Platja d’Aro Carnival 2014

Platja d'Aro - Carnival 2014

Platja d’Aro – Carnival 2014

Thirty or so years ago Platja d’Aro was just a quiet village on the northern coast of Catalonia. With the development of tourism and the creation of the ‘Costa Brava’ the town mushroomed and now is predominantly a place of hotels, apartment blocks and summer homes for the Catalan wealthy. From the end of the summer season in September/October until Easter the following year the place reverts to its original population levels, summer homes being closed for the winter. Apart, that is, until it’s time for the Platja d’Aro Carnival.

Platja d’Aro never used to have a carnival. In fact Carnival was never really a big thing in any part of Catalonia but someone at sometime thought that there was money to be made out of this weekend of madness and holiday resorts are always on the lookout for opportunities to extend the season.

What Platja d’Aro has succeeded in doing is making itself THE centre for carnival in that part of the region and attracts participants from the smaller towns and villages nearby, to the south and east of Girona – the distance is limited due to the fact that the decorated floats aren’t the easiest of vehicles to move over great distances and are probably breaking all kinds of traffic regulations under normal circumstances.

Arriving just before midday on the Thursday there was little to indicate that anything of any substance was going to happen within a couple of days. There were some street decorations but everything seemed remarkably quiet.

Although carnival related activities might take place earlier than the weekend everything really kicks off on the Thursday. This Thursday is known as Dijous Gras in Catalan (Jueves Lardero in Castellano or Fat Thursday in English). This is basically the day that is celebrated in Britain as Shrove Tuesday – the idea being the same, i.e., to use up any fat before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. In the Iberian peninsular they use of their fat up a few days earlier, probably due to the Catholic influence which has a desire to increase the period of penance. For the British this is perhaps one of the beneficial aspects remaining from Henry Tudor’s Reformation of the 16th century.

Traditionally, throughout Spain, the carnival weekend starts with the ‘pregon’ (prego in Catalan). This takes the form of announcement/declaration/speech (I can’t think of an exact parallel in English culture so it encompasses all of these things) made by a ‘town crier’ chosen for the task each year. For an outsider these can be difficult.

I was in a small town called Zahara de los Atunes, in the Cadiz province, some years ago at the time of carnival. I stood in the town square listening to the ‘pregonero’ make his speech but didn’t understand any of it. Some of the words yes, but the meaning no. I afterwards learnt that the ‘pregon’ takes the form of a satire, or an attack, on local and national politicians, local characters, or generally anyone in positions of power and influence. That means there are lots of local references, ‘in jokes’, etc., which need a good understanding of the immediate environment to get any of it.

For it has to be remembered that this is where the whole culture of carnival started. The local peasants were allowed a few days to let off steam. The whole social order was turned upside down for a short, determined and restricted period of time. People were permitted to break taboos, get drunk, dress in bizarre costumes, cross dress, disguise themselves and get away with behaviour that sometimes would even border on the criminal (read the section about the Venice carnival in The Memoirs of Casanova to get an idea of what he got up to in 1745, masked and cloaked in the narrow, dark alley ways by the canals). In such circumstances disguise was necessary to protect the ordinary people from later reprisals so in the past carnival would have been a somewhat surreptitious affair.

I really didn’t understand anything said by the ‘pregonero’ who stood on the balcony of the Town Hall (above the Tourist Information Office) in Platja d’Aro at 13.00 on Fat Thursday, for all the reasons mentioned above and added to that he was speaking in Catalan. I can understand some Catalan but not when it comes out like shrapnel, moving from one topic to another without warning. He was accompanied by the previously elected King and Queen of the Carnival (Reis Carnestoltes in Catalan) but the rest of the relatively small crowd seemed to like it.

There was a taste of what was to come in store later that day after it got dark. About a half a dozen of the floats (carrosses) shuttled up and down a section of the closed off main street which couldn’t have been much longer than a sprint track. Although only a few floats and only a few people at each one it was possible to learn from them a couple of the aspects that would mark the main parade – noise and alcohol.

11 - Platja d'Aro Carnival 2014

11 – Platja d’Aro Carnival 2014

Each float would have huge speakers pointing in all directions and the only setting on the amplifier was loud, so loud that you felt the float passing you. Another integral component of every float was the cupboard/s for the booze. A self-service arrangement where empty glasses were filled by whatever selection of drinks their budget would be able to manage.

