The annual ‘Festa Major de Gràcia’ once again proves to be a highlight of Barcelona's summer

The neighbourhood of Gràcia launches into its week long festival, with its famous decorations occupying streets and squares throughout the area. The CNA talked to residents of Carrer de Progrés about their 'Intergalactic' themed street.

Caitlin Smith

August 18, 2011 10:42 PM

Barcelona (CNA).- In a small corner of Barcelona, on Sunday night, the neighbourhood of Gràcia partied away, celebrating the start of their annual festival, the ‘Festa Major’, which commences on the 15th August every year. Over the week, neighbours, families, friends and visitors will gather to eat, drink and participate in all manner of activities, from karaoke to treasure hunts, in a festival which has become synonymous with summer festivities. Particularly famous for its street decorations, it continues to draw huge crowds. Fashionable with foreigners, whilst retaining its popularity with Barcelonans (especially the young) the Festa de Gràcia of 2011 looks set to be the social event of the summer.

The neighbourhood of Gràcia is well known in Catalonia. Once a small village next to old Barcelona in the 19th century, it was engulfed by the stretching borders of the city, and it is now at the core of a metropolis of 4.5 million inhabitants. Yet Gràcia has retained its independent charm. It is known for its popularity amongst students, bohemians, families and an older generation, bringing an unusual diversity to the area. Every year, the festival of Gràcia transforms this chilled out part of town into a week long street party, filling most of the streets and squares with entertainment so unpretentious that anyone could feel at home here. "It's one big party basically" one resident told us.

Despite its religious origins (coinciding with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary to heaven, a Catholic feast day celebrated throughout Spain on the 15th of August) the festival has always focused more strongly on the social side to life. In this spirit, one of the highlights of the festival is discovering the handful of streets which are participating in the annual decoration competition. Participating streets receive the ultimate make-over from residents who enthusiastically throw themselves into the task of transforming their road from the ordinary to the extraordinary. In the hope of winning a prize, neighbours build, paint and staple according their chosen theme.

The preparation

One such decorated street is Carrer Progrés (or Progrés Street). Like all streets competing in the festival, Progrés' story began months ago. Back in February, anyone who wanted to could present a theme to the committee, then a general vote was taken to select this year's street design: Intergalactic Travels. Preparations began not soon after, collecting materials and finalising the layout.

Although some residents had construction experience, most didn’t, yet they threw themselves into manipulating plastic bottles, chicken wire and cardboard into spaceships, aliens and planets. It has a home made quality about it, which wins hearts precisely because what it lacks in finesse it makes up for in enthusiasm.

In the final stages of construction, approximately one week before the festival starts, the designs are put together, statues are moved onto the street and lights are arranged. In Carrer Progrés one resident told us that a few days before completion "you will get anywhere from 20 to 30 people" working on the street, "but once we get to the last night you will probably see over 100 people working just on this one street" in order to finish dressing up their street before the festival’s kick off.

The completion of the decorations

The hard work has clearly paid off; Carrer Progrés is a joy to walk down. It has been transformed from an ordinary road to a wonderland of arts and crafts. Each section of the road represents a different environment; from an ice planet to a jungle world. A giant alien welcomes guests, or "Intergalactic Travellers" as the road calls them, to the road where they can find a volcano waterfall, discover statues of strange creatures, gaze at the hundreds of stars and spaceships hanging from a blue canopy and finally marvel at the light illumination black hole at the end of the road.

As pretty and enjoyable as the street is, a festival is more than decorations alone. To bring life to the world they have created, the street, like all of the roads in the competition will host a variety of activities to entertain the visitors. These range from open air meals to music concerts, theatre performances to karaoke night and film screenings to magic shows. The aim is to create an authentic summer festival atmosphere, bringing enjoyment to all members of the community throughout the next seven days and well into the nights. As Progrés Street formally announced in their programme, "we are pleased to invite you to enjoy the festivities of the town, to share with us all and with anyone who wants to have fun, many special moments"

Criticisms of the festival

Despite being widely popular the Gràcia festival is not without its critics. The festival is accused of creating noise, rubbish and provoking excessive drinking. Above all, however, critics claim that the festival is loosing its traditional ethos, of a community celebration. The residents of Carrer Progrés have hit back at this, writing to those who think this, "we invite you to change your mind when you see that festivities live from within, from the very heart of the village". Their community spirit is a mark of the authenticity of the festival, as they say "festivities here last months and not just a single week".

Despite economic difficulties, show must go on

Although the festival is partly funded through grants from the district government, these are often not allocated to specific streets to support their contribution to the festival until it is underway. For this reason, committees formed by neighbours and friends have had to raise money to fund their projects.

However, not even the economic hardships could suppress the celebration this year.  Artur Mas, President of the Catalan Government, who has ordered a strict reduction of public spending, held up the residents of Gràcia as "a good example that teamwork, perseverance and a commitment to ideals, can help overcome this situation". Richard Estruch, President of the Gràcia Festival Foundation mirrored this sentiment, "We must not allow the crisis which has been caused by the usual suspects to make us more tense than necessary". He characterised the festival as a chance to "take a break and enjoy with joy and respect the simplicity and generosity we offer".