Els Castells: What you need to know about the human towers of Catalonia

"Força, Equilibri, Valor y Seny" – strength, balance, courage and mindfulness - is the motto of Catalonia's most famous cultural tradition

Els Castells: What you need to know about the human towers of Catalonia
All images: Deposit photos

Els Castells, the human towers, represent solidarity and team spirit among Catalan people. On these depend the success of the tower and even the life of the aixecadors, the young children that climb up to airy heights of more than eight meters to complete the tower.

The experience of watching a team of castelleres forming a tower is quite breath-taking. During cultural festivals, a big group of people, dressed in light, mostly white trousers and shirts, gather on a square that is full of spectators.

To the sound of the Gralles, traditional flutes, and the drums that seem to accompany almost every Catalan culture event, a group of the heavier members of the team forms a circle.

All around, other members are supporting them from behind. They are the pinya (pine cone), the foundation of the castell.

The bigger the pinya, the safer.

Now athletic women and men start climbing on their shoulders to build the tronc (trunk) that consists of up to ten identical levels. They use the sash that every member carries around their waist to hold on to. By now, the square has gone completely quiet. Everyone is watching the castelleres that climb higher and higher while the melodies of the flutes change with every level.

Once the tower has reached its desired height, four children climb up to complete the pom de dalt (upper knob). The last one that goes all the way is the enxaneta.

The child chosen for this role is usually the smallest and lightest and also the one that is celebrated the most after he or she greets the audience with a short wave from the top of the castell.

But only after everyone has made it to the ground in the right order and without falling – because only then is the tower finished successfully.

This is a rule that was only recently established – just like the obligatory helmets for children that climb to the top – after an accident in 2006 when a 12-year-old girl died after falling from the top of a castell. There have been three recorded deadly accidents in the history of the human towers.

Sometimes human towers fall.

Today, the smallest ones have to wear helmets. The material must not be too hard – otherwise they might kill other castellers if they fall down.

Competitive sport

Starting off as just one of many cultural activities at village fiestas, building castells has become a competitive sport with its own championship. Since 1952 it has been held every two years in October at Tarragona's Tàrraco Arena Plaça.

Performance in the Tarragona stadium.

In 2018, the final, in which the twelve best teams compete for the top prize, sold out for the first time and castelleres performed in front of 25,000 spectators.

First place was won by the team Colla Vella dels Xiquets de Valls. Watch their performance in the final below:

A bit of history

People in Catalonia started to build castells in the early 18 century. They took inspiration from traditional Valencian dances, the Balls de Valencias, which used to end with a small human pyramid.

By the mid 19 century, the human towers had become popular across Catalonia, and at the end of the century the tradition reached its peak period when the Xiquets de Valls, the fellows from Valls, set the record as the first team ever to build towers with eight and nine levels.

At Rambla Nova in Tarragona, there is even a monument that honours the historical meaning of the castells tradition.

After that, the towers lost some of their popularity.

The tradition reached a low point under the Franco regime (1936 to 1975) when the dictatorship banned not just the Catalan language but also many of the region’s traditions.

After his death in 1975 there was resurgence of the tradition and in 1998 a team managed for the first time ever to build a tower with ten levels – at an event that included more than 800 castellers and marked a new high point – literally!

In 2010 the Unesco awarded the castells with World Cultural Heritage status.

Links to the independence movement

In recent years, the popularity of the sport has been growing fast and human towers are now more popular than ever before.

One reason for this can be attributed to the rise of Catalan nationalism. Even though most of the over 60 teams across Catalonia don't explicitly follow a political agenda, many members do support Catalan independence.

“Volem votar” – we want to vote – says the banner held up by a young casteller in Barcelona in September 2017, only a few days before the referendum on Catalan independence.

Interest in the tradition has particularly grown amongst young people, bucking the wider trend that sees the number of youths participating in traditional cultural events around the world declining.

This has led to criticism from some that that the independence movement ´uses`the castells to harvest support for its cause, when the tradition, though deeply embedded in Catalonia is not automatically connected to the struggle for independence.

Maybe most importantly, it is the social element that makes the human towers so attractive. Not only does their construction require strength, balance, courage and mindfulness, but they also bring together people from different age groups and backgrounds who want to celebrate their culture.

By Leslie Fried / The Local

READ ALSO: Ten colourful Catalan phrases you should learn right now 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


14 Barcelona life hacks that will make you feel like a local

Barcelona is a popular city for foreign residents in Spain thanks to its coastal location, many international companies and great lifestyle. However, navigating life here can take some getting used to, so here are our top Barcelona life hacks to help make things easier for you.

14 Barcelona life hacks that will make you feel like a local
Barcelona life hacks. Image: Michal Jarmoluk / Pixabay

Invest in a good water filter

Barcelona tap water doesn’t taste the best, particularly in the areas around the Old Town such as El Born, the Gothic Quarter, Barceloneta and Raval. The water is also very hard, meaning that it leaves limescale on appliances such as your kettle.

Using a good water filter can improve the taste and make sure that limescale doesn’t build up. It’s also much more economical and healthier than buying bottled water every time you want a drink.

Use the Rodalies trains to get across the city faster

Many people when they first move to Barcelona just use the metro and don’t bother using the Rodalies trains. While it’s not always necessary, for certain journeys it can make getting across the city much faster.