Friday was a day of nothing more than a few bouncy castles and games for children in the gardens in front of the town’s community hall. Obviously everyone was getting prepared for the ‘big day’ on Saturday. If Friday was there for any reason at all it was so that people could arrive in time for the parade the following day. Restaurants that had been closed for the winter finished up their pre-season clean up and the tables were prepared for customers. More cars appeared in the private car-parks attached to some of the apartment blocks and the bars and cafés in town started to have smiling proprietors as the empty tables became more rare and people were staying for longer, meeting up with friends they hadn’t seen in a while.

The weather hadn’t been too bad in the week before the sun rose on Saturday morning. If the sun was out it could be quite pleasant but after dark, with the clear skies, the temperature would plummet. Being this far north I’m sure the temperatures were being effected by the cold air coming down from the snow-laden Pyrenees, not visible from the coast but that was where the cold air was coming from. The crazy weather that had hit more northerly Europe was having a knock on effect on the Mediterranean coastal towns.

There were two parades advertised for the Saturday, one at 11.00 and the other at 16.00. Even when I look back on it I don’t really understand why. Being this the first time that I had been there at any time, let alone Carnival, I got my information from the published material and just made sure that I was where it was all happening well before the appointed time.

To give you an idea about the procession perhaps its worthwhile saying something about the structure of Platja d’Aro. There’s a main road (C-35) that comes off motorway (E-15) – the main route into France from Barcelona – and then a spur off that which takes you into the centre of the town, at a roundabout near to the Town Hall. There it meets the road that runs parallel to the coast and goes all the way through Platja d’Aro. This is the main shopping, eating and socialising street, especially when the hotels and bars right by the beach are closed in the off-season. From where the parade starts to the roundabout at the end where all the ‘VIPs’ sit is no more than a kilometre and could be walked in less than 10 minutes.

On both sides of this route were plastic chairs, barely leaving any space for people to pass through. Where there weren’t these plastic chairs you had the outside seating for the cafés. These chairs had obviously been placed there overnight or very early in the morning and as we walked up to the start of the 11.00 parade I couldn’t work out why so many of them were empty.

This is the biggest Carnival parade in the area. Surely the seats would have been claimed long before the official start time? The answer was that the morning parade was very much a taster for the main course to come later in the afternoon. Some of the participants and floats appeared later, but not all but to tell the truth I couldn’t work out why there were two parades at all.

Although the same amount of effort would have gone into making the floats and the costumes as well as practising some, at least for me, fairly complex dance routines there were much fewer people watching to appreciate it. In fact, on the Saturday morning there were still more people arriving from the likes of Barcelona.

02 - Platja d'Aro Carnival 2014

02 – Platja d’Aro Carnival 2014

Coming from the UK my approach would have been to have one big parade, starting around about 14.00 and going on till every float had passed by. That would mean more of it would take place in the sun, more people would be around, and every participant would get the appreciation they deserved. But that plan would come up against a cultural barrier that to break down would rival the tasks of Hercules. And that’s the midday 3 or so hours designated for lunch and a possible siesta. It would be inconceivable that this could be changed, even for one day and anyway there would be a riot by the café and restaurant owners. So due to this intransigence some people are forced to perform to an empty street.

01 - Platja d'Aro Carnival 2014

01 – Platja d’Aro Carnival 2014

The main parade at 16.00 was a much different affair. I know there were at least 63 floats but they didn’t move through very quickly, going at an average of about 12 an hour. This meant that it was getting close to 22.00 before the last float went down the home stretch to be ‘greeted’ by the VIPs and to get their images broadcast on the local TV station. By that time it was getting cold. If at the start everyone was enjoying the sunshine by the time two-thirds of the parade had gone by people were starting to drift away.

08 - Platja d'Aro Carnival 2014

08 – Platja d’Aro Carnival 2014

And this seemed a shame. It was obvious the amount of effort that some people had put into their presentation was immense, both in terms of effort and expense. Some of the floats were papier-mâché works of art which had their 15 minutes of fame and presumably would have been dismantled within days. The people who walked with those floats were all dressed in some sort of costume, following the theme that had been chosen by their group. Some had only a few people but some of the bigger groups had 50, 60 or even more people, of all ages and sizes, all dressed exactly the same. But the ones at the back would only have been seen by a fraction of the crowd as those whose float had the numbers 1 to 25.

