It is a warm summer day in Catalonia. The square in front of the town hall is crowded with men and women in colorful jerseys. Suddenly out of the crowd rises a tower of humans. One level after another builds up high into the air. Finally, a child climbs up on the sweating and shivering men and raises a triumphant hand. What we are witnessing is a unique and extraordinary tradition of the Spanish region of Catalonia. Known as Castells – the Catalan word for ‘castle’ – these swaying structures of men, women and children reach up to ten levels!
Building castells is a key element of Catalan culture. A terrifying and pretty dangerous one indeed as even a tiny error could cause the towers to collapse. Despite everything, the castellers – as the courageous participants are called – are extremely proud of taking part in this traditional spectacle. Thus, their motto is “Força, equilibri, valor i seny” meaning “strength, balance, courage and common sense”. Values that are passed down generation by generation together with the passion and tower building skills.
The extraordinary art of building Castells
The skyscraping structures develop in different stages. People with certain body structures and other characteristics serve different purposes in setting up the distinct levels.
First of all, the pinya, the base of the tower, is set up in order to build a strong and sturdy foundation that the following levels can rely on. As this stem will sustain the weight of the tower and balance the upper storeys, it comprises heavy and robust men. The pinya spreads quite far outwards as it also functions as a safety net in the event of a collapse of the tower.
As soon as the base is ready to carry the upper tiers, the sound of the gralla initiates the formation of the tronc. The traditional Catalan wind instrument also sets the rhythm for constructing the following levels. The tronc comprises the levels from the second one upwards. Here, usually two to five heavier built men form each storey and hold the lighter boys and girls of the levels above. One casteller after another climbs onto the fellow members’ shoulders while grabbing their waist sashes for a secure hold. Young children make up the three uppermost levels of the tower. This part of the structure goes by the expression of pom de dalt, which demands an intense sense of balance and extreme trust in the wavering castellers below.
While there are various possible formations, all have one thing in common: the enxaneta. This is the denomination of the child who crowns a Castell and thereby indicates its completion. After reaching the summit of the Castell, the chosen youngster raises one hand while extending four fingers. A gesture which represents the four stripes of the flag of Catalonia. After this, the human tower dissolves layer by layer. This part of the spectacle is often even more dangerous than the erection and therefore has to be carried out with highest caution. Only when assembly and disassembly have been completed in succession, the Castell is considered a success.
When and where to spot the human towers
Castell building is traditionally part of larger festivals in several cities and towns across Catalonia. In recent years, more and more performances are popping up individually in town squares. You have the best chances to admire the human towers around midday during Castells season from June to November. Less common are performances in the afternoon or evening.
The next Concurs de Castells 2018 is the XXVII Tarragona Human Tower Competition and will take place on Saturday, 6th and Sunday, 7th October 2018.
This biennial event takes place in the Tarraco Arena Plaça of Tarragona. There are usually more than 42 participating groups and several thousand spectators. For sure a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is worthy for your bucket list!
How did the human towers of Catalonia evolve?
The tradition of building Castells first started in the Ball dels Valencians in Valls during the 18th century. The spectacle in the Valencian Dance is however based on the earlier traditional Muixeranga, or Moixiganga, of Algemesí in Valencia. While the latter one always focused more on its religious roots, Castell building rather developed towards an acrobatic performance and competition. Although, the Castells started spreading to other places in the region like Vilafranca del Penedès and Tarragona, it was only in the second half of the 20th century that they attracted higher interest from the general population.
For most of the time, men had been dominating the sport of Castell building. However, allowing women to participate in the 1980s had a huge impact on the tradition. As female bodies were usually lighter, the human towers were now able to reach unknown heights of up to 10 storeys. Especially since those days, the sport has grown in popularity and has spread across Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. More and more amateurs established Colles Castelleres – clubs of human tower builders – over the years, upholding and further fostering the tradition.
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The Colles differentiate each other through the color of their shirts. Together with the signature jersey, each member wears white trousers, a black sash as well as a bandana. The sash plays a very important role and is way more than just an aesthetic element. Known as faixa, the long strip of cloth strengthens the lower back and supports other castellers when climbing up the tower.
The autonomous community of Valls near Tarragona is where the tradition originated. A place that has its own distinct culture and language. What better location to build Món Casteller, a museum completely dedicated to the art of building the human towers of Catalonia. Even the UNESCO has reaffirmed he great cultural importance of the tradition. In 2010, the organization declared castells to be amongst the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
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Photo by davNava