Every year, the famous Castellers are building human towers in Barcelona that can reach up to ten stories high. The tradition of building human towers in Barcelona and Catalonia has existed for over 200 years. The Castellers perform their tower building during the main parts of larger festivals, such as La Mercè.
What is a Human Tower or a Casteller?
Every year in Spain, a tradition of building human towers takes place. These human towers, called castells, translate to “castles” in Catalan. You can find these performances at different festivals and cultural events that take place all over the country.
Teams called ‘colles’ compete to build the tallest and most intricate tower made just of human beings standing on top of one another. The objective of this monument is to construct and deconstruct a tower without falling. They accomplish this by tightly holding each others’ bodies and lowering their heads, creating a platform. After a foundation is built, also known as the pinya, another layer is formed with participants climbing barefoot, while constantly being supported by one another.
Composition of the human towers
The castells are all divided into three parts:
1. The pinya
Also known as the bulk, which resonates with the bottom of the tower. They take all the weight of the whole tower and they provide support in case of any falls that might happen. The higher the tower, the more people you need at the ‘pinya’. On the bottom, you will see the more robust castellers.
2. The tronc
Also known as the trunk, which is the vertical structure between the top and the base of the tower. You can see it as the ‘body’ of the tower.
3. The pom de Dalt
This is the top palm and is built by children as they are the lightest and easiest to carry.
Some important castellers also have a folre & sometimes even the manilles. These parts are between the ‘pinya’ and ‘the tronc’.
Human Towers in Barcelona
There are 6 teams of Human Towers in Barcelona who perform regularly at events, based in different areas of the city, each team is defined by a different colour:
- Castellers de Barcelona wearing red shirts.
- Castellers de la Vila de Gràcia wearing dark blue shirts.
- Castellers de Sants wearing grey shirts
- Castellers de Poble-Sec wearing light blue shirts.
- Castellers de la Sagrada Família wearing green shirts.
- Colla Castellera Jove de Barcelona (the young Castellers) wearing dark red shirts.
There are various other teams in the rest of Catalonia so if you are travelling around the region you may come across other performances for festivals and other special events.
The history behind this tradition
Castells is a rural cultural phenomenon of Catalonia that started in the nineteenth century. This phenomenon was founded in 1801 in Tarragona, a religious providence of Catalonia, and has turned into a traditional practice central to popular nationalist celebrations.
By the end of the nineteenth century, also known as the “golden ear of Castellers”, there we over nine different groups of Castellers all around the country. But this streak would soon come to a halt at the beginning of the twentieth century due to Fransico Franco’s rain and the economic crisis that came along from 1939 to 1975.
During this time, there were only two groups of Castellers in the whole country, that had to combine into one larger group. The practice of human towers would not pick back up until 1980 with the start of a democratic society. The transition to democracy created a great number of changes in Catalan social life, including the resurgence of popular street festivals and celebrations. This also meant that Castellers was performing again, and twenty-three groups of Castellers were formed. It became a modern practice, not only in urban settings as well as rural ones. The tradition is now practised in the entirety of the country and has become one of the most representative Catalan cultural practices.
records of the castellers
Starting in 1987 the Castellers built many 8-level towers every year and at least one 9-level castle each year with the record for a human tower being 10 levels. Twice by the Minyons de Terrasa in 1998 and 2002 and most recently by the Vilafranca del Penedès who managed to reach 10 levels for the first time ever in 2013 after 30 previous attempts over the years. They reached the strenuous height in August of 2013 when Vilafranca del Penedes built a human tower of 10 levels with 3 people on each level on St Felix’s day -La diada de Sant Fèlix – during their annual town festival of Vilafranca -la Festa Major de Vilafranca del Penedès.
How the tournament works
These events will start in June and end in November when the season starts to slow down. An interesting aspect of this piece of art is that the Castells are made to the beat of music called “toc de castells”. The Castellers follow the melody of the music to coordinate their movements. Before each castelles, there’s the “toc d’entrada a la plaça” a song that is played as a pre-ritual to the event. Each team has a different colour shirt, that way everyone is dressed the same, in order to make the tower look in unison.
Typically Castellers wear white trousers, a black sash (faixa), a bandana (mocador), and a shirt that often represents the team’s emblem. The sash is the most important part of their outfit. It represents the tradition as a whole, and you only wear a faixa when you are a casteller. The sash is also believed to support the lower back, and it is used by other castellers in the team as a foothold or handhold when climbing up the tower. As the tower gets higher, the younger the Castellers get, the youngest being 4-5 years old.
The defaults of being a Casteller
Although injuries are not common, castelles can be dangerous at times. It is required for the younger participants to wear helmets to prevent brain injuries. The most dangerous part of building a castel is its deconstruction and the careful descent of the higher members. They slip down each other with seeming ease, and you notice the look of relief on their faces as the ones above them climb down and the weight they bear gets less and less. Then finally when everyone is safely down they celebrate and congratulate each other on their success.
The people of Catalan take much pride in this popular tradition and feel honoured that the Castellers represent them all over the world. The tradition is now practised in the entirety of the country and has become one of the most representative Catalan cultural practices.