Monthly Archives: October 2011

The saints and souls of Barcelona

October has turned out to be an oddly morbid month. Maybe the Devil really did unleash the spirits when Hell’s Gate hiccupped at the end of September, because my autumn so far has been strangely peopled with scenes of saints, souls and compulsions to wander through Barcelonan cemeteries.

Plus the hamster died.

So, as tomorrow is All Souls’ Day and Tuesday All Saints’ Day, I thought I’d follow the breadcrumbs and try and improve my knowledge of Catalan history a bit at the same time.

Some hairy hagiography

Even for a Catholic, Spanish city, Barcelona packs a pretty punchy pantheon. I mean, there are vestiges of saints’ lives everywhere. They’re just much more present than I ever remember them elsewhere – in Scotland or even in Madrid. Most prolific of all is the co-patron saint of the city, the ill-fated Santa Eulàlia.

By all accounts, Laia was a real person – a local girl born around three centuries after Jesus, who was tortured to death by the Romans when she was only 13 for refusing to recant her beliefs in Christianity. Barcelona’s Cathedral was erected in her honour, the schooner anchored in the old port is named after her and there’s even a metro station bearing her name. Not to mention the alleyway in the Gothic quarter, ‘La Baixada de Santa Eulàlia’, where she’s said to have suffered her greatest torments.

La Baixada de Santa Eulalia

Plaque at the top of St Eulàlia’s Descent.

So who was this young upstart whose name inspires the building of cathedrals, ships and metro stations?

Well, folks, the first thing official records will have you know is that she was a virgin martyr. This seems a) axiomatic, given her age, and b) irrelevant, given what we know nowadays about sexual experience being of negligible influence when it comes to one’s success as an intercessor to the gods. Or maybe that’s just me.

But what most people associate with Eulàlia is the series of increasingly brutal tortures that Diocletian, the then Roman Emperor, decreed she should suffer. (When it came to devising sadistic tortures, this guy had form.) It’s said she underwent 13 tortures, one for each year of her life. These included having her breasts cut off, being rolled down a slope inside a barrel of knives, being crucified on an X-shaped cross (she’s often depicted with this) and finally decapitation. (I imagine this was a relief, by that point.) Her remains are buried inside a crypt within the Cathedral, where she’s also honoured in ornithological fashion, in the form of the 13 geese who inhabit the cloisters. Legend has it that a dove flew out of her neck when she was finally decapitated, so there’s a link with white birds in there somewhere.

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

Eulàlia was the original patron saint of Barcelona, but she found herself having to share the limelight towards the late 17th century with La Mercè. (Our Lady of Mercy. That’s right. Another virgin.) This one’s story is a lot more sketchy, in my opinion. She was officially proclaimed patron saint of the city after supposedly delivering it from a plague of locusts. Even the Pope was reluctant to endorse Eulàlia’s relegation, and didn’t ratify La Mercè’s promotion until the end of the 19th century.

Whereas Eulàlia’s feast day in February passes by without ceremony, La Mercè’s festival, as you can see from my last post, is a riot of fire-runs, giants and minor demons. The 4-day event at the end of September should be blessed with good weather, given that temperatures in the high 20s are not uncommon throughout October, but traditionally, it rains heavily for at least one day. According to legend these are the tears of Eulàlia herself, piqued at the pinching of her patronage.  Fair enough, if you ask me. Locusts, indeed.

So what of the men?

Maybe it’s the human hankering for a goddess to worship, but Sant Jordi (Saint George), the patron saint of Cataluña as a whole, barely gets a look-in around here. His absence is nowhere better symbolised than in the cast-iron sculpture of a woebegone dragon in the Parc de l’Espanya Industrial, entitled ‘The Dragon without Saint George’. Even in his moment of glory, he manages to miss it. His feast day is the 23rd of April, where in Cataluña he represents a sort of pallid version of St Valentine. Women gift books to their menfolk (“because they last forever”) and in turn receive roses.

Iron dragon in the Parc de l'Espanya Industrial.

Down but not out – Puff taking a breather.

