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Catalan traditions remain a mystery to tourists

The CNA went to the streets to ask tourists what they thought of some of the traditions that live on here. Tourists appear unaware of Catalan culture suggesting that it is not sufficiently promoted internationally.


03 September 2011 12:06 AM


Caitlin Smith

Barcelona (CNA).- From \u2018Castells\u2019 to \u2018Caganers\u2019, Catalonia is rich with cultural history and traditions. So how have these traditions, which are so ingrained within daily life here, passed by the average tourists coming to Spain's premier tourist destination? Catalonia and Barcelona specifically has a very strong tourism industry. Fourteen million tourists come to this part of Spain each year to view the culture, history and sights that are on offer. Yet when the CNA went to the streets to ask tourists what they thought of some of the traditions that live on here, only blank faces met our questions. Very few could name a tradition or highlight food specific to Catalonia. Maybe this is not so surprising, tourists do not need to be cultural experts. But still, it is hard to imagine that the majority of tourists come to Barcelona without knowing that cultural sites, such as the Sagrada Família and Park Güell exist here. So why not cultural traditions or stereotypes of the Catalan identity? The key question is why the lively, colourful and attractive traditions of Catalonia are generally unknown abroad?

The CNA went out to discover what tourists knew about Catalan traditions but instead discovered that, for the majority of tourists from Europe and the rest of the world, Catalonia is culturally indistinguishable from the rest of Spain. No tourist could name a tradition or recognised the names, photos and descriptions of some of Catalonia's most popular customs.

In fact, when identifying Catalan traditions or identity stereotypes, many struggled to distinguish anything other than the language. Phillipa Bowers, an English tourist admitted "I've never really heard of the region of Catalonia or that they had a separate language", whilst a young woman from Indonesia asked us why she hadn't seen the Catalan language in Madrid.

When it came to food, many named 'Gazpacho', Tapas and even ice cream as typical Catalan food that they had eaten, either describing a generic category of food or a dish from Southern Spain. One Polish tourist, Dominika Zebala, described her predicament perfectly, "I'm not really sure what Catalan food is. What dishes are there?" she asked. Whilst Catalonia has a whole range of typical dishes, including 'Pa amb tomàquet' (bread with tomato juices, olive oil and salt), 'Calçots' (barbequed long onions) and 'Fideuà' (a type of seafood \u2018paella\u2019 with short noodles rather than rice), as well as being the home of El Bulli, voted the best restaurant in the world, many restaurants in Barcelona target tourists by providing only the best known 'Spanish' dishes on their menus.

It isn\u2019t that tourists aren\u2019t aware of 'Spanish culture'. One American tourist, Arturo Acosta Vega when looking at a picture of Castells asked "oh is this the tomato festival or the one where they run with bulls?" demonstrating a knowledge of some of the better known Spanish festivals, La Tomatina from Bunyol and Pamplona\u2019s San Fermines. And ask anyone on the streets here if they have head of bullfighting, flamenco and sangria and it will become clear that tourists are not culturally disinterested or switched off. They have just been guided towards a handful of stereotypical images that don\u2019t have relevance throughout the whole of Spain. After all, bullfighting will be banned in Catalonia from next year and flamenco is a type of music and dances from South of Spain.

Traditions of Catalonia

Catalonia has many traditions which have been recognised, if not popularly, as being culturally of value and interest to others. The first and foremost of these is \u2018Castells\u2019, which in 2010 was honoured with UNESCO recognition, as a 'Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritable of Humanity.' Castells refers to teams of all ages who come together to form human towers. Reaching incredible heights, they are a nail-biting spectacle which is now considered both a competitive sport and a spectator activity. "Isn't it dangerous?" asked one tourist, smiling at the peculiarity of this tradition, "do people fall from the top?" She was reassured that the teams are well practiced and can fall without injuring themselves.

\u2018Correfoc\u2019 was another tradition which captured the imagination of tourists. As is the case in many festivals in Mediterranean Europe, fire is a key component in Catalan festivals and \u2018Correfoc\u2019 does not disappoint in this regard. Dressed as devils and taking on a light-hearted as opposed to evil persona, people run through the streets and perform routines in groups with sparkler like fireworks attached to sticks or held in the hand. Banned in parts of France with the excuse of the European Fire Directive, \u2018Correfoc\u2019 has been persevered in Catalonia due to its continued popularity.  Iddo Gotthold, from Israel was particularly enthusiastic, "I would participate if I could find something around, it's awesome, unique". "He scares me" said his wife, Miri, while laughing.

The custom that got the biggest smiles from tourists that the CNA spoke to was \u2018Caganers\u2019, small defecating figurines placed in the back of a nativity scene in an act of religious rebellion and scatological delight. Characters range from the traditional Catalan shepherd to new age personas such as President Obama and SpongeBob SquarePants. Their comic effect was not lost on foreign visitors. Joanna Smith, from England giggled silently with her friend through the description to finally only add an incredulous, "Caganers!?" before erupting into laughter once again.

In fact, the reaction that the custom of \u2018Caga Tió\u2019 received was mild by comparison. Perhaps the most bizarre, odd ball Christmas tradition, the \u2018Tió de Nadal\u2019, also known as \u2018Caga Tió\u2019, which literally means the 'poop log' is at the heart of family celebrations. Constructed or real, with a smiley face added for good measure, these wood 'logs' are brought into Catalan homes and cared for with a blanket for warmth and food and wine during the weeks of advent. Children gather around the \u2018Tió\u2019, hitting it with sticks whilst singing a traditional song, called \u2018Caga Tió\u2019. When the children aren\u2019t looking, parents stuff the log with presents making it appear if the log has literally excreted them. Although looking very confused during the description of this tradition, mum and daughter, Debbie and Laura Kairns from Liverpool appeared won over by the custom. "It's quite nice, maybe we should try that at home" they joked.

Why don't tourists know Catalan traditions?

Catalan traditions can provide that added dimension, the amusing perspective which makes foreign travel so much fun. When compared with Scottish culture and emblems, typical Catalan images fall to the waste side. Many of the tourists we spoke to could identify kilts, whiskey and Scottish dancing as icons of the area. They appear both more established in the international conscience and better promoted, the two of course going hand in hand. Perhaps this is due to the make up of the United Kingdom which, within the tourism industry, promotes a united front whilst highlighting the unique aspects of each locality, allowing for such traditions to be recognised.

Whatever the cause of the lack of knowledge, the reality for Catalonia, at the present time, is that its language, customs and even positioning on the map are not as concrete within the minds of international visitors as Catalans would like.


  • Some 'Caganers' picture real people or cartoons (by ACN)

  • Some 'Caganers' picture real people or cartoons (by ACN)
Catalan traditions remain a mystery to tourists