Monday, 24 September 2012


La Merce Festival is supposed to celebrate the Virgin Mary, but at times it looks more like a homage to  Baalzebub, no more so than at Les Bèsties de Foc Surten al Carrer (The Beasts of Fire Go Out) Parade. 

The advice to spectators is to cover up, wear a hat and a scarf (to cover your face) and long sleeves. Synthetics are a no no. This is a clue to what is going to happen. 

Fire spitting dragons, Fire Devils and troupes of drummer emerge from the "gates of hell" at the top of Via Laietan, and parade to the Consolat de Mar. Les Bèsties de Foc Surten al Carrer is the night when the devils and dragons are really let off the leash. 

The fireworks seem stronger and longer lasting than at other events, the Devils break ranks, and charge the crowd, sending the masked onlookers scattering and tumbling as the gunpowder smoke and drumming fills the air.

The Dragons spray the skies and the ground with torrents of flames and sparks, in which the brave, stupid and drunk dance like dervishes. 

Sunday, 23 September 2012


The last weekend in September sees the Merce Festival take over Barcelona. 

Nominally a religious holiday, it is really the goodbye to summer. One last blast before the autumn wardrobe is unpacked.

Across the city there are parades, concert, fireworks, concerts and all manner of events, local teams of “Falcons” (human Pyramids) and Devils  (firework wielding dervishes) pop up all over the place and giants and fire dragons parade the streets.
Giant Tetris 

Merce is really too big to fully get your head around, it is best just to go for a wander and see what you find.

One event this year was drawing large crowds, a light show at the Sagrada Famila by Canadian company Moment Factory.

The Sagrada Famila is a storage enough spectacle as it is, and the addition, lights planted about the building, projections and even a crane scattering glitter, give the building an utterly surreal quality. Like a Grimm fairytale the lights bring the seem to complete Gaudi’s weird vision with the ornate stonework coming to life, growing and crawling,
Cybermen dancing in Parc Ciutadella

Zydeco band, with samba drum troupe and fire Devils in Placa Catalunya

Monday, 17 September 2012


As Olympic legacies go, Barcelona’s is better than most. 

The stadium and diving pool complex may now be a bit underused, but the 1992 Olympics were the shot in the arm that revived the city’s fortunes and propelled it into the first rank of international cities, a tourist hotspot and regional hub for multi-national commerce.

One legacy is a however a forgotten curiosity the giant matches are the Olympic site of at Vall d’Hebrón, uphill on the Barcelona’s eastern side.   

Swedish artist Claes Oldenburg produced this massive metal monument, a book of matches on the side of a road, with others scattered around the nearby pavements. It was a area that was greatly improved for the Games, and at the time with all the excitement a visitors the matches must have been marvellous to behold.

But the pop art styled statues have not stood the test of time as well as other Olympian public artworks works and now look forlorn and incongruous in the middle of a housing project, in an area that features on few tourist trials.

If you want to have a look at them the address is Av. Cardenal Vidal & Barraquer Cantonada Pare Mariana on buses 10, 17, 112 and 185.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


Does anyone have a recipe for parrot pie?

OK they are parakeets, or to be precise, Monk Parakeets, also known as the Quaker Parrots, the smaller more belligerent cousins of the pirates’ colourful companions, but the noise they can make belies their stature. 
Flocks of the little green critters are to be found all over Barcelona, usually they sit in high palm trees, squawking away at each other, at people, at other birds or just for the sake of squawking. The important thing is that they are constantly squawking, and that parakeet squawking is loud but not a pleasant noise.

Other birds have learnt the hard way to leave the Parakeets alone.

They may look like clowns, but they fight like mobsters. 

Last year there was a turf war between the Parakeets and the Magpies in lower westside Barcelona, it was a noisy and bloody affair. Magpies are a very rare sight in these parts nowadays! 

Occasionally they slum it and come down to ground level to scavenge crumbs from tourists amongst the pigeons. 

They also put on impressive  aerial displays, forming little V-shaped squadrons that zoom down the streets just above head height, squawking as they go.

They are not, as might be generally supposed, blow-ins from across the Mediterranean, they are probably originated from escaped pet birds and have gone feral and established a sustainable population. 

Apparently they make good pets, but why anyone would want to share a house with one of the noisy little blighters beats me.

Monday, 13 August 2012


So what is missing from this picture?
This is Via Augusta, one of the main arteries into Barcelona and route to the city centre, and usually it is covered with cars, scooters, lorries, buses – you get the idea.

Not in August. Outside of the tourist hotspots Barcelona is closed for the month.

In August Barcelona goes to the beach, and not the beach in Barcelona, but further north on the Costa Brava were people own or rent holiday homes. The clannish Catalans rarely venture beyond the provincial borders.