This Sant Jordi, in case you were wondering, is the same Saint George that the English, and a whole host of other countries, hold in such esteem. An interesting parallel exists with the life of Saint Eulàlia. George was a military man, who presented himself to Diocletian (remember him?) in search of a career as a soldier. Very close to the time that Eulàlia was being murdered, Diocletian issued an edict that all Christian soldiers should be forced to convert or face death. George, like Eulàlia, refused to recant, and was tortured and martyred as a result.

However, as I know you’re clamouring to find out, historical accounts fail to note whether he was a virgin. The dragon had some tales to tell, but these remain unsubstantiated.

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Devils and dragons and freaks (oh my…)

Fire has never fazed me. In fact, I’ve long harboured suspicions of deep-down pyro tendencies and have never entirely trusted myself around matches. I put it down to my growing up in the west-coast Scottish town of Ayr; famous for being the birthplace of poet Robert Burns. In school we learned to recite Tam O’Shanter off by heart -

“Weel mounted on his gray mare, Meg -
A better never lifted leg -
Tam skelpit on thro’ dub and mire;
Despisin’ wind and rain and fire.
Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning o’er some auld Scots sonnet;
Whiles glowring round wi’ prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares:
Kirk Alloway was drawing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry.”

- and imagined ourselves astride an equally trusted steed, fleeing from the Devil’s fiery congregation. Sadly, though, my lot was a lot more pathetic. Every 5th of November my father duly drove us all down to Ayr beach, to see the Bonfire Night celebrations. I say ‘to see’ because this is all we did – my father under strict instructions from my mother that under no circumstances would a lit sparkler cross our young begloved palms. And neither it did. For six long years. (Nor were we allowed to sook lollipops without tightly holding on to the stick. In case we tripped, and impaled ourselves on said stick. But I digress…)

Baptism of fire

So suffice it to say that I was looking forward to La Mercè. Billed as Barcelona’s biggest festival of the year (and there’s a fair amount to choose from), this 4-day blowout end-of-summer extravaganza has concerts, traditional dancing, pageants of giants, beach-bound firework displays and as a finale a cavalcade of fire-breathing dragons. Not to mention the normally stuffy town hall (‘ajuntament’) lit up as a Pacman board. Oh, and Lucifer in Camper boots. Something for all the family, in other words.

There had been talk this year of the event being trimmed down to a more sedate version of its usual self (“The cuts! The crisis!”). With no erstwhile glories to compare it to, I pitched up with an open mind, a reasonably plump purse, a talent for following the crowds…and spent the four days suitably enthralled. (Not a word I use lightly, but there were indeed times I actually gasped. Usually with pain.)

ring of Sardana dancers

Tidy little steps in the civilised Sardana.

Having hung around at the opening ceremony, the free street concerts, Sardana displays and processions of massive papier-mâché figures (which slightly disconcerted me, to be honest), I was champing at the bit to see the climax – the uniquely Catalan ‘correfoc’. Fire running, you say? I had visions of some extreme machismo test of endurance, a bit like running with the bulls but with the additional impediment of burning coals. You have to really earn your correfoc cojones. I merged into the swell of gathering crowds on Via Laietana, quietly clocking the gulf between the posse of hooded teenage boys and the onlookers who wanted to fire-gaze safely from the sidelines. “Wimps!” I thought, elbowing my way through the crowds, all of whom seemed to be covering their heads and faces and heading in the opposite direction to me.

The Devil at start of procession.

The Devil beginning his descent.

I soon spied Satan and thought his wake seemed like as good a starting point as any. Up the street we went, accompanied by the odd fire-eater and over-eager adolescent who clearly viewed the imminent event as an initiatory rite of passage. After the devil was swallowed up by the billowing bowels (sorry) of Hell’s Gate, darkness and silence fell over the crowds until finally a voice not dissimilar to the one at the start of Thriller addressed us all. (In Catalan, obviously.)

I got the gist. Hell’s Gate was about to open.

And then it did, to the tune of fireworks and a fervent band of Brazilian drummers, all pounding away as if their lives depended on it.

