Probably the Stupidest Thing I’ve Ever Done – (La Merce Part 3)

Have you ever found yourself thinking, “Hmmmm, it’s a Sunday night and I’m bored. I think I’ll head downtown and stick my face in front of 80,000 fireworks”?

I’m willing to bet that you haven’t because you’re sane….or at least mostly sane. But as for the thousands of beer-chugging thrill seekers who attend the annual Correfoc fire run in Barcelona every September? For a few hours on the third Sunday of September they disregard any sense of self preservation and go absolutely bonkers.

This hell-themed melee is the final celebration of the city’s annual La Merce festival. Around 70,000 attendees show up every year to watch “Colles de Diables” (groups of devils), along with “Bestiari de Foc” (fire monster displays), run through the streets with fireworks and sparklers. While a good portion of the crowd huddles on the sidewalks, thousands of others run into the streets to dance and jump around in all the spewing sparks.

In fact, this behavior is encouraged. The organizers advise participants to come in old clothing, goggles, gloves and hats but many don’t bother. I watched two impossibly drunk frat boys dressed in shorts and t-shirts pose for a photo while standing next to a diable with a flaming sparkler.

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“THIS COULD NEVER, EVER HAPPEN IN AMERICA,” one shouted at the other, beer in hand.

Right they are. In a country where most states have completely banned fireworks for public consumption, an event like this would never fly. In Spain, however, it’s considered a good old fashioned, family-friendly hootenanny.

¡Viva la Espana! 

The Correfoc is rooted in a strange, local legend involving the “Mascle Cabro,” a mythical goat/military leader. After hearing that his town was about to be invaded by diables, he got his armies together to cross through a trans-dimensional gate to battle them on their own turf. After a fierce battle on the borderline between heaven and hell, Mascle Cabro and his warriors stood triumphant over the forces of darkness.

So the event is, essentially, a reenactment of the legend.  This year’s Correfoc began at 7:30 PM on the Carrer Gran Via, a large boulevard that runs through the center of Barcelona. After a large fireworks display, hundreds of volunteer “diables” darted through a large, wooden hell gate while carrying large pitchforks with spinning sparklers on the top. As they tore down the streets, they showered the crowd along the way.

Over 80,000 fireworks are used during the event and each one doesn’t last long. The diables had to routinely stop and wait for other volunteers pushing shopping carts to reload their pitchforks. Each round lasted about a full minute. The larger and more intimidating Bestiari de Focs were more problematic. They had to be stopped practically every 20-feet.

The Correfoc is completely insane and insanely LOUD. I brought along a pair of earplugs and shielded my arms and head with a hoodie. After seeing kids dart up to the diables and bounce around alongside them, I worked up my courage and joined in the madness. It was incredibly thrilling and, all things considered, the sparks did little damage to my clothing. A few hit the skin on my exposed hands but stung for only a brief second, leaving no mark behind.

The crowd, on the other hand, was more of a danger. As you might imagine, thousands of drunk people running into and away from fireworks can get out of hand at times. As a group of girls darted away from one of the diables, they slammed into me, sending all of us crashing down onto the pavement. My left wrist hit the curb and my first thought was “Oh, shit. Well, guess I’ll be going to the ER now.”

There was a moment of panic when I really did think I had broken it. I sat on the pavement and moved it around in circles, waiting to hear a “CRAAAAACK!” It seemed ok. No harm, no foul. I dusted myself off and jumped back into the fray after a guy helped me onto my feet.

Fortunately, I didn’t see anyone burst into flames that night. The firemen on stand-by were so bored that, at one point, one of them ran out into the middle of the street and danced with a diable. I saw a few participants walk away with holes burned into their clothing but that was about it. The next day I inspected my hoodie. Despite getting hit with roughly a thousand sparks, it was unscahted, aside from a bit of ash.

My gal-pal Marie and I lasted a good two hours before we headed off in search of a late dinner. Off in the distance, the diables continued their melee, the sharp booms of their pitchforks bouncing off Barcelona’s walls like the cackles of witches. There’s no telling how much longer the Correfoc tradition will be around. It’s clearly a beloved annual spectacle but it seems to good to last. I’m glad I got to see the madness at least once.

And would I do it again? Hell yeah!

Click the jump for four more videos from this year’s Correfoc… 

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