La Merce Part 1 – What Goes Up…

After attending my first La Merce this past weekend, I’ve come to this conclusion: more regional celebrations should include dancing statues, human towers and insane, satanic parades. The annual festival in Barcelona is a crazy mix of Catalan civic pride, fireworks, blunderbuss guns and an overall disregard for public safety. It’s the sort of thing that would absolutely, under no circumstances, ever fly in the United States.

What? You don’t like shotguns going off near your ears or getting hit with showers of sparks in the face or having a Spaniard fall four stories onto your head?  Yeah….then you might want to stick to the beach if you ever find yourself in town during the last weekend in September.

I’m sure you’ll agree with these sentiments, after taking a look at the video clips below. I myself nearly broke my wrist and got set on fire during the final event (check back for the details on that whole thing in part 3…).

Anyway, on the last day of La Merce, thousands of locals and tourists pour into a large square wedged between two government buildings in the center of Barcelona. As various officials look on from the safety of a balcony, groups of local “casteller” teams, each consisting of a few dozen members, regale the crowd by building human towers on a large stage. Then, at the appointed hour of noon, they break their ranks. The majority enters the square and mingles with the crowd as three others form a tower and maneuver their way through the masses. This alone is amazing to watch. The amount of concentration and physical dexterity required to pull this off must take years of training.

Each team then take turns forming towers, sometimes nine people tall, placing the top member roughly 50 feet off the ground. The specific rules were hard to follow. Near us, an American travel show host was filming a segment for his program. A die-hard fan and former casteller explained all the nuances of the event to him but it was hard to hear his pointers over the chatter of everybody around us.

After the first team failed to construct an eight-person tall structure, the team near us, dressed in pink shirts, got to work. Their coach shouted orders and everyone got into place as other members pulled volunteers from the crowd to help support the bottom level. Imagine getting yanked from the stands and into an NBA game. Yeah, it was kinda like that…

Once everyone was in place, the tower quickly grew. The second level consisted of average sized guys, followed by smaller people and so on; each level smaller than the last, until a girl, about eight years old, zoomed to the top. The crowd quickly hushed as a band on the stage began playing a tense tune to aid to the drama. Once she reached the shoulders of two team members at the crest of the tower, she quickly waved at the officials below and slid back down. Once the tower is built, the challenge the teams face isn’t over yet. Deconstructing the structure is even more difficult than building it.

A third team took its turn and then Round Two began. Now in first place, the pink team pulled the travel show host away from his cameraman to help hold up their bottom level. This time, things didn’t go so well. After the girl reached the crest of the already wobbling tower and waved to the officials, it collapsed, sending her hurdling towards the ground.

Amazingly enough, no one was hurt. I was filming the construction with my iPhone at the time. After consulting some colleagues about whether or not I should post the clip online, I’ve decided to include it here.

WARNING! The video below is a bit disturbing. The tower comes down at the 3:42 mark and you can hear the girl scream as she falls. For some of you reading this, it’s not going to make for fun viewing.

As shocking as this accident was for those of us not familiar with the sport to witness, the team and the crowd treated the incident like it was no big deal. A few minutes later, the third team began its turn. At this point, we had been standing, completely squished and pouring sweat, for over two hours. The smell in the crowd around this time? Yeah….not so great. We took a break on the edge of the square and returned to watch the pink team’s third round, which went flawlessly.

Hit the jump link below to view a clip of their third tower and another team building theirs during Round Three…

Stay tuned for part two!

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