A tower collapses while attempting a tres de deu, a castell with nine stories of three people. Only in the last few decades have women been allowed to become castellers.
Catalonia – Long Read

Towers of flesh, sweat and muscle

Photo by Luis Sanmiguel

Catalonia – Long Read Towers of flesh, sweat and muscle

If you loved building sand castles as a child, or castles in the air as an adult, then building human castles may be just the thing for you. Leave your vertigo behind in Spain’s Catalonia where they build human towers that can reach a dizzying ten stories in height. Made of human flesh, sweat and muscle, this is the ultimate form of teamwork.

Daphne Huineman
Daphne Huineman Travel Writer

As soon as the first men start climbing on top of each other you can hear a pin drop in the square. Three sturdy guys of around 50 take two 40-year-olds on their shoulders. Young men, women and teenagers then start making their way up, using the calves, hips, shoulders and heads of their team mates as rungs in a ladder. The higher this human construction gets, the younger the layer of the tower gets.

I can’t believe my eyes when a young girl of six starts to climb up. I count nine stories by now, and the tower is about 15 meters high. What idiot had the idea to send a youngster into that seething mass? I express my astonishment in English, but a spectator next to me understands what I mean. “Don’t worry,” he whispers. “That little one knows what she’s doing.” “Would you send your own child up there?” I ask. “That’s my grand-daughter,” he replies dryly.

Everyone in the square is holding their breath. The tower is wobbling dangerously. At ground level there is a lot of pushing and shoving to give the base more power and stability while the little girl climbs like a monkey to the top. Directed from below, she does this as quick as lightning, a show that might put the Chinese State Circus to shame.

As soon as she reaches the top she places her bare feet on the shoulders of her slightly older team mate. Carefully she straightens her legs and looks up at the mayor standing high above her on the balcony of the town hall. She raises her arms up high. I begin to clap enthusiastically, but receive odd looks from those around me. A human tower is only a success when it’s been deconstructed, layer-by-layer. The spectacle has to continue, but now in reverse order.

Bang! Something has happened in the middle. The house of cards begins to collapse. The little girl flies through the air. Is she hurt? No, there she is, fished out of the mass of floundering limbs. A sigh of relief is heard from the public, as they start yelling “Vi-la-fran-ca! Vi-la-fran-ca!”

Bored cowboys started it to entertain themselves

The building of these human castells has a long, albeit confusing history. Some say that it all began with the Romans, who got it from the Greeks. There are others who claim it stems from the crusaders who used it to climb over city walls. Francesco Moreno, the legendary ex-captain of Vilafranca’s team swears that bored cowboys started it to entertain themselves during long evenings. Most probably this Catalan passion comes from centuries-old folk dancing and people re-enacting religious tableaux, such as the Ascension of Christ, by climbing on top of each other. Fact is that already in the 14th century the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about the Catalans building human towers in precisely the way they do now.

In the course of time the acrobatics became increasingly more important, while the dance has dwindled. The village of Valls is the place where the first organized collas (teams) of castellers began to compete with each other in 1805. There was a time, at the beginning of the 20th century, that the popularity of tower building began to decline. Many collas were disbanded and those that remained were nothing to write home about. The sport almost disappeared, but the fanatic supporters, particularly in Vilafranca, revived the tradition.

Even during the Spanish Civil War they continued practicing, come what may; during hunger, hardship and the death of comrades, on they went. Over the last 20 years the collas have been booming like never before, which not coincidentally coincided with the rise of Catalan nationalism. Castells represent the love for tradition, and anyone who wishes to take part is more than welcome. I met an American expat who’s a fanatic casteller.

Fans avidly follow training sessions, and any successes booked by castellers are reported on the front page of the local papers. One entire front page read “Els de Vilafranca cargan un quatre de nou amb foire’ (Those of Vilafranca build nine stories of four people). Each Sunday there’s a special TV program with the highlights of the week. Late 2010 Unesco declared Los Castells a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.

