One of the most exciting and interesting parts of our trip to Barcelona was arriving there on the last day of “The Festa Major de Gracia”. Before planning the trip, I hadn’t even heard of this festival but after experiencing it, albeit on the last day when the festivities were winding down, I can say for sure it was one of the best experiences and the most interesting festival I’ve ever attended!
The Festa Major de Gracia is Barcelona's biggest, most colourful and most popular neighbourhood festival. Every year, the Gracia neighbourhood streets are decorated with fantastical scenes made out of recycled materials and bright paper mache. The decorations and all the events are organised by local area residents with their aim being to bring together the community and invite others from all over the world to experience their outlandish creations. The festival is also replete with activities and events for all the family so throughout the weeklong festival there is always something to do.
Every year the festival attracts over half million visitors, but it wasn’t always so inclusive. Originally, the festival was only for the residents of the neighbourhood, but the sheer beauty and creativity of the street decorations became so popular that festival organisers couldn’t keep the throngs of people away who were clamouring to visit the famous streets of Gracia.
Gracia itself was once an independent town, up until the later 19th century. It is for this reason that the community inside these walls is so tightly bound. If you ask a resident of Gracia where they were born, they won’t respond with “Barcelona” or “Spain”; they will say, “Gracia”. The area is considered to be full of bohemian crowds or "hipsters" as they are known as today. With little tourist attractions around, the neighbourhood became an enclave of Catalonian urban life. Without fast food chains filling up the real estate, small, experimental gourmet cafes and tapas bars were allowed to flourish as well as some unique, ethnic restaurants established by the diverse population that moved into Gracia.
Around 20 different streets and squares around Gracia are decorated during the festival and the locals take the decorations very seriously. Some people spend the whole year preparing and creating different magical wonders for their fantasy worlds. Guests and locals can walk through these fascinating carnival style spectacles. During the day there are food and drinks served to raise money for the festival and at night, the festival lights up as local bands take the stages, and live music is performed nightly.
The different themes and decorations change every year, and the streets compete for the prize of the "Best Decoration”. Guests are asked to be very careful while walking through the exhibits since this is the result of hard work from every day people who it means a great deal to. When we were there, we saw firsthand the respect that even the visitors have for these incredible handmade creations.
When you arrive in Gracia, seek out a festival information station where you can grab a map and ask the volunteers to help you navigate throughout the neighbourhoods. But if you'd prefer to do it on your own, you can also download a handy-dandy app that will tell you what you’ll find around the various streets and how to get there. Although every road is worth seeing, the streets that are most famous for their decorations are "Carrer de Joan Blanques" and "Carrer de Verdi."
The first night of the festival is the most popular since it is the big kick off party and the most crowded time to visit. The narrow streets are packed to the gills with people so if you want to experience a more laid back walkthrough, head on down during the day on one of the last days of the festival like we did. Although there were crowds, it wasn’t nearly as busy as the first few days.
Some of my favourite streets were as follows. The “Lord of the Rings” street was complete with all the characters from the film. Yes, they weren’t perfectly executed, but that was the charm of this whole event. Things didn’t have to be made identically to their original inspiration. It didn't need to be high art. There NEEDED to be an element of crafty/handmade-ness to the decorations or else it would just seem like some corporate, assembly line made the festival.
The “Life in the Movies” street had the most impressive entrance of them all. Covered in iconic movie props, it felt like you were about to walk into a museum of cinema.
The “Pirates of the Caribbean” street was enormous! They built almost a life size pirate ship complete with a giant Kraken attacking both the ship and potentially the guests passing through.
The mouth of the Kraken was a wonderful example of the incredible things you can make with recycled materials. It looked from afar so realistic, or as realistic as a fictional monster could be.
The lush forest and jungle we walked through was created by using hundreds of strands of recycled green plastic. In the daylight, there was this soft green glow that emanated throughout the street and with the warmth of the hot afternoon, it really did feel like the jungle.
My favourite street was “Under the Sea”. Not only were the fish and other sea creatures incredibly rendered, the giant feet that hung down from above was ingenious. It made you feel like a miniature version of yourself, being shrunk down to explore the enormity of the sea.
The most colourful of all the streets was the “Venetian” display. Hanging from above the cobblestones were hundreds and thousands of brightly coloured masks. It was a relatively simple design, but the overall effect was pretty powerful.
The last street we walked through was designed to look like a seaside port town, complete with lighthouse, fish market and nautical decorations.
Even the faux fish in the market were incredibly made. From afar they looked so real, but close up you could see all the different recycles materials used to make up these realistic looking fish!
There is nothing like the Gracia Festival, at least not that I’ve ever seen. There is something so heart-warming about a whole community coming together to celebrate their love for their home, their creativity and passion for art. And then, they invite strangers to come and celebrate along side them. Simply marvelous. The Festival de Gracia is a unique and creative festival that you simply can’t miss if you’re visiting Barcelona in August!