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Sunday, August 21, 2011, in Barcelona, Spain

Hi everyone. We’ve arrived in Barcelona, a place we intend to stay for a while. Last week, we had just arrived in Tarragona.

Tarragona is like an outdoor museum of antiquities. There are legends that even its name goes back to 2407 BC (what, no month and day?) or a 7th-century BC pharaoh during a campaign in Spain.

We know, though, that this was an important Roman colony, and the ruins all over town have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also our first stop in Catalonia.

The marina isn’t right in the old town, and we waited until late in the day to walk to the heart of the city. It was a Monday, which is always the day museums are closed, and it was August 15, the biggest holiday of the summer. Though there wouldn't be much commerce around, there would be celebrations in the evening.

Our immediate destination was the plaza outside the town hall, where a concert would start at 6:00 PM. We knew that the music wouldn’t interest us. The program said something about “old veterans”, a phrase in which either word meant that the music, at best, would be as recognizable as a grandfather’s sedan. Minutes before the concert, a young drummer onstage followed the directionless tapping of a septuagenarian on an electric piano. Noting the many missed notes and simplistic cadences, Art wondered to me if this was the performer we’d be watching. I chortled. There was no way. This guy sounded like me in fourth grade, when I played My Wild Irish Rose” on the organ and never touched a keyboard again. I told Art that this was probably just a guy from the audience who was fooling around, like karaoke, while the audience got settled.

I was wrong. He was the accompaniment, and he was no more competent during the show than he was in the rehearsal. Fortunately, the singers tempered his domination of the surrounding sound. Indeed, a parade of singers performed songs that we recognized not a bit, but which were clearly from a bygone era. One man with a gravelly voice and a sardonic demeanor got quite a lot of applause. We decided that he must be the mayor, based on his musical talent.

Deciding that the concert wasn’t really for us, we wandered around the streets of the old town. It was still dusk. There are a lot of ruined, rocky structures in Tarragona. The streets are narrow, and occasionally you’ll pass a house whose façade is partly supported by a giant piece of rock engraved in Latin retrieved from an ancient structure. Building materials were hard to find in medieval times.

We followed the streets that were decorated with flags – the flag of Catalonia, not Spain; this is “an autonomous province” and they mean it. We found ourselves on a street crowded with people, an outdoor temporary bar, and about half a dozen twelve-foot-high puppets. These are called gigantes, their heads and arms made of papier mâché and plaster of Paris, dressed in costumes expressing some theme over a wood or aluminum structure. There were also some cabezudos, smaller figures that are human-sized except that about a third of their height is their head. Inside each of these figures and inside each of the gigantic figures is a person, holding up the structure (harder than it sounds), and walking the parade route, stopping occasionally to dance with its partner or the world at large.

The sight and breathing hole of the giants is located generally at the location of the crotch, reminding me of a really terrible old joke that I’ll not repeat here. The effect of these large figures is grand, and it’s important to avoid looking down at the inevitable sneakers that poke out at the bottom of the glorious gowns.

The theme of the gigante pairs is often something related to the town, so in our case, there was a king and queen (the king looked uncannily like Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte), a Moorish ruler and his wife, and a dark African plantation owner and his wife. Each of these giant couples had an entourage, including a band, either of flutes, or drums, or something more sophisticated, and children dressed in theme-based costumes. They would all stop on occasion, play a song, and the figures would twirl and dip, looking out eerily with their plaster of Paris expressions. The African couple’s entourage included two children dressed in costumes identical to the puppets, down to the straw hat, the pattern on the garments, and black-face.

The front of the parade was led by a cannon, intermittently firing and scaring the daylights out of all the children, and me. Behind that was a dragon float. The dragon was periodically stocked with flares and other combustibles, and it would spray out sparklers and pop firecrackers as it made its way at the forefront of the parade. This is a tradition in Catalonia, to spray fire at your audience, called correfoc.

At the very end of the action were some small floats with religious figures, a shepherd, and a saint. This is a religious holiday, after all, although I’d bet on the giant Moor over the mangy sheep and the guy with the wooden cane.

The procession circled the old town several times. Onlookers were of two varieties, those who staked out a place and watched the parade go by, and those who followed the parade, rushing ahead to see it approach over and over. We were in the second camp, sometimes threading through high-school bands, or ducking into an alcove to avoid the smoke produced by the unrelenting dragon.

We all found ourselves in the street where we’d started, the staging area for the giants before the parade. The flags draped across the street from third floor to third floor, except for one area. This was so that they wouldn’t interfere with the human towers that were next on the agenda.