06 - Platja d'Aro Carnival 2014

06 – Platja d’Aro Carnival 2014

This is an event were everyone in a particular community or club would participate, regardless of age or gender. Often, under the make up and the costumes, it was impossible to tell the gender. And the make-up was another matter. The costumes would have been made over a period of months (I assume that these groups have already decided on what they’re going to do for 2015 and are beginning to put together what is necessary for next year’s carnival) but the make-up would have to have been done just a matter of an hour or so before they went out on to the street. I didn’t think of it at the time, and only thought about it now as I type, that it would have been interesting to have seen all the back-room work being done by those who perhaps did not walk in the parade.

07 - Platja d'Aro Carnival 2014

07 – Platja d’Aro Carnival 2014

Some people just walked in their costumes whilst others had a set dance routine which they would perform whilst they were stopped in one place. After a while it was possible to see patterns develop and what seemed to differentiate the different groups was the combination, difficulty or adventurousness of the moves. I’m sure the choreographer for each group (comparsa) would be videoing the whole parade to see what could be filched for incorporation in next year’s routine.

09 - Platja d'Aro Carnival 2014

09 – Platja d’Aro Carnival 2014

Most of it was conventional in that they played for colour and going for the attractive such as the 18th century dandies, the Red Riding Hoods or the Ali Baba themed float. Some went for the comic. I thought the dancing pizzas was a bit unusual.

10 - Platja d'Aro Carnival 2014

10 – Platja d’Aro Carnival 2014

There were, however, only two that I could distinguish that had chosen to be confrontational and were making a statement about present Catalan/Spanish society.

One group were skitting corruption within the state with cartoons on the side of the float of those who have recently been involved in political and economic scandals. They were dressed like burglars with a golden swag bag and a currency symbol (a $, £ or €) on their T-shirts. Alongside the entrance to a parliament building they had a string of chorizos, Spanish slang for a ‘prick’.

05 - Platja d'Aro Carnival 2014

05 – Platja d’Aro Carnival 2014

Another one was making a direct attack on the Catholic church. Their float had the depiction of a topless nun, dressed only in a G-string, a cornette and a wimple. Over her left shoulder she was carrying a wooden cross (which by Sunday night was broken just below the horizontal arm and pieces of her anatomy had also been damaged – the victim of an Opus Dei attack?). On the other side was a depiction of a bemused Christ, hanging on to his cross for dear life and with a somewhat disproportionate erection sticking out from under his loin cloth. At the front was a cartoon of a priest and a nun and the ‘Bebe Anticrisis’. The people, mostly young, from this float were dressed as priests or nuns – in mini-skirts and suspender belts. Every time I saw them they were happily drinking from the bar – which formed the internal part of the structure. One thing I found interesting about this particular float, apart from the imagery, was the fact that they seemed to have the most local sponsors with the names and addresses of businesses in the town – this group was from Platja d’Aro itself.

03 - Platja d'Aro Carnival 2014

03 – Platja d’Aro Carnival 2014

There was also one ‘attack’ on the Spanish ‘Empire’ with a reference to Madrid’s bid for the 2024 Olympics. To understand the imagery it’s necessary to know that the bear is the symbol of Madrid – in the Plaza del Sol in Madrid you can see the Bear and the Strawberry Tree statue and this image appears throughout the city from manhole covers to the crest on the sides of taxis.

04 - Platja d'Aro Carnival 2014

04 – Platja d’Aro Carnival 2014

I’ve already mentioned that copious supplies of alcohol (and presumably soft drinks for the children) were a pre-requisite for the designer of the floats. Another was a place to store big bags of confetti. All the floats that I saw (apart from the few that were making a political/social point) had these bags of what looked like the round pieces of paper left when you punch a hole in a sheet to put it into a ring binder. Where they came from I don’t know but if you are standing watching you can expect to have some of this thrown over you. Wear something dark and you’ll be picking at it for days. It could be worse – in Cajamarca, Peru, they paint you with watered down shoe polish.

There was a dance in the community centre that Saturday night and at midday on the Sunday the floats were on display closer to their homes. It was advertised that they would be on the street at Castell Platja d’Aro (about 4 kilometres away) and we passed some of them with their speakers blaring out in Sant Antoni de Calonge/Palamós. Apart from that the street events had all but come to an end. On the Sunday night a few of the local floats had their swan song in the same place in Platja d’Aro as they were on Fat Thursday but by 20.00 the music was turned off and the police escorted them to a parking lot outside of the town centre.

So that was Carnival in Platja d’Aro.

