BARCELONA, SPAIN — Every April 23 the streets of Barcelona fill with red roses and Shakespeare as the proud Catalans celebrate the feast of their patron, Sant Jordi. Why does the Mediterranean city that inspired Picasso and the celebrated Spanish architect Gaudi overflow with flowers and books?
When spring is at its full power, the Barcelonans and visitors head outside to celebrate a cultural festival that merges a noble dragon slayer with the deaths of two literary lions. The day also offers a potpourri of bookish events and the chance to dance like a Catalan.
Legend has it that Sant Jordi - Saint George - got the rose tradition started when blood splattered by one of his defeated fire-breathing foes sprouted into a rosebush. The story says that the chivalrous saint then bestowed a sanguine blossom on his recently rescued princess.
While many around the world give roses on Saint Valentine's Day, in Barcelona they've been exchanging them on April 23 since the 15th century. Today dragon rescue is rarely required, so 21st-century men retain their hero status by buying 6 million long-stemmed beauties in one day. It's a rare señora or señorita who strolls Barcelona's Las Ramblas or Passeig de Gracia without a bouquet.
Sant Jordi's Day isn't an official holiday, but the couples and families walking arm in arm on these wide avenues don't look as if they're headed for work.
Just steps from every flower stall are booksellers lining those famous shopping streets, hugging narrow passageways, and dotting city squares such as Placa de Catalonia and Placa Nova.
More than 300 bookstalls, festooned with the red and yellow of the Catalan flag, honor Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare. Both authors died on the same day, April 23, 1616. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of "Don Quixote," and portions of that classic are set in Barcelona.
For these ambling readers, choosing from overwhelming hardcover and paperback options may be the most strenuous challenge. Not every book on display is great literature, but since this vernal fiesta is also known as the Day of Lovers, women shop for the perfect books for the men they love.
UNESCO has designated April 23 as International Book Day, and 400,000 books will be purchased in Barcelona, according to local officials, so there's a lot for booksellers and book buyers to love. Mysteries, cooking, how-to, and fiction for young and old are among the carefully wrapped packages that are carried home before the petal-strewn streets are empty.
Especially prized are the Catalan-language volumes. The region's native tongue has undergone periods of neglect and suppression. From 1939 until the early 1950s, the Franco regime forbade the printing of books and periodicals in Catalan, according to Thomas Harrington of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
The people of Catalonia, located in the northeast corner of Spain, view themselves as a "cultural nation," adds the associate professor of modern languages and literature. It's ironic that in the 1920s, when Barcelona publisher Vincente Clavel proposed a day to honor books, he focused on Cervantes, a Castilian writer. It wasn't until 1926 that books were honored on the same day as Catalonia's patron saint.
During the decades when their language and customs were suppressed, Barcelonans embraced Sant Jordi's Day with extra vigor. Today, book browsers from all nations feel at home in the city that has declared 2005 its Book and Reading Year. Described by the local tourist office as "365 days to exchange experiences and acquire new knowledge," there are opportunities to do both on Sant Jordi's Day.
In addition to the open-air bookstalls, the city's publishers and bookstores will host 200 authors and illustrators, many of them available to autograph their work.
If autographs aren't sufficient inducement, many buyers will be lured by discount prices. And street performances will be in abundance. Notable among the many plays, concerts, and lectures is a photographic exhibit, "Who's Who in Catalan Letters." To see it at the Palace Moja, just step off Las Ramblas at Carrer Portaferrissa.
To get a complete listing of the day's activities, check at Barcelona's main tourist office, which is downstairs in the southeast corner of Placa de Catalonia. It's also the place to register for walking tours that highlight the history and architecture of Picasso's old haunts, and the even older haunts of the Gothic Quarter.
If you prefer to be your own guide, buy a copy of "Walks Through Literary Barcelona," which is due out in April.
It's wise to save those walks for a day when the streets are not so full. Marta Balletebo-Col, a filmmaker and Catalan native, warns that on Sant Jordi's Day, "The crowds might make you dizzy, and it almost always rains."
Rain or shine, it's a short walk down the Avenue del Porta de L'Angel that begins at Placa de Catalonia. Along the way there's a delectable mix of cafes and chocolatiers.
This is a pace-yourself kind of day, so there's plenty of time to enjoy a stop to listen to a dark-haired youth, all fluid grace, as he plucks his harp. Stop by the blues guitarist who's staked out an alley, and don't bypass a barrel-chested tenor on the steps of the Archdeacon's House. He often moves his audience to tears.
From there it's two steps up into the chapel of Santa Lucia, then a turn around the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, which dates to the 13th century. It's always soothing to visit the cloister with its chorusing geese.
The only time you should look at your watch is to be sure to arrive in the Placa Sant Jaume by early evening.
All the other music fades away as prosperous-looking matrons and dignified men greet each other in the historic square. Though the air is too perfumed with roses, they could be assembled in an elegant drawing room.
Instead, they are sandwiched between Barcelona's City Hall and the Palace of the Generalitat, a pleasing mix of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. For many years, Sant Jordi's Day was one of the rare chances to see the 15th-century rooms that house the Catalan government, but authorities have talked about changing that.
Fortunately, the most important traditions do not change. Under the watchful gaze of the statue of Sant Jordi, a small band, or cobla, climbs onto the temporary stage. The crowd quiets. It is time for the Sardana, the folk dance that defines Catalonia.
The first notes come from the flaviol, a tiny high-pitched flute. Then the brass begins. Finally the strings connect the haunting melody.
Spontaneously, men and women in the crowd join hands and form circles. They pile jackets, purses, and shopping bags in the center as the human circumference grows. Their step is light, deliberate, and utterly joyful. No one is a bystander here; those who do not dance begin to sing softly.
Beneath the music and movement, the oblong stones that rest where Barcelona's Roman forum once stood now join the past and present. Faces alight with pride and pleasure, the dancers move to left and right. They raise their hands high in homage to Sant Jordi and the proud people of Catalonia.
• For more information, see the websites www.anyllibre2005.gencat.net (in Spanish; click on "other languages, if necessary), www.spain.info/TourSpain/ home?language=en, and www.barcelona turisme.com (click on the English icon if needed); e-mail teltur@barcelona turisme.com or firstname.lastname@example.org; or telephone (212) 265-8822.