Left your suit into the dry cleaner in the last week of July? Well forget about seeing it until September.Need something fixed? Fat chance. Want to get a bus? Be prepared to wait for a very long time.

Contractors will not respond to enquiries and even some restaurants and specialist shops and services skedaddle until September. The August exodus goes back to the days before air-conditioning when it was just too hot to do anything, though Barcelona does not quite reach the scorching temperatures of inland Spain.  Nowadays it is just seen as a Spanish right to close up the country’s businesses for the month.

Remind me again, just why is Spain’s economy in the crapper? 

Thursday, 28 June 2012


After winning the European Grand Prix in Valencia, Fernando Alonso slowed down his Ferrari to collect, from an exuberant marshal, a Spanish flag to wave as he completed his lap of honour. 

 Flags and sporting victories, these things matter. 

Here in Barcelona we know that very well. Those who seek independence for Catalunya display Catalan flags from their balconies and make a flambouyant display of supporting Barcelona football club. Spanish unionists generally  tend to keep quiet.

Recently something interesting has been happening: Spanish flags have started appearing around Barcelona.

The Spanish national team is having a successful run in the European ball kicking championships, and while some Catalans still adopt the ABS (anyone but Spain) position, others have discovered their inner Spaniard. “Span is not all bad” while Spanish unionists have become more emboldened enough to show their colours.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012


“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games. Ernest Hemingway

Poster for the last bullfight in Barcelona
We still have the mountain climbing, if you drive a couple of hours, and the Grand Prix, albeit now every two years, alternating with Valencia, but there will be no more bullfighting in Barcelona.

Bull fighting ceased in Catalunya at the end of the 2011 season, banned by the Catalan parliament, ostensibly on anti-cruelty grounds, but many people think that the political imperative was really about making a symbolic cultural break with the rest of Spain. 

You can still watch bullfighting from Madrid and Seville on television, but on the rare occasions that I happen across it, the bull always seems to be winning. 

Bull fighting was never really that big in Barcelona, though the city did at one time have two sizeable functioning Plaza de Toros. 

There was little mourning over the passing of the sport, even families with long associations with the spectacle, interviewed after the blood and dust from  the final catalan corrida was being swept away said it was an activity that had had its time. 

But what will now become of the magnificent Monumental Plaza de Toros?

Arenas shopping centre

I hope that it does not go the same way as Las Arenas Plaza de Toros and  become another shopping centre.

It would make a great music and theatre venue though. 

Is there the market I wonder? A brash over the top Carmen in the Monumental Barcelona would certainly have more appeal than he prospect of another dreary Aida in Verona.

Thursday, 7 June 2012


“Herman the German” (I call him that because he is a German and his name is Herman) is a decent sort of bloke, but unfortunately drives one of those huge Porsche Cayenne trucks, that makes it very difficult for everyone else to manoeuvre around the car park.
Thankfully the problem is being resolved as Herman has now been shown the error of his ways. The local wildlife gave him the hint, in the form of bird droppings all over the nose of the grosser-wagen. Not just the odd splat, but great cartoonish mounds of the stuff. 

Herman had left it at the airport car park in a section where the parking spaces have little roofs to protect vehicles from the sun. Naturally the Porsche was too big to fit entirely under the shade. It is not clear whether the edge of roof was an established evening hang-out spot for Catalonia’s bird population, or if the feathered fraternity gathered especially to marvel at the astounding ugliness of the ungainly Porsche’s front end, but the result is that Herman has concluded that a more compact form of personal transport is in order.

Herman recounted the tale of the airport guano to me in mournful Teutonic tones after he saw me zipping into my parking spot in a Citroen C-Zero all-electric car, the office runabout that I commandeered.

He wanted to know where he could get one. 

For getting to work and back, running to the supermarket and for the vast majority of normal motoring needs the electric car works just fine. The initial sensation is the ordinariness, an electric car drives pretty much like any other small car.

It has a surprising turn of speed off the lights, and while it is no road rocket, neither is it a liability on the streets. It is nippy enough to run rings around many big saloons and “off roaders” and is better drive than many small engined cars. The near silent running gives a flattering semblance of refinement, which goes some way towards compensating for the many features that have been dropped to save on weight and power usage, though it does have electric windows and air conditioning.

For the daily commute it needs charged just once a week, which I do in a couple of hours at a fast charger in the office car park, though it could also be done overnight from a regular domestic socket.

The jury is out on the environmental benefits of electric cars. Their manufacture requires some pretty exotic materials which have to be extracted from big holes in the ground and they probably do not significantly reduce overall emissions if your electricity comes from an aging coal fired power station, but it does displace the exhaust gases from city streets. However if you get your power from high efficiency gas turbines, nuclear energy or tidal power and you will be on bounus points in the cleaning up the environment stakes.

