“Why?! Because it’s party time!” That’s the underlying principle of the Festa Major, the ‘main party’. Why not throw a big street party that lasts for several days, and repeat it in nearly every district of Barcelona? Why not keep this going through the whole of August and most weekends in September and October too?
I love the Spanish attitude when it comes to parties, holidays and lunch breaks. It beats the English one hands down. In Spain, when there’s a bank holiday, (there frequently is) they often make what’s called a puente: a bridge. This means that if the holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, it’s perfectly acceptable to just bridge that day to the weekend, so that employees can make the most of the time off. I mean, what’s the point of going in to work just for one day before the weekend? Hell, if the holiday falls on a Wednesday, just make a puente too! The same applies for lunch breaks – why rush a sandwich at your desk when you can have a leisurely two hour break and go home for lunch and a cheeky siesta? As the word is rooted in Spanish tradition, it somehow seems more acceptable than the overly hedonistic “nap”.
Take for example, this year’s Notting Hill Carnaval. Pretty much the only organised street party in the English calendar and the timings all get pushed back in response to the London riots. Fair enough, but I think that the Spanish would have carried on their fiesta into the wee hours anyway, riots or no riots. This is predominantly a Barcelonian tradition, which dictates that every weekend throughout the months of August and September, there is a Festa Major in a different neighbourhood of the city. It’s the time of year when the whole neighbourhood, plus any other opportunists like me, get together and have a good old-fashioned street party. Each district has a slightly different style of celebration, but they all consist of stages and bars in the street, decorations that hang from one rooftop to another, processions and competitions of some sort. In the Gracia district, which boasts one of the most popular and impressive Festa Majors, each of the main streets competes to see who can create the best decorations, which are carefully planned by a committee of residents throughout the year. This year the streets taken over with a myriad of themes, from an underwater fantasy of giant jellyfish and spiralling seaweed made out of recycled materials, to the winning entry: a giant pirate ship complete with huge paper maché Peter Pan and Captain Hook. In Gracia, the festivities last a whole week, during which local bands entertain revellers until 2 or 3am, when they go on to wreak havoc elsewhere.
Except they don´t wreak havoc. As far as I know, there is no increase in violence, vandalism or crime during the annual Festa Major. No body smashes or steals the elaborate decorations. No body even seems to mind about the constant noise that ravages the neighbourhoods like Gracia all week. At the fiestas of Barceloneta, I saw an elderly resident leaning happily out of window, looking perfectly chuffed at the merriment below.
Why doesn’t this happen in the UK? Most of the organisation relies on the voluntary work of residential committees, with local councils providing the funding. I don’t think there is this level of neighbourhood cohesion in most British cities. People plan things with their friends, but not necessarily with their neighbours. I can imagine this kind of thing happening in the 1930s and 40s – though perhaps more cake and lemonade than mojitos and rock bands. Now, there seems to be too much distrust, a lack of imagination in local councils and way too much vandalism for this kind of thing to be viable.
The one time I have experienced a street party in England, it was fantastic. On the day of the Royal Wedding, some students in my street in Leeds put their sofas out in the road and blasted out some old classics from their balcony. Everyone on the street went down to mingle and the local radio station even stopped by to photograph our impromptu gathering. Next to Hyde Park, a house had put a huge sound system in their front garden and was attracting a crowd of people that spilled out of their garden, across the road and into the park. The good mood was unbeatable, even if it was more because of the bank holiday than patriotic pride. It was just a shame that, on returning home after an unusually community-spirited day, I found my car window had been smashed in. Typical!
In Barcelona, things seem to be quite different. After enjoying a stretch of free parties all through August and September, I was told that La Mercè, from the 23-6th September, was the biggest party that would end all the other parties. La Mercè is the feast of the patron Saint of the whole city, so it made sense that after celebrating each individual district, the whole city would come together for one big bash to end the summer. That was not the case though, as when I came home knackered after a weekend of non-stop music, pyrotechnic displays and human towers (more on this later), my landlady told me that the next weekend it was the Festa Major of our neighbourhood, Sarria. That was the final straw. I started to think that these Catalans had over done it. I mean, when do they ever have a normal night out of sitting in a bar?
Thinking about it more, I suppose the British alternative of the Catalan Festa Major is the annual village fete, or the switching on of the Christmas lights. Okay, so we do know how to have fun in England, but you can’t really compare a tombola and carol singing to a street party complete with stages and bands. Having said that, strangely enough I saw Beatles cover bands rocking the crowds at not one, not two, but THREE of the Festa Major parties I went to! I mean three, really, now that is saying something. Spain might have spawned Festas, flamenco and sangria, but the UK produced The Beatles, and I listened to Ticket to Ride it all summer long. Let’s call that 1:0.