Feliç Sant Jordi! April 23rd in Barcelona is all about celebrating love, literature and Catalonia’s dragon-slaying patron saint. Here’s how and where to do it!
St. Jordi Day is a lot like Valentine’s Day and sees Barcelona turn gold and crimson as thousands flood the streets in search of roses and books for their loved ones.
The Story (As Imagined by Yours Truly)
Legend has it that a long, long time ago in a tiny village called Montblanc, not far from Barcelona, there was a dragon who began chomping his way through the local live stock. Cows, pigs, goats and sheep… he wasn’t picky.
This was obviously a problem in itself for the villagers, but they were happy to go vegetarian so long as it meant the dragon left them alone.
But alas, their luck ran out once the fire-breather had polished off even the scraggliest of animals. And in a bid to stave offer total annihilation, the villagers were forced to start sacrificing themselves.
Lunch of the Draw
Names were drawn at random from a hat and one unlucky local was offered up for dinner each evening.
Like clockwork, the dragon would drop into the village to collect his meal and fly home to dig in in the comfort of his own cave.
Inevitably, the king’s daughter’s name was eventually drawn from the hat. She had played along during the nightly lotto draw, but never actually believed her father would have allowed her name to be in the hat, among the peasants he ran ragged in the name of progress.
The, however, committed to his kingdom and wanting to be seen living by his own rules, had no choice but to say goodbye to his first and only daughter. At least his son would survive and the family business would live on…
The dragon flew home to his cave with the princess tucked firmly between his charred gnashers, his mouth watering now that he had acquired quite a taste for human.
But there was a surprise waiting for him. It was Jordi, a heroic knight in shining armour.
Battle of Bravado
As the dragon dropped from the sky, spitting out the princess in the process, a waft of warm stale air blustered over Jordi.
It overwhelmed his senses with the sour smell of rotting flesh and stale blood, like the bins he walked past outside the seafood restaurants in Barceloneta after a busy summer’s day. A fishy funk of empty crab shells and sunbaked gamba brains.
The stench startled Jordi for a moment, but he knew that this was his one and only chance to become the hero he’d always dreamed of being.
He let the adrenalin course through his throbbing veins for a beat and drew strength from the sight of the beautiful princess lying unconscious in a bed of long grass, her hair glowing gold in the failing light of dusk.
With everything to gain, he clenched his shield and lance and began charging towards the snarling beast before him.
In an act of bravado and defiance, the dragon curled his head up to the sky and huffed out a jet of white fire and purple smoke, a roar that rumbled its way to the Pyrenees and rattled pinecones from their trees on the Costa Brava.
But Jordi had built up too much momentum and, although he tried, he couldn’t stop.
The weight of his shield and lance dragged him forward, upwards almost.
He threw both arms in front of his face to protect himself from the flame, inadvertently thrusting the rusty tip of his lance straight into the dragon’s gullet with a loud gurgling crack as it broke through its scales and into its cold blood.
Death of a Demon
The dragon didn’t die instantly but choked and spluttered to a halt like a rusty old motorcycle after a long ride on a hot day.
Hot embers still sparked from his nostrils but dampened as Jordi tried to yank his lance away, causing it to splinter like a fleshy fish bone stuck in the throat.
Jordi cowered and trembled, unsure whether he’d struck a deathly blow or merely angered the scaly serpent. Was he the princess’ saviour or a beast of burden who was about to become the dragon’s second course?
At this point the princess regained consciousness and sat up and peered over the tall grass to see what was going on. Jordi noticed. He straightened his back and rolled his shoulders back, hoping and praying that the dragon would just…
For once in his life, Jordi’s wishes came true. The dragon fell to the ground with an elephantine thud that filled turned the air thick with dusty soil.
“You did it Jordi! You sleighed the dragon – you saved me! You’re my hero!” cried the princess, who was now running barefoot toward him.
Jordi wasn’t sure whether he deserved to be hailed a hero, but for the first time in his short life he had the arms of a beautiful woman, a princess no less, around his neck.
By hook or by crook, he had saved her from the dragon. He was a hero. He was somebody he could be proud to be.
A Rose by Any Other Name
As the princess nuzzled herself into the crook of Jordi’s neck, she noticed a rose bush blossoming from the blood that pooled out of the dragon’s throat.
Jordi plucked the most beautiful rose off the bush and gave it to the princess, vowing that he would always be there to protect her.
And thus, El Diada de Sant Jordi – or ‘El Día de los Amantes’ ‘Lovers Day’ or ‘El Día de la Rosa’ (Rose Day) became the most romantic day in Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia.
Eat your heart out, Saint Valentine.
What to See and Do on El Diada de Sant Jordi in Barcelona
Stroll the City
Like so many of Spain/Catalonia’s cultural celebrations, the best way to get involved is simply to hit the streets.
The main boulevards of La Rambla, Passeig de Gràcia, Passeig de Sant Joan and Rambla de Cataluña all spring to life with makeshift bookshops and flower stalls, and there’s a general good vibe throughout the city.
Buy a Rose
There doesn’t seem to be any regulations regarding rose-selling on Sant Jordi Day in Barcelona.
You’ll see everyone from groups of kids and doctors to less fortunate souls who seize the opportunity to make a few euros.
Every seller will try to convince you that theirs are the most beautiful of the 7 or 8 million roses that will be sold on the day in Sant Jordi’s name.
Some sellers have proper stalls and paraphernalia relating to various charities and causes.
Others sell their roses directly from a bucket.
One year I even saw a particularly enterprising gentleman using a litter bin as a makeshift stall – he had emptied it first at least.
Tip: At the end of the day you’ll be able to buy your roses at half price or better. Rosana and I once walked past a women who was closing up her stall. With a smile and a wink she gave us half a dozen of her unsold roses for free.
Buy a Book
I’m not sure how or when it happened but somewhere along the line Sant Jordi Day also became World Book Day.
Historically, men give women a rose, while women give men a book (a bit of a raw deal if you ask me). Today however you’ll see both men and women giving books and roses.
I love books of course and think there’s something special about rummaging through old piles of books. It’s a simple pleasure that’s not so common these days, so it’s nice to have a good excuse to do it.
Watch the Castellers (Human Towers)
Sant Jordi Day is a day for all things Catalan and there’s nothing more Catalan than castells (human castles).
You’ll see this defying tradition being celebrated by local groups all over Barcelona, but you’ll see the biggest and best in Plaça Sant Jaume.
Visit Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Batlló
It’s always a good time to visit Casa Batlló on Passeig de Gràcia, but there’s perhaps no better time than on Sant Jordi’s Day.
Gaudí was famously known as one of the ‘most Catalan of all Catalans’ and many of the architectural details tell the tale of Sant Jordi’s iconic battle.
The spiky rooftop is like the spine of the dragon, the ceramic tiles like reptile scales and the crowning ‘Cross of Four Arms’ represents Jordi’s victorious spear.
On Sant Jordi Day, they also decorate the balconies with giant roses, making it look even more like a fairy tale palace.
Whether you’re in Barcelona on Sant Jordi Day or not, I highly recommend visiting Casa Batlló (definitely pay the extra couple of euros for the skip-the-line ticket).
I also highly recommend the ‘Magic Nights at Casa Batlló’, which include full access to the property, as well as a live music show on the roof and a couple of free drinks.
Make it Happen
When: Sant Jordi is celebrated on April 23rd in Barcelona and pretty much everywhere in the region of Catalonia.
Where to stay: The traffic (human traffic mainly) can get pretty wild at times so I’d suggest staying right in the heart of the city so you don’t have to drive or bother with public transport.