Every year in September, Barcelona celebrates its birthday with a unique fiesta: Fiesta de la Merce. A mashup of crazy street celebrations including correfocs, Castellers and – the object of my immediate affection – Gegants.
As I was milling around the Rambla in search for the gegants, my visiting parents tagging along, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The heat of summer was still lingering in the September morning air and I was beginning to feel thirsty and a bit irritated.
Gegants or giant puppets parade.. What were we doing here anyway? and was this one of those Insta-hypes that insta-disappoint?
I half read the summary of the event on the Festa de Mercè leaflet but didn’t get that much out of it – apart from giant puppets parading the street.
As I was debating internally on moving along and showing my parents the city – as opposed to a parade – the sound of music drew closer, and the crowds followed. The giants were here.
What’s Up With Giants?
There are fiestas and there are fiestas. And then there’s the Festival of all Festivals: Fiesta de Mercè. La Mercè is the annual festival of the city of Barcelona in Catalunya.
Barcelona’s birthday, basically.
Four crazy days filled with singing, dancing, human towers and playing with fire. And of course: the Gegants parade.
The origins of the gegants (giants) go all the way back to the Catholic Church’s efforts to spread the Bible stories with an illiterate public in the Middle Ages. This gave rise to theatrical representations and feast-days and incorporated dragons (representing evil), lions, eagles, and oxen.
Gegants are these huge, three to four-meter tall papier-mache figures, a central part of Catalan festivals and a fun, healthy competition between districts and neighborhoods, who each have their own giants.
In an impressive parade that looks like it’s drawn out of Gulliver’s Travels and which would impress even its lilliputian friends…
The giants will be part of neighborhood and religious festivals throughout the year, though it’s during La Mercè that they really shine their best and brightest.
You’ll find the official Mercè website here.
There are an estimated 4,000 gegants in Catalunya alone and over 7000 across Spain. So the impressive parade displayed on Las Ramblas in Barcelona in October was a mere drop in the big giants’ ocean.
A Long-Standing Cultural Heritage
The Giants Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona represent King Solomon and Queen of Saba. Documented the history of the city from as far back as the sixteenth century, they belong to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar.
However, the oldest documented giants in Catalonia, although not in their present form, are Jaume I and Na Violant of Hungary, owned by the City Council of Barcelona.
The current giants which represent them are 25 years old and the work of Manel Casserres i Boix, who took care to reproduce them from the 1921 figures.
The giants borrow their names from important Catalan monarchs, although they were forced to change them into Fernando and Isabel, during Franco’s dictatorship.
The detail of the work is truly impressive – from the facial expressions to the clothes and jewelry, the flowers or handkerchiefs.
And their human bearers will make them walk, bow and dance, each striving to put on the best show in town. Teams will often accompany the parade with music.
If you can’t visit Barcelona in time for the Merce, you can always check out the Giants of the City at the permanent exhibition at Palau de la Virreina in Barcelona.
Gegants del Pi
I have to admit, I did struggle a bit with locating the identities of some of the giants that roamed the Rambla, but eventually, their secretive history was uncovered.
In 2001, coinciding with the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the first reference of the Giants of the Pi, the Gegants del Pi association was awarded the Medal of Honor of the City of Barcelona
Mustafà and Elisenda, some of the older gegants, have rarely come out again except for exhibitions of the original centenary. However, in 2010, marking the celebration of the 50th anniversary of their rehabilitation, they once again started to go out once a year.
The Giants of Barceloneta
Next are Pep Barceló and Maria la Néta are pretty young by giant standards, at only 25 years old. They represent a couple of typical characters from this seafarer’s neighborhood: he’s a fisherman and she’s a market fishmonger.
Legend has it that Maria is a Caribbean giant, the granddaughter (or néta) of a city giant who fell in love with pre-Olympic Barcelona and stayed here. Pep, on the other hand, is an Atlantic fisherman who arrived in Barceloneta aboard the submarine Ictíneo II.
When they are not out, they are displayed at the Casa dels Entremesos, alongside many other Ciutat Vella festival figures.
New Age: The Poblesec Giants
Another famous couple is that of Armand and Rosa, better known as the new Poble-sec Giants. They are a couple of modern figures, very different to those of traditional Barcelona festival figures.
Rosa del Paral.lel came to stage in 2001, she is a scantily dressed cabaret starlet, donning large green feathers on her back. And when she dances she’ll give you a glimpse of her thigh through her skirt.
He is a rich, smart Barcelona gentleman who frequents the cabarets. Carrying a bouquet in one hand, and a pearl necklace in the other, for his darling.
Armand and Rosa have their own dance, with music composed by Carles Reig.
They come out to dance every year at the neighborhood festival giants’ gathering, which takes place on St James’ Day, in July.
Like what you saw?
Every year towards the end of September, Barcelona holds its largest street party, La Mercè Festival. Four full days of party, in a festival held in honor of Mare de Deu de la Mercè, the Patron Saint of Barcelona.
You’ll have plenty more fun to choose from (beware of the correfocs!) but you just can’t miss the gegants parade! Every single giant of Barcelona will be dancing down the Ramblas, their usual route being pl. Catalunya, La Rambla, Ferran, pl. Sant Jaume.
Make sure you book your flights for September (look out for the 2018 agenda) and don’t miss out on this unique fiesta!
Hey! Check out other Spain Gems while you’re here!