After thousands and thousands of years of boredom, one day ‘man’ looked at the sky and decided to climb up. It was in Catalonia towards the end of the 18th century when ‘man’ took matters into his own hands and dared to touch the sky. That day the “Castells” tradition was born. More than 200 years later my LC-A captured this beautiful art and it is my duty to share it with you.
‘La Mercè’ is an annual celebration in Barcelona which is filled with history and excitement. This is without a doubt, the city’s best festival. During the week of September 24, the whole city becomes one massive party. You can find live music, art, performances and cultural displays everywhere. During last year’s celebration, we had the opportunity to enjoy the “Castells” or human tower competition. This impressive Catalan tradition was a fantastic experience and definitely my favorite part of the whole festival.
‘Els Castells’ or the human tower building tradition was born in Valls, near Tarragona, in Catalonia, Spain, around the end of the 18th century. This practice is based on the construction of human towers. Different groups formed by ‘castellers’, all dressed up in their traditional outfit (wearing different colors and representing different locations) compete to build the biggest, more complex human tower. Backed by their own Catalan traditional bands that perform beside them. The ‘La Mercè’ ‘Castells’ competition is more than a hundred years old. The whole year ‘castellers’ from different regions of Barcelona prepare for this demonstration of strength, balance, and courage.
The competition was held in the Sant Jaume Square, right in front of the city hall. Thousands of people waited for hours under the fierce sun to see the event, and there’s not much room for everybody. We got there an hour before it started and battled our way through the crowd to find a good spot. It was hot, humid, and uncomfortable. But we got to see the spectacle from just a few meters away, and could really experience the whole process and magic of it.
The construction of the ‘Castells’ has two phases. The first one is called the ‘pinya’. The ‘castellers’, mostly the bigger and stronger, pile up together to form the base of the structure, that can also work as a safety net in case of an accident. Then the ‘castellers’ that form the upper levels of the tower, get in position to climb up. When the ‘castellers’ in the ‘pinya’ determine the structure is solid enough to continue, the signal is given to proceed to the next phase.
The bands start playing and the real construction of the ‘Castell’ begins. It is the best part of the show, you can feel the tension and intrigue in the air, and since we were right next to them, we felt more like a part of it. This phase is done as quickly as possible in order to put minimal strain on the ‘castellers’ that form the ’pinya’. The remaining ‘castellers’ climb to their designated places and the ‘enxaneta’, usually a little boy or girl, climbs all the way to the top and raises one hand with four fingers erect, representing the stripes of the Catalan flag. This is a moment of joy and celebration, but for the ‘Castell’ to be a complete success, it has to be dismantled without falling in the process. It is done amidst the cheering of the crowd and this has to be the most exciting part of the event.
The ‘Castells’ is definitely a must-see if you are looking to experience a piece of Catalan history and culture. It is intense, dramatic, and emotional. The competition lasts a few hours and at the end of the afternoon your neck hurts from looking up, it is not the most comfortable setting, but you have to be patient because in the end, it is definitely worth it. When I saw the results out of the lab I knew I had to write this article. The ‘Castells’ was without a doubt the highlight of last year’s ‘La Mercè’ festival and a totally unforgettable experience.