The neighbourhood of Gràcia is a delight and we all know it: those who live there, those who go out there and the guiris - the foreign contingent - as well. And the mythical, annual summer street festival, the Festes de Gràcia, is even more of a thing of beauty: you look up the elaborately-decorated streets on the map, make your bet on which one will be the winner, squeeze in to watch the castells and then go to the concerts, enjoy the activities... But in order to allow you to post that photo on Instagram with the appropriate filter and pose, there are people who have been hard at work since October the previous year. And now, as the August dates approach, the streets are filled with tables and chairs at which residents of all ages cut, paste, paint, draw and squeeze out their creativity to make their street the most beautiful in Gràcia.
Arriving at Carrer Llibertat, Gisela takes everyone’s temperature and writes it on a list: “You’re new, aren’t you? What's your name? Give me your phone number!” She gets out the thermometer and points it at you. The pandemic has changed the way the decoration construction works and this detail is one of many that are taken into account to maintain safety. At this year's festa major it will only be possible to decorate the "roof" of the street, what they call the "aerial decoration". There will be no large entranceways or ground-level elements fixed to the streets themselves, so as not to obstruct the passage of people through the space.
The Covid curfew has also stolen time because the armies of workers will not be able to hold the traditional 'night of the decorations'. In other years, on the eve of the festivities, the residents spent the whole night erecting their construction. Not this time: on Sunday at 1am everything must be in place and although this year there is no official competition between streets, the exigency to be the best is the same as always.
Four tables are stretched out along this section of the street, where the local residents' association have their premises located. On all of them there is a common element: little flowers. Every year the streets of Gràcia choose the theme of their street's decoration, and it is always very, very secret and they tell it to you in confidence as if it were a state secret if you should ask about it before the summer - if you are lucky enough to get them to tell you at all. Themes ranging from the lost continent of Atlantis to the inferno of hell have been brought to life since the first Gràcia streets were decorated exactly 150 years ago this year. And that, indeed, is what they’ve been inspired by this year: by retrieving photographs and documents of what those decorations were like, they’ll recreate it with today’s recycled materials. So water bottles, cut paper or papier-mâché balls become flowers and plants that will adorn the street.
At a table, cutting flowers, is Toni Mañané, president of the Carrer Llibertat association, and he explains that this year the festa will be very focused on the residents: "We are organizing many activities aimed at the neighbours themselves, to get rid of some of the heat and so that we can meet again for a few hours after these two difficult years that we have had." This small oasis of tranquility towards the lower end of the neighbourhood contrasts with what we find if we walk five minutes further downhill to the traffic artery of Diagonal. "It is a village spirit, you walk through Gràcia and greet the shopkeepers who you've known all your life - although there are many new stores - older people whose names you do not even know will greet you, that is the spirit. And when you ask people for help, like when we did the food collection during the pandemic or now for the festa major, people turn out," he explains.
"Here I'm as happy as the day is long, my head doesn't ache nor anything else."
Inside the association's space, between shelves full of labeled decoration materials and memories of the guarnit from previous years, an 82-year-old man sitting at a table traces outlines of flowers on coloured paper. Antonio spends his days here, and even did so they were working regularly, he went there every day: he opened up and went to work. He explains that he will be going home soon, but that he will return tomorrow because there is a lot of work to do. He is from Castile and has lived in Barcelona for many years and collaborates with the decoration process: “Here I'm as happy as the day is long, my head doesn't ache nor anything else. I'm happy here."
Many of the people who work on the decorations do not live on the street, in fact there are many who take work away to complete it at home and bring it back finished. With a straw hat on his head and cutting polystyrene with a very homemade-looking saw, Garret is from the United Kingdom but lives in Barcelona and fell in love with the Festes de Gràcia. In 2016, passing by Carrer Llibertat, he saw the shutter of the association half open and a sign next to it that said "we need hands". For a long time he helped out bringing along empty milk bricks and other building materials when asked, but at that moment he decided to throw himself in fully: "I wanted to experience the festivities from within, not just as a spectator." They told him they met every Saturday; that weekend he went along and this will already be the sixth festa major since then and he is one of those hands that makes the elaborate adornments possible.
All kinds of residents, others who have now moved but still maintain their connection to the street, friends who have been sucked in to spend an afternoon helping out and the curious who want to take part, along with the structure and experience of so many years create a perfect mechanism. The flowers on Carrer Llibertat are perhaps the perfect metaphor to describe what the Festes de Gràcia are: beautiful works of art, made with ingenuity and delicacy, all different but all in tune with one another. Each street with its own world but with all those hands working together to keep the tradition alive.