For example, if you need to get from Sant Andreu or Clot to Sants to connect to one of the intercity trains, it’s only two or three stops on the Rodalies, as opposed to more than 10 on the metro, as well as changing to different lines.

Don’t try and get anything important done in August

This is probably true of most of Spain, but if you need to get anything important done, whether official paperwork or renovations on your apartment, don’t try and get them done in August.

The whole city goes on holiday for the month of August, including office personnel, builders and handypeople. If you need to get any of this done, it’s best to get it done before the holidays or to wait until September.  

Don’t buy drinks from sellers on the beach or in the park

You’ll find many people selling drinks on the city’s beaches and in the main Ciutadella Park. While it can be tempting to buy these, especially when it’s so hot, you need to be aware that these cans of drinks are often stored inside drains or under manhole covers, meaning that they’re not the cleanest.

A few years ago, El País took the mojitos sold by hawkers on the beaches to a local lab. The results came back a few days later to show that they contained high levels of fecal matter and bacteria in them.

Barcelona’s Chinese supermarkets are a great source of ingredients

Although you can now find many more foreign ingredients in local supermarkets than you could just a few years ago, there are still many that you may miss from back home, particularly South East Asian and Indian ingredients.

Barcelona has several excellent Chinese supermarkets, where you can find a range of ingredients, everything from sesame oil and Thai curry paste to Indian spices and affordable peanut butter.

Don’t take valuables out with you to certain areas, particularly at night

Unfortunately, bag snatchings and pickpockets are still commonplace in Barcelona. While the thieves mainly target tourists, foreign residents often find that they are targets too.

The trick is to blend in like a local, look like you know where you’re going and don’t take valuables with you to areas such as the Gothic Quarter, Raval or the Rambla, especially at night. Bag snatchings in El Born have also increased in recent years, so keep your wits about you around there too. 

Find your favourite beach outside of the city

Barcelona’s beaches may have been one of your prime reasons for moving here, but you’ll find that you actually prefer the beaches outside of the city.

Overcrowded, dangerous and a lot dirtier than other beaches in the area, the beaches in Barcelona are unfortunately not all that they’re cracked up to be. You’ll often find that after you’ve been for a swim, your valuables will not still be on the sand where you left them. Head just 15 to 20 minutes outside of the city however and you’ll find the beaches are far nicer and safer.

Find a beach outside of the city centre to go to. Photo: makunin /Pixabay

Try to join several different clubs or groups

Barcelona is a very transient city, meaning that people are moving here and leaving all the time. As a result, you’ll often find that most of the friends you made when first moving here have now moved away and you’ll constantly need to make more. If you join several clubs and groups, you’ll find that making new friends all the time is a lot easier. 

Don’t buy a single transport ticket

It’s never really worth buying a single transport ticket in Barcelona, because you’ll end up spending much more money per journey than you would if you bought the T-Casual (10 journeys) or the monthly T-Usual metro card instead.

You can also buy 10-journey bono tickets for the Rodalies trains, which will also save a lot of money if you’re making regular journeys out of the city. 

Try and avoid shopping at Port del Angel on Saturdays

Port del Angel is Barcelona’s main pedestrianised shopping street. While it’s great and has all the high-street fashion shops you want, it can be a nightmare shopping here on Saturdays.

If you do need to shop on a Saturday, try Rambla Catalunya or one of the shopping malls instead, which won’t be so crowded.

Be prepared for festivals and events

Barcelona holds so many festivals and events that it can be hard to keep up. In normal (non-Covid) years, there is one every other week.

Because of this tickets sell out quickly and there are many fun cultural events that you might miss out on. Keep your calendar up to date, so you know what’s going on, and make sure to book tickets for anything you want to see, well in advance. 

Tipping isn’t necessary at all bars and restaurants

Tipping isn’t all that common in Barcelona, unless perhaps if it’s a particularly nice restaurant or if there’s a large group of you that the waiter has had to look after.

You’ll find that it’s not expected either, except maybe at some of the city’s very touristy restaurants.  

READ ALSO: Why do Catalans have a reputation for being stingy?

Do lots of research before renting an apartment and if it sounds too good to be true, then it is

Unfortunately, there are lots of property scams in Barcelona, so try and do as much research as you can beforehand. Never pay money upfront before you’ve seen the property and received the keys.

Also, be aware that many landlords will not return your deposit at the end of your stay.

Many people get around this by not paying the last month’s rent, but this can also make things difficult for the good landlords who may genuinely need to deduct something for damages, so speak with your estate agency on the best thing to do in this situation.

READ ALSO: What you should know about renting an apartment in Barcelona

Hire a gestor or lawyer to help with immigration and tax issues

You’ll save yourself a lot of time and hassle with immigration and tax issues if you hire a professional to help you in Barcelona, where getting a cita previa (appointment) for official matters can often be difficult, in part because these law firms often bulk book them.

However, there are certain processes that you won’t need an immigration lawyer for such as getting a residency certificate if you’re from an EU country or exchanging your green residency certificate for a TIE if you are British and moved here before the end of 2020.

READ ALSO: BREXIT: How to apply for a TIE residency card in Spain