One welcome surprise of driving a dinky electric car is that it immediately boosts your popularity with the opposite sex; really it was better than a puppy for attracting female attention.
The most irritating thing about driving an electric car is the constant irritation of people telling you that your car only has an 80 mile range, (“oh really, I did not know that, and there was silly old me planning a road trip to Kathmandu”), coupled with the knowledge that no matter how often you tell them that it is more than adequate for most motoring needs, you know that they are correct. I still need the Mercedes to get up to France. 

Monday, 28 May 2012


Sometime, about a month or so ago, a starting pistol was fired, and a thousand mid-range passenger jets, took to the skies, ferrying the sangria seekers and culture vultures towards Barcelona.

Around seven million people visited Barcelona last year, and there was the beginng of a debate as to whether that is too many. This year, what with Spanish the economy having fallen of a cliff, such grumbles will be muted.

It was a relief when they left last October and the city was returned to its residents, and it became possible to walk through town without constnatly having to dodge people staring upwards through the lens of an over sized Nikon camera. 

But it is also exciting to see the place come back to life, the colour and crowds back on the streets and to hear the mix hotchpotch of languages and accents. 
The locals will soon be heading to their summer houses in the mountains or to their apartments on the coast, leaving the residential areas all but deserted. Fom July to September Barcelona becomes a completely international city.  

Still it does mean that there are some places best avoided for the next a few Rambla del Mar.  

Saturday, 26 May 2012


I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that" (Bill Shankley)

In Barcelona football is something more than a religion and like so much that happens in this city an expression of cultural and political identify.

Barcelona FC’s slogan 'més que un club' ('more than a club') is a clear reference to the team’s central role in galvanising the community and Catalan nationalist aspirations.

In what has been a barren year for a club that is expected to bring home several trophies a year, Barcelona’s last hope to gather in some silverware came in the final of the Copa del Rey against Athletic Bilbao.

It was as much a political as it was a sporting occasion. Both teams represent nationalist and secessionist ambitions for their respective regions and generally consider each other allies in a struggle for independence from Spain. 

Yet there they were, pitted against each other in a last ditch attempt to win something, in the Spanish capital, Madrid, playing for the Spanish King’s Cup.

In the event the Catalans proved to be better at runing about and kicking a ball than the Basques, resulting in the traditional late night city centre celebrations.

There was even the occsional basque country flag to be seen in the midst of the Barcelona melee.  

Tuesday, 15 May 2012


The little city of Girona, about an hour’s drive north of Barcelona is a perfectly pleasant place, with a quaint old town, a church or two, with some eccentric little shops, (one proudly displaying Marmite for sale) a reasonably grand placa with a few decent restaurants and a goodly variety of bohemian tourist tat. 

It is also home to a quite a few nouveau-hippy types: squeaky clean dreadlocks, supercilious attitude and lots of expensive gadgets called “I”-something. 

Girona is for most of year worth seeing but not worth going to see (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson).  

However around the third week of May every year, the world, or at least a decent chuck of it, beats a path to Girona for the annual Temps de Flors (Time of Flowers) festival. 

 It is not quite as extravagant or as all-embracing as the other local festivals. Rather than blanketing the place in blooms and throwing grand petal laden parades the Temps de Flors is focused around a promenade of eclectic displays some prominent in the middle of public spaces, others tucked away in theatre lobbies, stairwells, shops, courtyards, workshops and churches. 

They range from the childish (because they are made by children), through obscure and the remarkable to the outright absurd. 
All in all, very Catalan.  


Wednesday, 9 May 2012


It is maybe the best show in Barcelona, it runs several times every night and it is free.

Every night hundreds of people gather around the main fountain on Avinguda Maria Cristina, the avenue behind between the big square towers at Plaça Espanya, which heads up to the four pointless columns in front to the Palau Nacional on Montjuïc for the spectacular display of choreographed water sprays and jets. 

Sometimes accompanied by musical soundtrack, eighties revivial and movie themses usually, and coloured by lights, candyfloss mists bloom across the fountain while massive plumes of water leap into the sky.

Originally built for the 1929 World Fair, the Magic Fountain has more recently acquired the musical accompaniment, making it one of the city’s top attractions.

From twilight to midnight, give or take, a new Magic Fountain show starts every thirty minutes. In practice the timetable is a bit random.  There are more shows during the summer months than winter.

At the height of the tourist season viewing space is at a premium, with spectators packed around the fountain and crowded onto the terraces leading up to the Palau Nacional, which becomes something of a large open air chill out zone as the night goes on, attracting decent quality buskers, jugglers, skater punks and such like. 

An alternative vantage spot is from the viewing deck of the Arenas shopping mall on the other side of Placa Espana, but it does not have quite the same atmosphere there.