The Monday was horrendous weather wise, cold, windy and wet. Fortunately that had held off for the big parade, it would have been very unpleasant indeed if the weather had turned nasty then. The town returned to its sleepy and quiet winter normality. Most apartments closed down, the car parks emptied and the restaurants closed. Easter is late this year so they’ll be hoping that the weather picks up. Until then the owners will have to make do with counting the money made over the Carnival weekend.

‘Privatisation’ of Parc Guell?

Information Board Parc Guell

The Barcelona municipal council are considering charging admission for entry into Parc Guell, one of Antonio Gaudi´s gems, in order to get more money from visiting tourists, without improving access or services.  This is opposed both by tourists and the local residents.

Parc Guell, to the north of Barcelona, is the green area which offers one of the iconic panoramic views of the city below as well as being the place to see some of Antonio Guadi’s unique designs. If you haven’t yet been able to visit the park then you´d better do so soon if you don’t want to pay.

‘There’s money in them there hills’, according to the municipal government, now in the hands of the CiU party, the right-wing Catalan nationalist party. Every day thousands of tourists visit the park, most seemingly wanting to have their picture taken beside the dragon – which has become the symbol for the park itself. It pains the local grandees that so much money is virtually flowing out of the open gates.

So many people want to visit the area so why not charge them?

Many of the residents around the park are against this virtual privatisation as it would affect them directly and they are also angry that an increasing amount of the park has been paved over, presumably because that makes it cheaper to maintain.

As far as I can remember the park was accessible at all times but when I visited yesterday (the first time for more than 10 years) I was surprised at the substantial gates that prevent access after sunset. This restriction on access would have been instituted by the previous ‘socialist’ local government – who had had control of Barcelona City Council continuously since the death of Franco in 1975 – so a change of government would not necessarily mean a change of policy, if payment is introduced in the near future.

Especially in the peak summer months of July and August Barcelona is teeming with tourists and, as in so many other cities throughout the world, tourism is vital to the local economy. But as is becoming increasingly the case elsewhere, instead of being open and welcoming to visitors the main emphasis seems to be on how to milk them even more.

So far this policy has not had an adverse effect on tourism where surcharges have been introduced already for the mere temerity to want to visit the place, as has happened in Venice. Perhaps people will be prepared to pay ever more to see these places, perhaps not. But it is sad to read, yet again, that politicians consider that almost everything has a price. Don’t be too concerned about the pickpockets operating on the Rambla, it’s the bandits in the town hall who are after every cent you have.

It’s good that the local residents are against charging for entry to Parc Guell. However, one of the lines in their little poster to be seen in the vicinity of the park I find disconcerting. They talk about the ‘poor management of the affluence of visitors’. Does this mean that they don’t care where the tourists are fleeced as long as it doesn’t directly involve them?

March 2014 Update.

It was with a great deal of annoyance that I received the news that you now have to pay for entrance into the park. It was on the day before leaving Barcelona that I was told by Catalan friends that payment was now required to visit the Gaudï structures part of the park, the green space that is the majority of the area is still free to enter.

So the struggle against the privatisation of yet another public area has been lost. I know that the local people were against it but the state, whether local or national, and the greedy and avaricious will never give up until they lose their influence and power. They will always grind us down by their sheer determination to win – we, all too often, give in.

Not having visited Barcelona for more than I year I had missed out on the arguments. I’m sure I’d read that Güell himself had left the park to the people of Barcelona but by maintaining that the green spaces are still freely accessible and by employing a high-flying and expensive lawyer, together with a right-wing administration and judges with fingers in many lucrative pies the privateers have been able to get around whatever he might have desired a hundred years ago .

Not only do you now have to pay there is also a limit of 800 people visiting a day and if you arrive too late you might have a long wait.

Opening times:

25th October – 23rd March 08.30 – 18.00

24th March – 24th October 08.00 – 21.30

Entrance Fees:

Adults €8.00

Child (7 – 12)/Over 65/Disabled €5.60 – Under 7 free

Tickets can be bought at the ticket vending machines at Lesseps and Vallcarca Metro stations and at various ATMs close to the park, or at the park entrance itself.

7th March 2014

Carrers Guarnits in the Festa Major de Gracia, Barcelona, 2012

Carrers Guarnits, Gracia, Festa Major, Barcelona, 2012

Every year the Barcelona district of Gracia organises a street based competition during its Festa Major in August.  The carrers guarnits (decorated streets) are a tradition going back just under a hundred years and attracts visitors from all parts of the world.

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours walking around the streets of the Gràcia district of Barcelona, taking more than a hundred pictures of rubbish, literally, (hopefully not rubbish pictures!).