When the first troop of trident-bearing fiends lit their forks ablaze and headed for the crowds, I’m ashamed to say instinct and sheer bloody fear took over. A novice at this game, I fled in blind terror, shoving underfoot those who happened to be in my way. Now, I admit, this was not my finest hour, but at this point there’s a battering ram of drums coming my way and sinister hooded demons bearing burning tridents. The sparks swirl round like a whirly gig set alight somewhere in Sighthill late on a Saturday night. All you really want to do is run. I was starting to understand why the seasoned Spaniards had sensibly formed rank on either side of the road, well away from the fiery shenanigans.

one of La Mercè's fire-breathing dragons

It's getting toasty now.

But then something unexpected happened. I still can’t put my finger on what exactly overcame me, but I seemed to go slightly giddy at the onslaught of fire-breathing dragons that had appeared over Hell’s horizon. I felt compelled to rush head-on into the spittle of sparks issuing from their mouths (actually from both ends, to be honest), clacking away merrily with my camera, hell-bent on getting some decent shots and seeing singeing as collateral damage. But by god it nipped the next day.

dinosaur breathing fire

Primal screaming.

From the fire into the frying pan

Nursing some charred scraps of scalp the next day, I thought I had seen the last of horny devils for a while. Sadly not.

After work I headed to El Corte Inglés on the main Plaça Catalunya, in need of a decent frying pan. Waiting in the queue to be served, I noticed a guy walk past, then do a double take and stare at me, jaw virtually hitting the floor. Perturbed at this, I walked away, and amused myself with looking at hand-held blenders costing €90. (Only in El Corte Inglés.)

To my surprise, there was the same guy across the aisle, perusing the blenders for himself. Odd, I thought. He was well dressed, probably late 20s, looked Spanish, clean shaven. Perfectly normal-looking, in other words.

I got the escalator five flights down and when I was walking towards the main door to leave, I caught sight of his reflection right behind me. By this point I’m starting to get a bit creeped out, so to test my theory of stalkering I veer right to the women’s haberdashery department. (Only in El Corte Inglés and Jenners, Edinburgh.) After a few minutes, there he looms, feigning interest in fingering the velvet trim.

By this point I’m thinking what I really need to do is turn round and confront him, with something pithy along the lines of “Why are you following me?!” But then I think I will look like a mad woman, and the Corte Inglés security guard won’t believe me.

So I leave the shop and go sit outside on a bench, surrounded by people. An elderly couple sit beside me and I pretend to be engrossed in my mobile, while surreptitiously trying to figure out if I’m still being hunted. After a few minutes, I notice him on the periphery, standing about and pretending he’s waiting on someone. At this point the elderly couple get up to leave, and stalker sits down a little further along my bench.

This is my cue to flee, so I walk towards the traffic lights, intending to cross Plaça Catalunya and take solace in the metro. As I make my way across the square, I can see him still in pursuit, reflected this time in the wing mirrors of parked motorbikes. The adrenaline is starting to threaten, now, and I’m wondering where the pursuit is actually going to end. It occurs to me as I duck down into the metro that, having single-mindedly spent around 25 minutes on this by now, the guy may not be thwarted by some mere metro gates.

Plaça Catalunya

He seeks me here, he seeks me there...

Sure enough, as I head towards the gates, he’s right behind me. And I have never been so glad to see a muzzled Alsation in my life.

I make a beeline for one of the security guards – the one with the most vicious-looking dog – and whisper to him in Spanish that I’m being followed by the normal-looking man in the light blue shirt. I say I’m really sorry, but there’s no way I’m going down to that platform with him behind me, or else at this rate he’s going to find out where I live. To his credit, the guard sizes up the situation in a second and, bending down to undo the dog’s muzzle, says “No te preocupes, señorita. You go straight down to that train and I assure you he won’t follow you any more.”

I still don’t know what happened after that, but when I reached the train I couldn’t see him anymore. Apart from one heart-stopping moment as the carriage pulled into my station and I saw a reflection right behind me of a guy wearing an identical shirt. I readied myself to engage the frigging frying pan that had started all this, in a sort of “stop following me – take that!” Spanish screech.

Thankfully, though, it wasn’t him.

Where’s Meg when you need her?

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