We were going to see blood, I just knew it. And the little girl…she was going to be first.
I couldn’t bear it, but I couldn’t look away either.
There’s a tradition in Catalonia that will terrify you. I know it did me – but to participate is a badge of pride, a way to both symbolically and literally wave the flag of a culture fighting for recognition.
Throughout the year in Catalonia – a semi-autonomous region in Spain, with very much its own language and culture – teams of people get together to build castells, or human towers. They range in form from rings of people stacked one-on-the-other, to skinny straight towers of just one person standing tall on another’s shoulders.
I’d seen pictures and videos of Catalonia’s human towers before, and while they looked tricky enough, I didn’t fully appreciate the skill and difficulty in this art until I saw it in person.
You see, there’s an unchangeable aspect of these human towers – they sway. A lot. No matter how much a casteller might try and stay rigid, we are breathing, moving human bodies. And the entire towers breathe and move too.
When I first saw a castell made in person, it shocked me.
First, a large, broad, circular group of people formed, lining up like the spokes of a wheel and pushing their hands into the person’s shoulders before them to create a stable base. From the middle of this base, one man crawled onto the shoulders of another and slowly stood up tall.
As he straightened up, a woman crawled over their backs as well, and then reached up and began climbing up his back. First her feet on his hips, and then her feet on his shoulders.
She straightened herself, standing tall, letting go…and his whole body began to shake violently.
‘Holy f*ck,’ I thought, ‘what IS this?!’
It looked like they could fall at any moment. The man was biting hard onto the lapel of his shirt, face tense and beads of sweat growing on his forehead, struggling to stand straight on the shoulders of another while a woman was standing tall on his.
Yeah, I’ll admit it now: none of that inspired much faith.
But then, I saw a little girl approaching.
And she was wearing a crash helmet.
‘Oh God no,’ I thought.
But oh, yes. Same as the woman had, she began to climb over the base and then up their bodies, first scaling the back of the shaking man, then the body of the shaking woman.
She pulled herself onto the woman’s torso, put her feet on the woman’s shoulders, and pushed herself up slowly.
I held my breath.
And then the little girl straightened up, without fear, without any thought to the trembling human base below her, and unfurled the Catalan flag in triumph.
They’d done it. The tower had stayed strong. And the flag was flying high.
Upon first arriving in Catalonia, patriotism hits you like a wave. My first day in Girona, in Catalonia’s Costa Brava region, I saw red and yellow Catalan flags flying from balconies, painted on walls, and stitched on children’s backpacks. Catalan is the primary language, and separatist flyers and graffiti urging a break from Spain peek out from building facades.
Even though we were in the borders of Spain, it felt like a different country – and keeping the tradition of Catalonia’s human towers alive is another way to keep that flag waving.
After seeing that first castell which so freaked me out, I had the chance to see the same group in Costa Brava, Marrecs de Salt, at a practice session for an upcoming competition – and gain a little more confidence in the whole idea of these human towers.
When we visited the practice room of Marrecs de Salt, the first thing I noticed was the energy. In the middle of the room, a massive tower was forming, made of rings of people in various patterns. The castellers were focused, those in the base holding tight, those about to climb up waiting for their cue.
But even the members who weren’t part of the big tower were still practicing – climbing onto their friends’ shoulders with the help of ladders, or walking around with one of the smaller children unfurling the Catalan flag as though they were at the top.
No one was idle. No one wanted to stop working.
Their dedication was impressive, and I got to talking with a young red-headed woman about what drew her to castells. She looked towards the other participants on the floor, and said that these towers perfectly embody a sense of community – that absolutely everyone, male or female, young or old, rich or poor, could work together to create something powerful.
‘We’re all different. That’s why we’re strong.‘
I could see that in the group. Watching them build tower after tower, I realised that the shakiness that had so put me off in the beginning was an inherent part of each tower, and actually made it stronger: the ability to adjust, to have a moving support for each of the moving elements.
It flowed, it lived, because of its human components.
There’s a pride in these castells, not just in representing something Catalan, but in being part of team in which everyone – quite literally – supports each other.
Here, there’s no room for fear. You have your whole team around you.
On the practice mat, a massive castell was almost finished, just waiting for the last few children to climb to the top. One of the little girls stood next to me to wait her cue.
‘No tienes miedo?‘ I asked tentatively.
‘No,’ she said with a simple shrug, and went up to unfurl the flag.
Catalan human towers are omnipresent at a variety of festivals in Catalonia throughout the year, but the most important festival is the Concurs de Castells, which takes place in Tarragona every two years – and one of the most impressive chances to see castells built. I was able to see this troupe, Marrecs de Salt, with the Costa Brava and Pirineu de Girona Tourism Boards (all opinions remain my own), and they do have an events page here on their website in Catalan. Additionally, troupes travel to international festivals, so don’t be surprised if they turn up in London or New York!