A Night with the Patroness of Barcelona
By Jennifer Cross
Nostra Señora de la Mercé, Barcelona's patron saint, knows how to throw one crazy party. Nostra Señora de la Mercé (Our Lady of Mercy) came to be the patron saint of Barcelona when she saved the city from a plague of locusts in 1637. Before that, she was lingering around in the dreams of Saint Pere Nolasc, Saint Ramon de Penyafort and King Jaume I in the 13th century, encouraging them to start a religious order to save the Christians, who had been captured by pesky Barbary pirates. This gave rise to the Order of Mercy, whose original church was built in 1267 in the same location as the present day basilica in the Plaça de la Mercé.
The week surrounding la Mercé’s big day – Sept. 24 -- is marked by masses, concerts and children startling elderly people with loud fireworks. On the official day, spectators watch the year's best correfoc, a procession of pyromaniacs dressed up like demons fully strapped with fireworks equal in might to that of an Mk81 bomb. They samba their way down Via Laietana while showering the good citizens, and bewildered tourists, with sparks. The fiesta comes to a climax with a jaw-dropping fireworks display, accompanied by music in front of the Font Màgica in Montjuic. Or, in my case, after an assault from a crazed transvestite.
At the start of our evening, Plaça San Joan was packed to the brim with onlookers and correfocers. In addition to dressing up like demons and purple-hooded druids, the paraders toted pyrotechnic mascots. These came in the form of giant, intricately-made paper maché dragons, devils and fearsome pigs. With about two drivers conducting them from underneath, they were as dexterous as a granny after a few too many mint juleps. The key function of the monsters is to spray sparks on the crowd. This all sounds very dangerous -- especially given the number of open container violations going on -- but the most harm done was holes in some T-shirts and perhaps some lingering hearing impairment.
Following a few too many caipirinhas, we found ourselves traversing Las Ramblas as we headed into the neighborhood of El Raval. We lost ourselves in a maze of dimly lit alleyways and back streets, and it seemed that we had no destination as we dodged drunkards and arguing couples. But in fact we did: La Concha, one of Barcelona's few after hour bars. Unfortunately, my posse and the rest of the city were seeking late night refuge there, and people were being turned away at the door. Not deterred easily, we ducked into a nearby bar which appeared to have little regard for the fact that it was well past 3AM. Loud salsa spilled out of the sound system as quickly as the patronage spilled their beverages out of loosely-held cups.
Swaying with the crowd as everyone clumsily tried to keep pace with the music, it was more like we were on high waters than at a salsa bar. Suddenly, a very rambunctious, scantily-clad "woman" had joined our group and was very intent on the men buying her a drink. Loud -- with an inordinate amount of "say it don't spray it" -- she skipped past introductions and explained to us that she likes men. She demonstrated this by taking a grab at the front of one of the males in our group. He recoiled, and before anyone could act, she had bopped my friend Michelle on the head with her purse.
We were all taken aback by the whirlwind of renegade red lipstick and imitation designer perfume that was attacking us. Before we could contemplate the situation any further, our new friend had taken out her breasts and was encouraging the men to touch them. As you can well imagine, no one jumped at the opportunity, though when she offered to expose what lay beneath her thread of a skirt, we evenly all screamed "no!". She continued spraying not saying, grabbing at everyone within reach, bopping us on the head with her handbag and exposing herself to anyone who was unfortunately not blind. Being sexually assaulted by a transvestite is always a sign of an eventful evening. Doubtless that can work up an appetite.
Unfortunately, here in Barcelona, there are no Denny's, or 24-hour IHOPs, which makes an early morning "Moons over My Hammy" or "Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity" feast out of the question. Barcelona's answer to such early morning hunger cravings is the unnamed bakery that opens it’s backdoor at 4AM and hands out boxes of powdered pastries filled with chocolate goo for €1.50. Any sane person would probably not touch these in a sober state, but come 4AM, people can be found walking through the streets, zombi-like, devouring them, covered in white powder with chocolate smeared over their faces. Needless to say, a fire-spitting-paper-mache-monster-overzealous-transvestite-powdered-sugar-brick later, it was time to head home.
I knew that while Nostra Señora de la Mercè had once stopped a plague, I could only pray that she would stop my inevitable resaka come the next day. A small price to pay for a night out with the Patroness of Barcelona.