The highlight of a castell, the traditional Catalonian human towers, is when the little kids put on their helmets and quickly climb all the way to the top of the castell, looking fearless and agile like little monkeys, while the crowd watches nervously. The group’s musicians, the “Gralles”, play the typical castells tune. The crowd goes wild and starts cheering and applauding once the enxaneta, the little child at the very top of the tower, raises his or her hand and the tower is complete.
Castells: An age old Catalan tradition
The colles castelleres, teams of human tower builders, can be seen all over Barcelona and Catalunya in the summer. They’re dressed in white pants, colorful shirts that signal which colle (group) they belong to, and a black sash around their waist. Most street festivals include at least one castell event, often attended by a hosting group and at least two guest groups. Once every two years, there’s a big castellers competition in Tarragona.
To an outsider, castells can a little crazy, a family extreme sport where the little ones are the most daring ones. To catalonians, it’s an age old tradition, a community sport that has an over 200 year old history. They originated in the rural areas of Catalonia, in Valls near Tarragona, at the end of the 18th century as part of a type of dance. The end of each dance performance included an acrobatic performance of men building a small pyramid or tower. Over time, the castells became independent and the goal was no longer an artistic dance performance, but a challenge of who could build the highest tower.
Building a castell
A castell is complex: There’s a big group of people forming a base, called the pinya. The pinya provides support to make the tower stable, but it also acts as a sort of human safety net if the tower collapses – which does sometimes happen. The tower is then built on top of the pinya, sometimes with second and third level bases (folre and manilles) in between. The most skilled teams will build towers as high as eight to ten levels. Strong men stand at the bottom of the tower. While castells were originally a predominantly male activity, most colles today have the higher levels of the tower formed by women and children to minimise the weight carried by the lower levels. The top level is formed by two children, the dosos, held together by another child crouching in the middle, the aixecador. The highest point of the castell is the enxaneta, who climbs to the top and signals the completion of the castell by raising four fingers in the air. It’s said that the four fingers symbolize the Catalan flag. The enxenata will only remain at the top for a short moment and then climb down again, since a castell is only considered completely successful if it is dismantled without falling.
The gralles, the musicians, are also an integral part of a castell performance. Every colle has a group of musicians to accompany them, mostly consisting of drummers and flute players. Not only do they provide a kind of traditional soundtrack, the music is also coordinated with the building and dismantling of the castell, thereby helping those that are part of the castell but unable to see the progress to know where in the process of building and dismantling the castell they are.
Videos: Castellers in action
The best colle of the last few years, the Castellers de Vilafranca successfully assembling and dismantling a 10-level castell with folre and manilles. Watch the reaction of the crowd!
Another one: Impressions from the castell competition in Tarragona
And if you’re really interested in learning about the buildup, here’s a video (in Catalan, but very visual) of the Colla Vella dels Xiquets de Valls sharing the “secrets” of building a 9 level castell.
Want to see a live castell? Here are some events this year to check them out:
Festa Major de Gracia
Public practice session of the Castellers de la Vila de Gracia on August 16th and 19th. This is your chance to get in on the action! The public is encouraged to participate as a part of the pinya.
The Castellers performance at Plaza Sant Jaume is one of the highlights of the La Merce festival, taking place around the 24th of September. The program is only released about two weeks before the event, so watch their website for the exact date.
Concurs de Castells
The famous Concurs de Castells is a biannual competition, the largest castells competition in Catalunya. It’s happening this year! Will take place on September 28th, October 4th and 5th.
Or check out the full event calendar of the castell association, the Coordinadora de Colles Castelleres de Catalunya.