A hush falls over the crowd at the Festa Major de Gracia. The castellers gather in an adrenaline-charged circle. From the center of the ring of humanity, a tower begins to take form. As the structure rises, the torsos of the supporting castellers are all that stand between the climbers and the unforgiving cobblestone street below.
Seven ‘stories’ emerge before a young girl scrambles up the tower. She wears only a modest helmet for protection. Reaching the top, she raises one hand in salute. Then, methodically, the improbable human structure collapses back upon itself. The onlookers erupt in cheers.
Tradition, creativity, competition, teamwork: the human tower, or castell, embodies the very nature of the Festa Major de Gracia. For two hundred years, the citizens of the Gracia district of Barcelona have gathered in August for this week-long celebration of the community.
Once an independent municipality, Gracia is now a part of greater Barcelona. Still, Gracia stubbornly retains a charming, Old World character. The district’s narrow streets invite pedestrians and deter tour buses. At every intersection, there is a leafy plaza, an artisan shop or a local watering hole.
During the Festa Major de Gracia, approximately twenty of the neighborhood’s thoroughfares compete for the title of best decorated street. The residents devote much of each year to the design and construction of the adornments, which draw inspiration from cinematic, social, political and religious themes. The colorful, imaginative ornamentation is not high-tech. Instead, the creators use simple, often recycled, components, such as plastic, paper mache and streamers. Much of the embellishment hangs overhead from the residents’ roofs and balconies. Meanwhile, on the streets below, neighbors gather in long tables to play cards, tell stories, and share refreshments.
In addition to the street decoration contest, the Festa Major de Gracia includes as many as 600 scheduled events. The entire community comes alive with music concerts, food vendors and traditional craft workshops. Spirited processions feature classic Catalan capgrossos, or ‘big head’ characters. Drinking, dancing and partying dominate the nights, but the Festa Major de Gracia is very much a family affair. Child-centered entertainment such as puppet shows, pottery piñatas and carnival rides are part of the daily revelry.
A highlight of the Festa Major de Gracia is the Correfoc, or Fire Run. During the Correfoc, costumed ‘devils’ parade through the streets brandishing pitchforks armed with fireworks. Spectators ‘dare the devils’, rushing forward in an attempt to get as close to the fires as possible. For good reason, Festa Major de Gracia officials advise Correfoc attendees to wear earplugs and fire-retardant clothes.
The Festa Major de Gracia is an authentic, joyous party for the people. For smart travelers who join the celebration, the Festa Major de Gracia is a chance experience Catalan tradition at its most genuine and jubilant.