival starts, then throughout the festival and possibly for a short period thereafter.
Where is it?
The Palau de la Virreina on Las Ramblas. This building is also home to the Seguici Popular during the festival, unless they are out and about on official duties and contains a Tourist Information Office (see Programme below).
There is an annual Pyrotechnics Competition spread over the first three nights of the festival with Spanish and international participants putting on impressive displays.
When is it?
10 p.m. There is no display on Piromusical night.
Where is it?
The best views can be obtained from the beaches of Barceloneta where there will be thousands of people. There is lots of room so no need for an early arrival. The aerial fireworks can also be seen from Port Vell with the area to the seaward side of the aquarium probably being the best spot. The advantage of watching from here is that there are places to sit and it is a shorter walk from much of the centre, but the buildings of Barceloneta obscure any low-level fireworks.
What should I not miss?
This is obviously all about personal preferences. Correfoc and Castellers are regional specialities; Piromusical will leave you feeling happier about the world and yourself. The Toc d’Inici tune should lift your spirits, too. The projections are easy to fit into a busy schedule and the wine festival is good for slowing you down.
Anything else worth knowing?
Above are just some of the highlights from a programme that will include hundreds of events. Sardanas have not been mentioned, nor Falcons (cousins to Castellers), nor Trabucaires, ot the Tabalada, nor the Ball de Serralongo. There is plenty more to research and pleasure in doing so.
A few final details, some of which might benefit from other people’s knowledge:
Until about 2009 a glossy programme was handed out. This changed and since then a rather less ‘user friendly’ broad-sheet style programme published by El Periodico has been the norm. These tend to deteriorate quickly with wear and are not as useful as a souvenir but they are probably cheaper to produce so reflect the times we live in. They are free and seem to run out quite quickly.
They are generally available from official tourist information offices and La Virreina is as good a place as any to get one because FotoMercè and the Seguici Popular can also be taken in at the same time.
La Mercè for kids
Almost all of the festival’s activities are open to children, dependent upon how late they are allowed to stay up, but there is a programme of activities for them as well. Main centres for this include the area around the Castell de Montjuich where circuses and all manner of games and attractions exist and the Parc de la Ciutadella.
At certain times (just approach security on the door and ask) public access to the entrance area of the Ajuntament is permitted. In addition to being an attractive space with a number of important art works on display, the area will be occupied by some of the bestjes that appear in the parades and this is a great opportunity to get a close look at them and maybe some photos.
“Open Doors” – a number of the city’s museums and galleries open their doors for free for one or more days during the festival. Check the programme to see which is open when. Expect long queues, especially in the morning.
The sound of drumming from Barcelona ’s Samba groups is heard often during the festival. As a general rule, if you hear drumming and don’t know what it’s for, investigating the source can be rewarding.
Life and tourism goes on in the city during the festival and it is probably possible to visit and ignore it completely. From time to time roads are closed and Placa de Sant Jaume can be impossible to traverse during some of the bigger events there but normality reigns in most places most of the time. It is not essential to get involved in La Mercè if your visit is around 24th September, but it’s a shame not to.