The castell (which actually means “castle”) is a multilevel tower made entirely of people. The tradition originated in Valls, near Tarragona, and has spread to all of Catalonia and as far as the Balearic Islands, which is the place that we first saw them.

The bottom layer of the tower is substantial, and pretty important, because the tower can be seven or eight levels high when it’s finished. There’s a design for the base that has strong people (men) in spokes four or five deep, pressed against each other for support.

To make a variety of shapes, people climb the tower to create the next, and the next levels. Some climb up the outside; others shimmy up through the inside. You notice that all of this happens very fast. And it should, because eventually dozens of people are involved in this insanity. You know when they’re up to the final level, because one or two children, each in a sort of polo helmet, climb to the top and stick four fingers in the air in a symbolic representation of the Catalan flag. Then they scurry down and the entire structure unfolds in reverse to its assembly.

The supporting men get ready for this by donning a back brace. But is it the strong leather or microfiber brace you’d see on a loading dock or construction site? No. It’s a pashmina wrapped several times around the body. You can tell because the fringe hangs from their waistlines. Other than that, there’s little apparent attention to safety. The density of people in the base is intended to cushion the fall if the tower collapses. Yes, falling six person-lengths is much better than seven. Falling on people three stories below you is so much better than falling on concrete. I mentioned to someone that if this were an event on a street in America, most of the audience would be lawyers.

There were two groups of tower-builders, one in beige shirts and one in lavender (if you’re going to support the weight of several dozen people, your masculinity isn’t threatened by wearing lavender, or for that matter a pashmina. You could probably carry a sequined purse.)

I was under the impression that these towers never fall, and that it would be awful if one did. But one of them fell apart right before our eyes the moment after the four-finger salute flag was raised. And it wasn’t that big a deal. Two minutes later, the group reconvened and tried again. (Actually, someone died from a human tower fall as recently as 2006.)

We spent a few more days in Tarragona. It’s a fine town for a walk around during the day. The Roman walls are for the most part intact, and an amphitheater looks over the sea, and is viewable from several well-placed balconies overlooking it. Two of the towers in the wall are still reasonably intact and Roman ruins snake through the city, as building walls and in shop basements. There’s a Roman circus where chariot races were held, covering several blocks on a narrow street.

On our last night in town, we went back to the town hall square for an evening of traditional dances. The men were in vests and something resembling lederhosen, and the women wore long dresses and shawls. Throughout the evening, the men changed into different vests and the women gave up their shawls in favor of aprons. The dancers were adept, but like all shows of traditional folk dances, the steps aren’t exactly grand jete en l’air. It’s more like controlled shuffling around. After all, it’s the dance of plain folk.

At the risk of sounding quite jaded about travel, we’ve noticed similarities in the folk dances of nearly every country we visit, north or south, and probably extend to square dancing in the US. In this case, the women occasionally used castanets and the men had those fringed shawls tied around their waists in a most manly way. It won’t keep us from attending every folk dance demonstration available in every little town, but it does make you wonder how the Secretary of State keeps a smile on her face through the duration of each state visit.

The day we left Tarragona, we sailed with a gentle wind behind us, as usual, and took our time to get to Barcelona. It isn’t a surprise that Barcelona harbor is big and busy. And in the role of “yacht that’s just too big to enter the harbor”: Pelorus, yet another yacht owned by Russian magnate Roman Abramovich. This one is 115 meters (377 feet, 3 inches) and has a full-time crew of about 46 people.

We’d arrived after the marina office had closed, but a helpful marinero got us set up on electric power and with the entry key to the pontoon. Our nearby neighbor was France II, a former America’s Cup racer, now out to pasture as a charter boat.

Our visit to Barcelona begins in mid-August and ends in mid-September. For a month-long visit to a city, you can structure your visit at a slow pace. We decided to tackle the boat issues first, and accomplished little more than a walk and a tourist office visit on our first day in town. Our marina, Port Vell, is in a good location, only about a ten-minute walk from the waterfront end of the Rambla, the main strolling boulevard in Barcelona.

The Rambla was the bed of a seasonal stream originally named in Arabic (raml.) In the 14th century, it was included inside the city walls, and built up in the centuries after that. Now it’s a wide boulevard flanked by grand buildings.

The middle week in August is arguably the biggest vacation time in Europe. There are some countries that nearly shut down at this time. This season, with a few exceptions, we found the resort areas to be quieter than we’d expected. But not Barcelona.

The Rambla was packed with tourists, who didn’t seem to have much more to accomplish than we did. Backpackers were having their last hurrah before heading back to their home countries and school. Families were spread out across walking paths.

