February 2003 - Festival of Sta. Eulalia
 
In mid-February, Barcelona celebrates the Festival of Sta. Eulalia, a 4th century Christian martyr and one of Barcelona's patron saints. Little Sta. Eulalia was only 13 when she was martyred for her staunch (rabid?) Christian beliefs, in the face of Roman decrees forbidding the practice of Christianity. Her story is well-known in Barcelona, and includes the tortures she endured, such as being rolled down a hill in a barrel filled with glass, stripped of her clothing and finally being crucified on an X-shaped cross (a miraculous snowstorm came and covered her nakedness). During Sta. Eulalia's fiesta, one can buy X-shaped donuts or get free donuts and hot chocolate in some church squares. No snow, though.

We took advantage of some special free tours during the week of Sta. Eulalia, including the Ayuntamiento, or City Hall, a beautiful palace that is generally not open to the public, and of course Eulalia's crypt at the cathedral, which is only open one day a year. But the weekend festivities were the highlight, with displays of folk dancing, performances by troupes of "castellers," parades of "gegantes" and night-time "carrefocs" with accompanying fireworks.

Saturday evening's folk dancing was lovely: dancers from villages and regions around Catalonia performed traditional dances in traditional costumes, accompanied by a small, enthusiastic and good orchestra. The commentary was, alas, in Catalan, so we could only catch random words, but we gathered that most of these dances are centuries old. One troupe featured "big heads" -- papier-mâché heads about 3 feet tall worn on the dancers' shoulders. They could see through the smiling mouths and did a pretty, intricate dance (though half the characters were men, we think all the dancers under the Big Heads were women). One group of men reminded us of Morris dancers: dressed all in white, wearing leather gaiters fitted with bells, they held the ends of long scarves and ducked, turned, and wove their way around each other until the end when, one by one, each wound his scarf around the waist of the next dancer until they each wore a different colored "cummerbund." Neat.

The folk dancing was followed by the Falcons, an acrobatic troupe that made human pyramids and towers -- sort of like professional cheerleaders, but with recorder and drum music replacing the cheers! They were dressed all in white except for their red, blue or green "cummerbunds" like those of the folk dancers we had just seen. We watched them put these on: the sashes were about 15' long and about 18" wide. Performers paired up and one held the end of the sash while the other rolled him/herself up in the sash, all the time pulling hard against the companion in order to wrap the sash very tightly around his/her midsection. The sashes not only served as back supports but also as hand and footholds for the performers climbing up to the higher levels of the pyramids and towers. The Falcons were quite good, but by that time we were very cold, and turned for home before the grande finale.

On Sunday, there was a parade or procession of the "gegantes." These are "statues" made, we presume, of papier-mâché, as much as 10-12' tall, that are carried by people who get under them so all you see is their feet sticking out as they walk (or dance) along. The parade was led by St. Eulalia, of course, (who was a bit smaller, being only 13) wearing a lovely wreath of flowers. Other "gegantes" from the city, its various neighborhoods, suburbs, and nearby towns, represented historical, folk or literary figures, or people in the traditional costumes of an area. There were also several animals, both real (horses) and fanciful (dragons). There were over 30 of these gegantes, each accompanied by a group of handlers and musicians playing drums and wooden flutes. This Festival coincided with world-wide anti-war demonstrations, and almost all of the gegantes wore sashes stating "No to War." After the gegantes had arrived and ringed the large government square, the two representing Jaume I (one of Barcelona's medieval rulers) and his wife came to the center and danced a surprisingly elegant dance which ended in fast spins. Amazing that no-one fell down!

Following the gegantes were the castellers -- human castle builders. There were 5 troupes from 5 Barcelona neighborhoods. Each troupe wore a different colored shirt; all wore white pants and those wide, tight black sashes. Each troupe had its own little band of drums and wooden recorder-like whistles called grallers. Each made an entrance into the square by forming a tower 4 persons high: a large group formed the base, a man stood on somebody's shoulders while hands reached up to support him around his thighs and butt, another man (or sometimes a woman) stood on his shoulders, then a small girl or boy climbed to the top and stood on the shoulders of the 3rd-level person. This child waved or saluted or, in one case, unfurled a "No to War" banner. Then the whole tower walked across the square, with the kid on top still waving or saluting, accompanied by their little band. And that was just their entry!

