Inside a Catalan 'castell'

A common sight at Catalan festivals, ‘castells’ can be up to 10 human storeys high, with a small child usually being placed on the top. Teams compete to create the most elaborate construction, in a tradition which is believed to date back to the 18th Century. It is one of Catalonia's more unusual spectacles and since being declared a UNESCO element of Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2010, interest in ‘castells’ has grown beyond Catalonia. Many ‘castellers’ groups have performed abroad in cities such as Shanghai, New York, Montreal, London and many others and new groups are even emerging outside of Catalonia. While most observe this tradition from the outside, we got up close to take a peek at the inside.

Close-up of 'Castellers de París' during their last performance at the International Castells Festival, in London (by ACN)
Close-up of 'Castellers de París' during their last performance at the International Castells Festival, in London (by ACN) / ACN / Virginia Scherer

ACN / Virginia Scherer

July 5, 2016 03:12 PM

Barcelona (CNA).- Catalan human towers, known as ‘castells’, are a tradition which has awoken growing interest beyond Catalonia. Many ‘castellers’ groups have performed abroad in cities such as Shanghai, New York, Montreal, London and many others and new groups are even emerging outside of Catalonia. This Tuesday, BBC’s programme ‘Force of Nature’ focused on this tradition and followed Carla, a girl from ‘Castellers de Vilafranca’, one of Catalonia’s most iconic group, who is the ‘enxaneta’, the kid who goes on the top of the tower. This documentary may be the most recent but it certainly is not the first, nor is it likely to be the last to centre its attention on ‘castellers’. Here is our account of this unusual yet breath-taking tradition. 

A room filled with some 60 or so Catalans, men, women and children, is typically a loud, chaotic crowd - adults greet each other, children play chase, teenagers chatter. But as soon as the man with the beard, the 'cap de colla' or team leader, yells, this all changes.

"Silenci!"In a heartbeat, the room falls quiet. Only people's breath and the occasional grunt can be heard.

The crowd becomes organised as people take their places: those short and sturdy, the 'baixos', gather in a circle at the centre of the crowd and link arms. The 'segons', those who will form the second level of the 'castell', approach and, with the help of the crowd surrounding them at the base or 'pinya', climb the 'baixos'. 

The man with the beard surveys the crowd before signalling the ascent and yelling "Terços, amunt!" Music begins to play and the 'pinya' pushes forward in support as the next levels of 'castellers' begin their climb: first the 'terços', then 'quarts', 'quints' and finally 'sisens'.

Even from a distance, a human tower is an impressive sight: six, seven, eight, nine or even ten levels of people, men, women and children, working together as they climb their way toward the heavens with no other support than one another. The 'castellers' make it look easy, effortless. 

Up close, it's different - the real work to make the 'castell' is clear to see, and all the more impressive for it. Inside the 'pinya', a wave of heat hits, emanating from the mass of huddled people, hands in the air or on each other's backs or arms to support those climbing the tower. Beads of sweat drip down the brows of the 'baixos' - neck muscles strain, faces grow red, eyes are fixed straight ahead in fierce concentration, fighting for balance. The weight they carry on their shoulders can be equivalent to that of a car.

Participating in the 'pinya' crowd, hands or chest pressed against another's back, arms and wrists held by others in the 'colla' in a fight to maintain personal balance while providing strength for those in the tower, the tower can be felt. "It's not just a monument like a statue, it's a living thing made of living persons", Castellers de Barcelona child trainer Eduard París said. "You're not supposed to look up [during a tower] so you can't see the tower with your eyes, but you can feel it in the people around you. You can feel the movement."

From below, the sway of the human tower is evident; sometimes it's slight, sometimes it's more than slight. But the construction of the tower continues, level by level. 

"Castells are a very family-oriented activity", París said, "we all trust each other. We are a team and everyone is needed".

When the last level has been successfully completed, the 'enxaneta' begins their climb. The enxaneta, a helmeted child usually between the ages of 5 and 8, has one job: to reach the tip of the tower and raise their arm in a 'fer l'aleta', a salute to signify the completion of yet another Catalan 'castell'. The child pushes her way through the 'pinya' and quickly scurries up the first level of the tower like a beetle...then the second...the third...fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh. They seem fearless, immune to the potential consequences that come with the choice to climb so high so fast. 

París explains that the children who chose to become 'enxanetes' are those who see 'castells' being built from an early age and show an interest in participating. "The 'enxanetes' are brave children", París said. "The best 'enxanetes' are those who can go quickly without moving the structure.”

Although rare, 'castells' can collapse - sometimes the base isn’t perfectly level, the tower is unstable, or the weight strain is too much. As an onlooker, the collapse of a tower looks frightening: people flying through the air, the 'pinya' chaotically trying to cushion the fall and protect their own necks, the Emergency Medical Technicians on standby rushing to the scene… Most would assume a fall means the end of the practice or performance for the day, but after a few rounds of querying “bé?” (Catalan for “okay?”) as the 'castellers' check on their friends and teammates, there are smiles, pats on the back, and the climbing begins again. 

To protect the children at the top few levels of the 'castell', they are required to wear helmets. Jordi Arderiu, Castellers de Barcelona 'casteller' and father of Blau, one of the group’s 'enxanetes', explains that, though he feels nervous when Blau climbs, he knows the risk of a fall is slight.

“Of course I feel nervous when she climbs, but I try to control this feeling as I really trust her”, Arderiu said. “I know there is a risk involved in being an 'enxaneta' and she could get hurt, but it is a part of life - what is not a risk? The most important thing for me is that she is doing what makes her happy. This makes her happy.”