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.
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