I used to know this area quite well (about 15 or so years ago) but this time I needed a map to get me there and once I found a reference point it all started to fall into place. Although one of the older parts of Barcelona there is a grid design of the old streets, if maybe not as formalised as the 19th century area of the Eixample, so it’s not a difficult place to navigate your way around.

At a time when festivals are being invented all the time in order to attract tourist money it was a pleasure to visit an area where they are continuing a tradition that goes back almost a hundred years. In the 1920s neighbours and community organisations based on a street level began to organise a competition to find out who was able to best decorate their street, in Catalan this is ‘carrers guarnits, at the time of the Festa Major in August.

This socialised structure that had been developed in times of peace was to have a profound effect upon the community in the time of the Civil War where these neighbourhood organisations directed their efforts towards the construction of air raid shelters to protect the people from the fascist bombs of the German Nazi and Italian Fascist air forces.

After the Civil War the Festa Major and the decoration of the streets took on a political dimension with references to the colours of the Falangists (Franco’s fascists) in a satirical manner. At first this increased the number of streets that would be decorated but as the years went by the numbers dropped and by the end of the 1970s the tradition was all but dying out.

As the society got used to the fact that Franco had finally kicked the bucket matters slowly started to change and although still a long way from the heyday of 1942 (which saw 70 streets and 5 squares involved in the competition) there were 17 locations putting themselves forward in 2012.

Before the festival opened, the official date is always the 15th August, different newspapers I read were speculating upon how the economic situation would have an impact upon the display. The argument was that as most of the materials used in the decoration were recycled plastic, paper and cardboard, etc., this should not really have an impact.

To this I would say yes, and no.

The amount of thought, planning and work that goes into these decorations, different every year, is phenomenal. Just like the Rio Carnival the process starts the day after the present festival ends. At times it must be like Blue Peter on speed with children demanding of their mothers the inside cardboard of the toilet roll before it had been used. And a huge amount of material must have been collected and then stored ready to be turned into some quite remarkable objects. However, that ecological idea was not really represented, I think, in the final awarding of honours.

In some of the less complicated ideas there must have been something similar to a production line in reproducing the same objects that hang above the streets for a hundred metres or so. But some of the more complex would have needed trained artists, or at least enthusiastic amateurs, to produce the designs on display.

I visited the festa on the day after the judges had made their decision on the main winners (everyone gets some sort of recognition). However, the gold, silver and bronze winners (after all we are in an Olympic year) were all which had invested more than time and enthusiasm and community involvement in the exercise, they had invested money (and not an insignificant amount).

And this increased investment in the street decorations will inevitably have an effect on the Festa Major in general. Each street has a temporary bar, presumably a money-maker for whatever is planned for the following year. If you win one of the top prizes you will get more visitors and, potentially, more income at those bars. Then you arrive at a situation that exists in football where the most financially better off can maintain their dominance by pure force of money.

As more and more visitors come to see the ‘carrers guarnits’ big companies will be searching for sponsorship opportunities and then any local feeling will gradually disappear. That might be happening already as the Catalan brewer Estrella was represented on every street bar I noticed and would seem to have attained an almost monopoly position.

It would be a shame if commercialisation was able to get its tentacles too deeply into this street festival as it would spell the end of the community spirit that has kept the tradition going for so long.

I enjoyed my time finding my way around the narrow streets and was pleasantly surprised by some of the depth of ideas that were being presented at times, or just the sheer idea of fun. These traditions fail when people take the whole idea TOO seriously.

I was glad to be doing my exploration before noon than after midnight. The smell of piss in the hot Barcelona August sun, the remains of discarded food by the bins (although that would have all been cleaned up by the time the next evening’s festivities began) together with the partly digested pizzas and hamburgers occasionally decorating the pavements indicated the nights could be horrendous.

And it’s not really worth all the hassle for the overpriced delights on offer. After all, its only lager!

I have selected 3 or 4 pictures from each street, to give an idea of what was there this year. See if you can pick the winners and in a few days I will let you know the results and also which ones, and why, I thought should have been on the podium.

Here are a couple of websites which might be of use for anyone thinking of visiting Barcelona at this time of year – but remember it’s hot, hot, hot – or just after more information about the Festa Major.

Official Barcelona City website

In the lead up to the Festa Major go to the bario’s official website (in Catalan) here

and the map produced for the event this year (2012)

Gracia Festa Major Map 2012