Practical-minded though they may be, Catalans are romantics at heart. Take, for example, their embrace of the legend of Sant Jordi (St. George), the patron saint of Catalonia. While many other countries call him their patron and celebrate in his honor, the Festival of Sant Jordi in Barcelona is so very extra. On April 23, the streets crowd with vendors selling books and roses to celebrate Sant Jordi’s heroic defeat of a dreaded dragon terrorizing the peasants of a local village. The balconies of Casa Batlló, the Gaudí-designed manse on stately Passeig de Gràcia, are filled with hundreds of giant roses. The tiled roof almost looks like dragon’s scales and, for those with a more macabre imagination, the window frames as the bones of the dragon’s victims. But, we’re getting ahead of the story.
Sant Jordi saves the day
It’s a mixed blessing to be a princess. Evil witches and wizards cast spells on you, step-mothers try to kill you, and you may be socially isolated in a tower. However, if your village offers you up as tribute to a hungry dragon, then a knight definitely will show up to protect you. According to Catalan legend, that village is Montblanc, located just south of Barcelona near the Roman-era city of Tarragona. The dragon, as they do, had been eating the cattle and generally being a jerk to the villagers. The people decided to occasionally sacrifice one of their own to satisfy the dragon’s appetite. Eventually, the name of the king’s daughter was pulled from the hat (or however medieval villagers chose tributes). Fortunately, Sant Jordi killed the dragon with his spear, saving the princess and the villagers. A lovely rosebush sprouted from the blood of the dead dragon. From that rosebush comes the tradition of gifting a rose. Originally, men gave a rose to women, but these days anyone may gift a rose.
So what about the book?
By tradition, women gave men a book, but now the rose is tucked into the book and may be given to anyone. The legend of Sant Jordi ends with the gifting of the rose. Only much later did the day of love also became a day of literature. William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes both died on April 23, which also ended up being the date commemorated by UNESCO as World Book Day. Given that both book and rose sellers are out on April 23, it’s easy to see how the two holidays converged.
On Diada de Sant Jordi, booksellers line the streets. It’s their biggest single day of book sales, with approximately 20 million euros in books sold in one day in Barcelona alone. Book stalls and flower vendors line major streets, especially Avenida Diagonal, La Rambla, Passeig de Gracia, Rambla de Catalunya, and Placa Catalunya. If you walk up Rambla de Catalunya, check out Jirafa Coqueta, the sexy, reposing giraffe at the top of the street. Authors can be found reading from their books, signing autographs, and speaking with fans.
Celebrate Sant Jordi, Catalan Style
Stores, businesses, and schools will be open because Sant Jordi day is not an official public holiday. Despite this, (in a more typical year) the locals are out in force, filling sidewalks, restaurants, and parks. If you want to avoid the crowds in the main areas of the city, look for smaller book vendors, local shops, and students selling roses on the side streets and practically every corner.
Don’t make the easy mistake of comparing Sant Jordi Day to Valentine’s Day. On Diada de Sant Jordi, the focus is just on red roses and books. (Yellow roses symbolizing Catalan pride and/or separatist movement also may be seen.) Unlike Valentine’s Day though, there is no overindulgence, either with other gifts or chocolate and sweets. Romance and literature are the themes for the day. Families and friends stroll along the streets and browse the vendor stalls; people stop for a leisurely late afternoon drink and tapa. The energy is one of people simply celebrating life with their loved ones in the best way possible – by spending time together.
All around the city hotels and businesses decorate for Sant Jordi and one of the most beautiful sites in the city is the iconic Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudí. Tourists, locals, and lovers all pause in front of it for selfies (and kisses in the case of lovers). One look at Casa Batllo and it’s evident why. Giant, artificial red roses fill the balconies and the already gorgeous architectural beauty becomes even lovelier.
Due to the COVID-19 quarantine, the 2020 Diada de Sant Jordi Catalan festival will need to be celebrated virtually. Fortunately, Casa Batlló is encouraging local Barcelona residents to fill their balconies with roses. Perhaps a new tradition will be created moving forward.