The Best Day Of The Year To Be In Barcelona

Barcelona's best day? Easy. April 23 — St. George's Day, La Diada de Sant Jordi, Barcelona's Valentine's day — a day so sweet and playful that six million Catalans are aglow from dawn to dusk.

Patron saint of Catalonia, medieval knight-errant Saint George slew a dragon about to devour a beautiful princess. From the dragon's blood sprouted a rose bush, from which the hero plucked the prettiest 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 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 fill the Rambla, and nearly all of Barcelona manages to wander and browse...and flirt. Saint George is everywhere, beginning on the facade of the Catalonian seat of government, the Generalitat. Sant Jordi skewering the unlucky dragon is 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 Saint's cross implanted in the scaly roof and the bones of the dragon's victims framing the windows.

A Christian Roman soldier martyrized in the 4th century, Saint George is also patron of England, Greece, and Romania, among others. 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 the fact that Barcelona is a book publishing giant. 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, 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, and authors come to bookstalls to sign books. In Sarrià, florist Flora Miserachs displays 45 strains of roses representing 45 varieties 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, two 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) bright 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).