I heard myself let out an audible gasp as my whole body tensed up. My eyes were targeted on the small figure scurrying up 30 feet over 8 levels of people to the top of the narrow tower. I was nervous for her, for everyone; yet I had to remind myself that this was an old Catalan tradition and they knew what they were doing…right? A young girl, approximately 7 years old, climbed up the back, shoulders, and bodies of the base of this human tower. I could hardly believe how fast and effortlessly she appeared to glide up the backs of people even with her top-heavy helmet on.
I watched as she made it to the last level, quickly squatted on the top, put her arm in the air, and immediately started scurrying down the other side. I let out my breath I had been holding, feeling as if I could finally relax as I watched the whole human tower dismantle in a fraction of the time it took to put together.
To my surprise and delight, this was all happening out side my balcony in one of the main squares of Girona Old Town as part of the Temps de Flors festival. I had wanted to see this cultural tradition in action for years, and now it showed up at my doorstep. I ran to get my cameras as I had the best seat in the house to watch this artistic, athletic, nail-biting Catalan feat.
Traditions run deep in Catalonia Spain, and the making of human towers (a Castell) is one of the oldest. It was first documented in 1712 near the city of Tarragona. Through the 18th century, the ‘sport’ spread to other towns. However it was really only in the last 50 years that the practice of building Castells began to spread all over Catalonia.
Human Towers even have UNESCO status – declared to be amongst the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
I’m pretty sure you have lots of questions running through your mind about now. I’ll attempt to answer them the best I can!
What is a Castell?
I know what you are thinking…human tower…what? It’s just as it sounds – people standing on the shoulders of people, standing on the shoulders of people, standing on the shoulders of people, and on, and on. The human towers are formed by ”castellers” standing on the shoulders of one another in a succession of 6 to 10 stages/levels.
“When we build a tower we are bringing to life a living being for one or two minutes–a being that moves breathes and feels happiness and pain. And we can be part of this giant!” — Alvaro Solache, founder of TeamTowers
What does a Castell Team Consist Of?
There are positions, like a baseball team. There is definitely a leader/coach who is setting up and instructing as the tower is being built.
La Pinya (the Base)
People on the ground making up the core – here strength is in numbers. The base is the key – you need it strong and well built just like the foundation of a house.
Levels 2 and above made up of hefty, strong men at the lower levels and changing to young adults and teens the higher you go. These are strong women and men who have great core strength.
El Pom de Dalt (the Roof)
Then are the last few levels which are always young, sprite kids. The topper (L’enxaneta) is normally a little girl or boy about 6 to 8 years old. They are like a monkey as they climb quickly up and down 30 to 40 feet, and apparently have nerves of steel.
There is also a band. The band starts playing the traditional song, “Toc de Castells” After the Pinya has been established. The song actually helps create the tower as it has different parts that indicate the important moments:
1. Start to climb
3. Reaching the top
4. Coming back down
5. The team has finished and can go have wine!
Like any team, you have to practice. They typically train together on a weekly basis. They practice different tower formations, strategies, and learn how to rely upon each other.
What do Castellers Wear?
Teams normally wear matching colored shirts so you can tell who belongs to whom. The members also always wear white pants, a bandana normally for the head, and a colored collared shirt. Many of the people who make up the tower will put their collars in their mouth and bite down on the tips so that when people are crawling up them there shirts stay in place and the climbers have a better grip to climb rather than skin on skin. And finally the ever-important sash. I watched as members wrapped each other up in the long sash tightly as if it were a corset. They use the sash, or waste belt for a couple of reasons; as a place for people to step sort of like a ladder rung, and as a form of back support. And finally the young children climbing up to the top of a human tower have to wear a helmet.
Are Castells Safe?
It’s probably about as safe as running with the bulls – another dangerous Spanish tradition. But in general accidents are few. Ambulances are on standby of course. But the teams are very meticulous, that’s why they train. I watched as they started a base and stopped and dismantled a few times; careful about getting the structure just right. Plus, the pinya also acts as a ‘safety net’ if the tower structure collapses, cushioning the fall of people from the upper levels.
Watch as a Human Tower is Constructed in Girona
How Can you See a Castell in person?
That’s the hard part, it’s about being in the right place at the right time. I had been to Catalonia 2 times before and heard of this nail biting tradition, yet I had never seen it. I just happened to get lucky when a competition started right out side my Airbnb window in Girona for Temps de Flors.
You’ll normally find Castells as part of a festival. Local and regional teams ‘compete’ and build various castells of greater and greater difficulty. Time of year also plays a part, castells are normally built during good weather seasons which is April to November in Catalonia.
Tarragona holds the castells competition in October in every year ending in an even number (this 2016!). This competition brings together the groups in the Tarraco Arena Plaça in the largest, most competitive and exciting human castle event around. It’s really crowded, but you’ll be guaranteed to see a castell. It’s on my travel bucket list!
Else, you can go to next year’s Temps de Flors Festival (May 13 – 21 2017) in Girona and you can also see a smaller version competition. Plus –you get to see beautiful flowers too!