As in Tarragona, mid-August is a festival week, born of a religious holiday that was tacked onto a pagan harvest festival. The Gracia neighborhood just north of the Rambla is the site of La Festa Major, which basically means “Epic Street Party.” And that’s what it is, a street festival. No particular religious significance, not even a whole lot of flags. About a dozen and a half streets decorate anywhere from one to three blocks of their length. It’s hard to know whether there’s an overall theme, although each participating street seems to coalesce around something. The one thing that’s common to all is that the decorations are made from recycled materials. There are prizes for the best efforts. The festival isn’t all about decorating; there are, for example, 175 concerts that take place during the week.

We took the subway to Gracia from the port, during what we decided must be rush hour, though it was nearly 9:00 PM. We exited the metro station, where there was a huge crowd peering into the station, as this spot is a meeting place for friends to attend the festival together. We followed the crowd down a narrow street, and simply zigzagged around the neighborhood with everyone else.

Our favorite of the street decorations we saw was on Carrer de Verdi. It had an undersea theme, so we were viewing it as if we were underwater looking up at the surface. First, there were bits of plastic hanging from line all across the street above our heads. It was so dense that you couldn’t see sky. Then, there were the bottom halves of giant mermaids and sea creatures, fish and jellyfish, dangling above our heads. And you can’t miss the prow of what would be a rather large wooden boat greeting you at the entrance to the street.

The mermaids appeared to be constructed of papier mâché, and wire hangers provided structure for the fish, which were stuffed with bits of wood or plastic bags, and covered with repurposed plastic. The shiny mermaid coat was accomplished with broken-up compact disks. The large reef was made of many crumpled tan plastic grocery bags.

Another spellbinding street, Joan Blanques, had a garden theme, with a plantation on one block, a jungle on another and a garden on another. Flowers were constructed from the spouts and top third of discarded plastic bottles, where the spout was the center and the petals cut and curled around it. Some of the flowers were electrified into lamps, and others were poised like single buds with wire stems stuck into foam.

The neighborhood isn’t small. The seventeen or so decorated streets are blocks apart, and we didn’t come close to covering the scene. But everywhere we went, the place was brimming with visitors, and the decorated streets were shoe-sale mobbed. Some of the decorated streets had long folding tables set up, with dozens of folks eating dinner. We assumed that these were the people who live in these houses, and that this is their consolation for living on a street where people trample it up and down all night long for days on end.

Streets and plazas had stages set up and we saw more than one band doing their sound checks. But we only stayed until near 11:00, so concerts apparently weren’t starting yet. Indeed, we got back on the metro for our return trip to the boat, and the train was almost as crowded as it had been on our way out. Art noted, “Here it is, eleven o’clock on a Thursday night, and I don’t think anybody in Barcelona is in their house right now.”

With a month in hand, we will be taking our time to get to know the city. We decided to follow some walking tours I found on a travel site, so I loaded the document into my Kindle and we were off. Our first official sightseeing tour was to take us through the old Gothic neighborhood, and began, ironically, at a square called Pla��a Nova. The tour led us through the narrow streets of the old town, to shady, quiet squares named for saints and generals, by churches that would seem remarkable in America and are wallflowers alongside Barcelona’s grand Cathedral.

The 15th-century home of the Archdeacon is carved and imposing without being decadent. But even the subsidiary buildings for lesser clergy have touches of grandeur. Alongside the unassuming courtyard entrance, there’s a stone carving of five swallows and a turtle. You’d wonder why they’re necessary, until you notice (thanks to the walking tour) that these couriers are announcing the presence of a mail slot into the courtyard.

The walk took us to the Cathedral, and we wandered its length, gazing into a dozen carved, gilded, and painted chapels and admiring the serenity of the cloisters. The choir in the center of the nave was surrounded by a delicately-carved wooden boundary, and those who are willing to buy their way inside could sit in striking carved wooden chairs that were no doubt as uncomfortable as they were lovely.

The church wasn’t the only organization building monuments in the 14th century; the Great Royal Palace of the same era dominates yet another cozy square, and now houses part of the city’s historical museum. A group of canons’ houses (an abbey) still has its carved heraldry of goats with lions’ feet. That building, now providing housing for the leader of the autonomous region of Catalonia, connects by a second-story bridge to the government building, as if crossing a breezeway from the West Wing to the governing portion of the White House.

Barcelona has its own share of Roman ruins. Our walk took us to Roman walls and the reconstructed remains of an aqueduct. We visited a building that has four columns remaining from a Roman temple rising in its core like palm trees, and another building where a transparent cover reveals the ancient Roman sewer system.

There’s something appealing about just sitting here for a little while. We think we’re going to like this place.

Love, Karen (and Art)