H is for the dangerous Human Towers of Catalonia – The ABCs of Spain

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Human Towers of Catalonia

I am not sure what the purpose of this demonstration was. There was a man, a woman climbed on his shoulder and then a child proceeded to climb on top of hers. And voila, a simple circus trick I thought. That was pretty straight forward, nothing a small family of acrobats couldn’t do. But I was wrong, this was in fact a ‘tiny’ human tower. What exactly is were human towers of Catalonia or ‘castells’? Let me run this down for you.

TBEX Costa Brava Opening Party1

History

The history of Castellers goes back over 200 years. The origins of this Catalan tradition of building human towers dates back to the 18th century. In the small town of Valls, about 40 km west of Barcelona, the inhabitants started building the towers, individual teams (colles) started to compete in sporting events. Thus, not only the building itself was invented, but also the competition.

There are between 60 and 70 teams throughout the province of Catalonia who compete at different festivals. Once every two years (on even years) the top 10 teams assemble in the Tarragona Arena Plaza to compete. They build the tallest hand most complex human tower or castell.

Tarragona Spain photo credit CANVA PRO
Tarragona Spain photo credit CANVA PRO

Structure of a Castell

These castells (a castle in Catalan), can be made up of a thousand people if the tower is 10 levels high. The base alone can consist of 800-900 people for that height. Known as the pinya, this base level creates a large ring, distributing the weight of the load, and stabilizes the structure. Should there be a collapse of the tower, this layer will soften the blow of the fallen castellers.

The next level, the ‘manilles’, climb up in a pre-defined order and form the first rings. One, two, three or four people brace arms, grasp shoulders and create a human ladder for the next people to climb. There are multiple levels with the same configuration. Though this is an arduous task the human towers of Catalonia are built relatively quickly from this point forward.

Human towers in Catalonia in Villa de Gràcia in Barcelona #TBEX CostaBrava

Strong men tend to be at the very base but as the circle grows and tightens, both men and women form the pinya. Women then tend to inhabit the higher levels with small children crowning the top.

The “anxenta” climbs up to the top, remains there for a few seconds and raises their arm to salute the crowds with 4 fingers (representing the Catalan flag). This role is played by children as young as 7 years old (all wearing a specially designed and mandatory helmets). Their goal is to climb up as quickly, cross over the shoulders of ‘the frogs’ then make their way down.

Human towers in Catalonia in Villa de Gràcia in Barcelona #TBEX CostaBrava
Practice at Castellers de la Villa de Gràcia

The danger of a tower falling apart is just as prevalent in the demount. There is a trick to coming down without destabilizing the other participants. When this tiny child finally reaches the base, they walk across the shoulders of the pinya until they are embraced by their parents.

Variation in structure

There are some special variants, in which the trunk is built in the opposite order. A top tier is set up and then lifted up from below, where the next lower level is formed. Those levels are then raised – so the top is hoisted already formed. This is more unusual and harder to attempt.

Belonging to a castell can be a family tradition with generations from grandparents to grandchildren included in one castell team. Different cities, build teams but anyone can join. The only prerequisite is a commitment to practice multiple times a week during the June-November season.

Costume of the Castell

Participants come from all walks of life from lawyers and teachers to labourers and students. The costumes of the casteller’s are always the same for all the ‘colles’. A sturdy white pant, a long sleeve shirt with the one unifying colour. Many also wear headbands or bandanas usually in red and yellow, the colour of the Catalan flag.

Wrapping a girdle around the waist of a casteller - Human towers in Catalonia
Putting on a “faixa” a girdle for lumbar support

Each also wears a black ‘girdle’ which is a very long black sash which is wrapped around a casteller’s waist. It’s purpose is to protect the lumbar area and as an aide for the climbers to use as leverage. The ‘faixa’ provides a real step, allowing the climbers to ascend and descend the castle more easily.

During the building process, a flute and a drum play the Toc de Castells. A melody guides the different construction phases of the tower. It also helps stir up emotions and accompanies the castellers upon their entry and exit in building the human tower. Below is a short video about how a Castell is formed. It was part of our TBEX Costa Brava experience.

UNESCO – Intangible World Heritage

Since 2010 the Human Towers of Catalonia are part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as declared by UNESCO. It recognizes the cultural importance of castell building and the building of cohesive Catalan community.

UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

“Human towers are recognized by Catalan people as an integral part of their cultural identity, transmitted from generation from generation and providing community members a sense of continuity, social cohesion and solidarity.”

– UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

I loved both the demonstrations that we saw at the TBEX Conference in Costa Brava and the practice sessions we got to watch in Barcelona. The atmosphere in the three story practice gym was electric. It was fun watching everyone relax and enjoy their time together. Then in an instant when the captain called to his players, the tension was palatable as the young children climbed higher and higher.

Safety is paramount and that shows in both the practice runs and the demonstrations. Watching castells being build was truly a unique experience.

If you are interested in learning more about the human towers of Catalonia and the individual “colls” (teams), festivals and competitions, check the website of the Castellers de Catalunya for an updated schedule. If you have the chance to watch the building of a castell, do so as it really is a very special event.

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Castelles Catalonia Human Towers TBEX Costa Brava @DownshiftingPRO2
Castells Catalonia Human Towers TBEX Costa Brava @DownshiftingPRO2
Castelles Catalonia Human Towers TBEX Costa Brava @DownshiftingPRO3

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Margarita Ibbott is a travel and lifestyle blogger. She blogs about travel in Canada, the United States and Europe giving practical advice through restaurant, hotel and attraction reviews. She writes for DownshiftingPRO.com and other online media outlets.

10 thoughts on “H is for the dangerous Human Towers of Catalonia – The ABCs of Spain”

  1. I love articles like these where I feel I have learnt something new. about the culture and history of a destination. I can’t wait to travel again and immerse myself in a new place. x

    • Thanks for dropping by. I am all about teaching people something they didn’t know or knew very little. Be sure and have a look at the Alhambra post, it’s helpful if you have never been.

  2. This is such an interesting tradition! I’ve never heard of this before, but I’ve only been to this region of Spain once. Hopefully when I go back I’ll be able to experience it!

    • Carley, Thank you so much for reading. I really do love Spain and Portugal and I can hardly wait to return. For now, I’m just writing about how beautiful it is. Hope you come back for more.

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