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September -October  2000 # 20

A Year in The Life of..
by Michael Garry Smout

It was never The Barcelona Review’s intention to enter the world of tourist information or even to draw too much attention to the city unless, like Sant Jordi (World Book Day), it was literary oriented. The name, like the Paris Review (long situated in New York) or Mississippi Review, came about because this is where we live and where it began. But through much of our e-mail - some from those who mistakenly surfed to the site looking for hard-to-find tourist info, but most from readers and subscribers and even some contributors - we have learned that there is a huge interest in the city, with one of the most frequently asked questions being:
"When is the best time to visit?"
Answer: There is not a bad time to visit.




September: Here is possibly the month to see Barcelona. It may be a little battered by summer’s heat and scuffed by visitors looking for summer-closed places, but the city now takes on a new life. For starters all the workers are back, refreshed, knowing that after a month's break that they don't have to put their noses to the grindstone immediately as there are loads of public holidays from now until Christmas. The first holiday is the infamous 11th. This is a pretty much a Catalan nationalist affair celebrating a massive defeat in bygone times. It can get pretty nasty on the Ramblas and anything looking Spanish - or, god forbid, from Madrid - is trashed, including, for some unknown reason, McDonald’s. Apart from that little hiccup everyone is optimistic and therefore this is the time to start new projects or restart the ones that just missed the June 24th deadline.

     The holiday season officially stops around the 15th, but the sea is still warm for most of the month and the beach bars and huts are open until October. The first refreshing winds waft in about mid-month and remind the city to get ready for autumn, which it does by holding a mega-party. This is the Mercè, more or less four days of numerous bands, new to famous, from jazz to flamenco, to hardcore punk or whatever, playing in just about every available plaça. There are also children’s events, air shows, huge firework displays and a good correfoc (lit: fire run) - and it’s free, costs met by city hall - OK, the taxpayer - but they do such a good job that one feels proud to be part of a city that can throw such a party. For example, in 1997 Primal Scream played in a railway station on a stage between two tracks, a bizarre setting for the thousands who attended. 1998 Lou Reed played an 'acoustic' set in front of the cathedral, a bad choice as the small area was quickly swollen with people wanting to see a bit of rock history without paying for it. 2000 seems a little quieter with no major rock act stuck in some back alley. Art critic Robert Hughes, author of the entertaining art/social history Barcelona, is scheduled to speak at the City Hall on the 22nd.

     The actual holiday is September 24th and the weekend festivities usually follow should that day be a Wednesday. It is hard to predict the actual running of events, but the correfoc is on the Saturday or Sunday night. There are correfocs throughout the year in other areas, but this one obviously gets attention for its scale. It is certainly getting safer, but still gets the adrenaline going if you decide to try and stop the dragons and devils. This sounds easy but they are armed with fireworks and use them to burn their way through the crowd. They are also reasonably protected. You should wear suitable clothes - long sleeves, a hat or scarf, no nylon - but the best protection is to stand under a window and shout AGUA! in the hope that a resident will throw a bucket of water on your head. The correfoc is really much more fun if you partake, as watching from the sidelines is missing the point. Sadly, 98's correfoc was a very wimpy affair and although 99’s was an improvement one feels the days of the truly insane fireruns are over.

     A rarity not often seen in the city is the castellers. This is where Catalans form human castles; it’s a purely Catalan festivity that I've read is now taking off in Mexico. At the bottom are huge, stocky guys who form a base, but the rest of the tower is equal opportunity with the highest position being taken by a young tot who clambers up his/her swaying, straining comrades and once at the top raises his/her arm and scuttles down fast before the whole thing collapses (which it sometimes does and with less injury than one would imagine). The competition between rival castells is impressive and worth seeing. A recent development of this strange 'folk' tradition is the first ten-people-high castle to be made. One would expect this feat to be repeated to a Barcelona audience this year.  It takes place on the Sunday of the Mercè weekend at 1:00 pm in Plaça Sant Jaume 1. Another event that used to be on a different day from the correfoc but is now frustratingly put on at the same time, is a mammoth fireworks and water-to-music display at the Magic Fountain near Plaça Espanya. The music can be a bit cheesy, but the spectacle is impressive. 1998 saw some kind of compensation for the frustration by the addition of a firework 'competition' held at the bottom of the Ramblas. The idea has continued and this year sees Germany, China and Spain (Valencia) fight it out, though the venue seems to have moved to Barceloneta.

October: Weather permitting, another fine month to visit. Though watch out for youths in smart but ill-fitting (possibly borrowed) clothes running from language school to language school looking for work. The teaching season starts this month and usually many teachers have found a post – the last minute dashing around is partly due to schools, expecting floods of students, ‘overbooking’ teachers then letting them go at the last minute. If you’re new to the game expect to be treated like shit and watch your MA become a worthless piece of paper when you’re forced to look after 18-month-old children.

The beach now may be a no-no for sunbathing, but it can still be a very warm month with hints of cold air coming from the mountains. There isn’t the beautiful blaze of colour you normally get in autumn as most of the leaves died way back in the first weeks of July.  But to make up for nature’s lack of celebration little huts appear in the streets and the owners cook up chestnuts and sweet potatoes on charcoal braziers. The smell is wonderful and pleasantly evocative of autumn, but - my perennial complaint - there is never any butter to go with the yams. The 31st may not be Halloween here, but it is the castanyada, the day of the chestnut, and everyone rushes home for glasses of cava and roasted chestnuts. It’s a family affair, but the streets and bars do buzz as the next day is another holiday; it is also the Day of the Dead.


Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May  Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec

Other tourist info/links in English: The city itself lacks a committed English site but the Town Hall (Ajuntament) has a useful site at www.bcn.es with a great interactive map (can be a bit slow at times) and a 'What's On' that although in Catalan is more or less understandable, very complete and up-to-date. London's 'Time Out' - www.timeout.com/barcelona/  is the next best stop for very good general and tourist background information plus a limited 'What's On'. Just down the road at Sitges www.playafun.com are finding their feet and on a raid last year to Barcelona managed to snap the only known Internet photo of yours truly... but... thank god, you'll have to hunt for it!

© 2000 The Barcelona Review
This article  may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
navigation:                         barcelona review #20                 september - october 2000

George Saunders: Sea Oak
Anthony Bourdain: Bobby At Work
Robert Antoni: How Iguana Got Her Wrinkles...
Anne Donovan: Hieroglyphics
Yvonne Vera: excerpt from Butterfly Burning
Clayton Hansen: A Box for the Sand Country
Nuria Amat: excerpt from Intimacy


Carole Maso: Rupture, Verge, and Precipice...
Lawrence Norfolk: Being Translated...
Translators' Replies to Norfolk


John Ashbery: 3 Poems
Jonathan Monroe: 3 Poems

-Interview Carole Maso
-Article September and October in Barcelona

Harry Crews
Answers to last issue's Toni Morrison Quiz

-Regular Features Book Reviews
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