Sant Jordi

La Diada de Sant Jordi: Barcelona's Lovers' Day
George Semler

Barcelona's best day? Easy. April 23---St. George's Day, La Diada de Sant Jordi, Barcelona's Valentine's day---a day when kissometer readings go off the charts, a day so sweet and playful, so goofy and romantic, that 6 million Catalans go giddy from dawn to dusk.


Patron saint of Catalonia, international knight-errant St. George allegedly
slew a dragon about to devour a beautiful princess south of Barcelona. From the dragon's blood sprouted a rosebush, from which the hero plucked the prettiest blossom for the princess. Hence, the traditional Rose Festival celebrated in Barcelona since the Middle Ages to honor chivalry and romantic love, a day for men and mice alike to give their true loves roses. In 1923, the lovers' fest merged with International Book Day to mark the anniversary of the all-but-simultaneous April 23, 1616 deaths of Miguel de Cervantes and
William Shakespeare.

More than 4 million roses and half a million books are sold in Catalonia on Sant Jordi's Day, men giving their inamoratas roses and the ladies giving books in return. Bookstalls run the length of the Rambla, and although it's an official workday, nearly all of Barcelona manages to play hooky and wander. In the city, St. George is everywhere, beginning on the facade of the Catalonian seat of government, the Generalitat. Art Nouveau master
Eusebi Arnau sculpted Sant Jordi skewering the unlucky dragon on the facade of the Casa Amatller as well as on the corner of Els Quatre Gats café, while Gaudí dedicated an entire house, Casa Batlló, to the Sant Jordi theme with the cross of the saint implanted in the scaly roof and the bones of the dragon's victims framing the windows of the main facade.

A Roman soldier martyrized for his Christian beliefs in the 4th century, St. George is one of the most venerated of all saints, patron of England, Greece, and Romania, among other places. Associated with springtime and fertility, Sant Jordi roses include a spike of wheat and a little red and yellow senyera, the Catalonian flag. And the books? There's the Shakespeare and Cervantes anniversary, and Barcelona is the publishing capital of the
Spanish-speaking world. Language and love have, in any case, always been closely associated, to the point that contemporary evolutionary psychologists identify the cerebral cortex as both the erotic and linguistic center of the human brain.and don't affairs of the heart inevitably lead to exchanges of letters, books, poetry?

In Barcelona and all of Catalonia, Sant Jordi's Day erupts joyfully. The spring air is sweet and filled with promise. Lovers are everywhere. There is a 24-hour reading of Don Quixote. Authors come to bookstalls to sign books. In Sarrià, a floral artisan displays 45 kinds of roses representing 45 different kinds of love, from impossible to unrequited to filial and maternal. The sardana is reverently performed in Plaça Sant Jaume, while the
Generalitat, its patio filled with roses, opens its doors to the public. Choral groups sing love songs in resonant corners of the Gothic Quarter as jazz combos play in Plaça del Pi. The Rambla is solid humanity from the Diagonal to the Mediterranean, 2 miles of barcelonins basking in the warmth of spring and romance. Rare is the roseless woman on the streets of Barcelona, schoolgirls to avias (grandmothers) aglow with bashful smiles.

By midnight, the Rambla, once a watercourse, is again awash with flower water and covered with rose clippings and tiny red-and-yellow--striped ribbons with diminutive letters spelling "Sant Jordi"---"Diada de la Rosa" (Day of the Rose)---"t'estimo" (I love you).

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photos by christine scharf