The highlights. Some connoisseurs swear that it’s about the beautiful shape, but height remains the most important aspect. In Vals in 1846 they managed to build a tres de nou for the first time, a tower of nine floors each one consisting of three men. For over 150 years nobody could beat this record. It was thought humanly impossible. In 1998, however, the castellers of Vilafranca, directed by their then captain Francesco Moreno, managed to create a sensation. Ten men on top of each other. “Vilafranca, la Placa més Castellera” is the text on one of the tiles of the main square. And the city proves it is up to the challenge of this battle cry. Although a successful tower of ten stories is still very uncommon, I was lucky enough to see the Vilafranca team repeat their amazing stairway to heaven, and it gave me goose bumps.

It is a symbol of our megalomania

The building of human towers can also be found in other cultures, but Catalonia is the only place in the world where amateurs practise this art form at such a high level, and with so much enthusiasm. “It is a symbol of our megalomania,” laughs Borja Gonzalez, half Andalusian, half Catalan and a casteller in Barcelona. “Catalans think of themselves as superior to Spanish people. It might be true, just look at the industry here. The average income is 25 percent higher than in the rest of the country. Disciplined, energetic, vigorous, decisive and a strong sense of community mixed with a conviction of self-sufficiency – those are all qualities found in the Catalan character. And just the qualities you need for the building of human towers.

The heroic troops of Vilafranca add up to more than 600 men, women and children. (Women were allowed in the team a few decades ago). It’s up to the technical staff, who are the architects of the towers, to allocate everyone their optimal placement for a successful tower on the basis of their height, weight, strength, talent and experience.

Physical strength is important, but even more so is strength of mind. Trust – in yourself and each other – is an essential ingredient of a successful tower. And the egos must be put aside. ‘Qualsevol persona és necessària, però no imprescindible’ is a popular casteller expression – ‘everyone is necessary but nobody is irreplaceable’. Actually, tower building is the ultimate form of teamwork. Amazing that it hasn’t yet been discovered by management gurus.

With incredible speed teams from Vilafranca and surrounding villages construct and deconstruct the most beautiful edifices on the square. I can see totem poles of eight men on top of each other, Christmas trees of nine stories, perfect pyramids and arty cathedrals. The public can’t get enough of it, but It all makes me dizzy, which doesn’t go unnoticed by my Catalan grandfather. “Just look a bit closer. Those two men at the base of the trunk, those are the baixos. Soon they will be holding around 1,000 kg up in the air. Unbelievable, no?” he says in English. He then adds, “Sorry, but my Spanish is even worse. I never use it, I normally only speak Catalan”.

“Our character is different than that of the Spanish. The Catalan artist Joan Miró once said: Catalans are strongly rooted in the earth. We believe that our feet must first be firmly on the ground if we want to jump into the air. So the baixos are helped by the group forming around them, which is called “the pinya”, to stabilize the foundation. They provide extra strength and stability, just like the roots of trees. The pinya looks like they are wildly pushing and shoving, but this has been carefully choreographed by a special trainer.

“Everyone is exactly where they are suppoesed to be and they all know what to do. The pinya also serves as a safety net. They’ve just caught my granddaughter. A nephew of mine in Barcelona met his wife in this way. He was standing in the pinya when she fell out of sky and landed on top of him.”

Everyone wears scarves to protect their ears

Granddad’s explanations open up a new world for me. “Do you see the belt they are all wearing around their middle?” he points, “That gives the baixos both support around their middle and back, and a firm grip for those climbing up. And everyone wears scarves bound tightly around their heads to protect their ears, not because it’s fashion. The sound you’re hearing is the gralla, a kind of medieval oboe.

“The baixos can’t see anything with the pinya closing in, but they can follow what is happening around them by listening to the gralla and then they know how much longer they have to keep it up. The kids at the top have the toughest job. One wrong move and the tower is out of balance.” As the last tower is broken down I’m drinking rosé from the Alt Penedes region in a bar. I hear two tourists – of the very few – who made it here evaluate the spectacle. “It was pretty clever, but nothing that you can’t see in the circus” concludes one of them.

Unbelievable, the ignorance! First and foremost, there is no circus that can do this and, secondly, castellers are ordinary people – lawyers, teachers and farmers – which makes it even more admirable. Catalans are rich in tradition, self-interest is sacrificed for the benefit of the group, the strongest carry the weaker ones and the smallest of all steals the show. The elderly form the foundation on which the younger generation build their castles in the sky.

A better metaphor for how a community should be functioning at its best is hard to find.

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