The castellers build castles 6 or 7 stories tall, with 3 or 4 people standing on the shoulders of those below making up each "story" from the 2nd to 5th, then one kid atop that on all fours, and a final kid climbing atop that one, lifting one arm (very briefly) to signal they had gotten there, then quickly scrambling down the other side of the tower. The bases to these castles are enormous stars with "spokes" of people pushing to the center to provide a stable base. Both the building and un-building are carefully choreographed, with the first set (second level) of 3 or 4 people getting well-set with hands of the base level holding onto their thighs, and their arms locked together, shoulder to shoulder, before the other levels start to climb up. This second level is the only one that gets supported laterally from below; the rest of the castellers simply stand on the previous level's shoulders (in bare feet) and provide mutual support by holding onto each others' shoulders. After the second level is stable, the third level climbs up over the base, then up the backs of the 2nd level, using their sashes for footholds. As soon as they begin to stand up, the next level begins their climb, the band begins to play, and the successive layers follow quickly (except that the climbers keep getting younger and smaller and as a consequence, have a harder time climbing up the backs of their taller supporters). They grab sashes, pant legs and shirts to haul themselves up and up. And it's quite a climb. We wondered what their parents must be thinking, but then realized that this tradition is surely a family affair, and as each child ages, he or she moves down the castle levels, so mom and dad are probably right there. There were certainly people of every size, shape, sex, color and age participating.

Constructing the castle is only half of the difficulty. Now they all have to come down again in an orderly fashion. The littlest kids almost slide down, wrapping their legs around torsos, then legs, then torsos, then legs all the way to the base. All of the people in each of the next levels must come down together or they'll fall, so they all release their handholds on each other, then all bend down and start their shinnying together.

Each of the 5 teams built 2 castles, announced (in Catalan) by name or construction. Some were 6 levels high and some were 7; some were with 3 people in a level; some were 4. The most complex castle was a 4 by 7 with an interior pillar. After the 4th level was built, a single person managed somehow to stand up in the middle, then a second person got onto his shoulders. Meanwhile the outside was building to the 5th level, which consisted of 2 girls. The 6th level, one kid, got onto their shoulders, then the 7th scrambled atop him, lifted his arm and quickly slid down 2 levels. The 6th level kid went down one level, then got atop the shoulders of the inside tower. Then the remaining outside tower peeled off, leaving just the 4 person high tower still standing. Quite nice. We were snowed.

The towers filled the early afternoon. After lunch and a rest back aboard the boat (it's only a 15 minute walk) we returned to the cathedral as night fell for the final parade, called a "carrefoc." All we knew about this was that it involved either sparklers or fireworks. Well, it was both. This parade featured fanciful dragons and beasts, each representing a town or neighborhood in Barcelona. The beasts were fitted out with holders at their mouths into which huge sparklers were set. These sparklers twirled around, throwing sparks 2 or 3 meters in front of them until they expired when (it turns out) they were actually firecracker fuses, so they went out with a bang. Each beast was accompanied by a troupe of devils, dressed in capes of red or black, decorated with flames and the name of their locale, caps with horns, sometimes pants, but sometimes velvet or multistriped knickers with long black stockings, and everyone with wide-brimmed hats to keep their hair from catching on fire from the sparks. Each devil also had a sparkler/firecracker holder, generally with a spinner. Each beast had 2 handlers with torches (to keep him going in the right direction and to light his fuses) and another person pushing a cart full of sparkler/firecrackers from which everyone got refills. There was also generally a group of drummers. Each group seemed barely organized and just wound through the streets around the cathedral. The general population could join in, and many did, often encouraged by the devils as they danced and jumped and sparkled around to the banging drums. We stood in a little corner behind the nave of the cathedral, watching as first the sparklers, then the leaping and twisting devils emerged from up the twisting narrow medieval street, surrounded by sparks and smoke, then the beast itself, with whirling sparklers. Backed up against a towering wall, we were showered with sparks. Across from us, the stained glass windows of the cathedral made strange reflections and the gargoyles looked down approvingly. The whole smelled of fire and brimstone, and was incredibly evocative of ancient superstitions.

Much of this struck us as remarkably dangerous (one casteller group collapsed onto itself, but seemingly with no bad damage), and we mused at how impossible it would have been for this to take place in the U.S. We Americans are lucky to have all those laws and regulations to protect us (from ourselves?), but we may miss out on a lot of fun. For us, we're glad we got to see all of this.