No, me neither. Until Magellan saw them on TV in Barcelona we had no idea what castells were.
On Saturday morning a few days later, we were in Poboleda, a small town in Priorat, at its annual wine festival that Magellan had read about online when we were planning our trip. “Hey, look at this,” Magellan said, as he glanced at the day’s program.
“18:00 Actuació de la colla castellera dels Xiquets de Reus i dels Brivalls de Cornudella al Pla de l’Església.”
Castells! That afternoon, we drove the twisting mountain road back to the Cal Llop Hotel to charge our camera battery for this terrific but terrifying spectacle.
Castells are a cultural phenomenon that began early in the 18th century in Catalonia, Spain. Castellers stand on each other’s shoulders to build castles made of towers of humans, usually as part of a festival like the one we were at and often competing against another team.
Each all-ages team is dressed in identical colours. A large group of strong, heavyset people (usually broad-shouldered men) form the base of the castell, which is called the pinya. Standing in place at the ready are those who will be on the next levels, the tronc (trunk), younger athletic men and women wearing tightly wound cummerbunds. Castellers latch onto these waist sashes with their hands, while in bare feet they climb up the bodies of their fellow Catalonians to form each successive level of the tronc. At a certain point when the base layers are set, a signal is given and the Toc de Castelles, music played on a reed instrument and a drum, like that played for a procession, fills the air. A hush falls. The crowd silences.
Quickly, agile young bodies scamper up to form the uppermost levels. This gets tricky. Then spectacularly terrifying. The enxanetas—little kids who have not likely had six birthdays—scale their way up to the crown of the castle—and raise one hand (quickly!), four fingers erect symbolizing the four stripes on the Catalan flag. Wearing little helmets (thank goodness!), they have the right to call off the castell at any time if they feel unsafe.
But wait, it’s not over with the finger salutes of the enxanetas. It’s not complete until each of the castellers has descended successfully, starting from the highest level with the enxanetas down through the tronc in succession to the bottom, when everyone is safely grounded on terra firma.
When they get to the third level, your mind starts jumping from “I can’t watch this!” to “I can’t take my eyes off this.” And when the gymnastic little enxanetas (mostly girls) start their ascent to the top, your heart is what’s jumping.
And yet, near us the parents of one of these little girls looked on in seeming calm. And when their nimble daughter returned, crying in dad’s arms because her castell had collapsed on disassembling, they comforted her without profusion.
Safety is paramount, starting with the pinya, the large group on level one. If a team doesn’t have enough people to ensure the pinya is strong, members from other teams stand in. No casteller proceeds to the next level without being in position and conferring with those around him or her.
The castellera at Poboleda went on for over an hour, I think. I don’t know for certain. On that afternoon in September, time—like my breathing—was suspended.
It’s unlike any team sport I know of. Men and women and boys and girls in Catalonia join together in immense trust and skill, build on each other’s strengths to create something unique, then disengage with equal fortitude to achieve success. From our travel experiences and what little we know about this area of northeastern Spain—proudly distinctive, both culturally and politically from the rest of the country—castells seem to be the perfect metaphor for Catalonia itself.
The team Terrassa’s Minyons set a record by building a ten-storey construction with four castellers per level supported by additional people on levels two and three.
Coordinadora de Colles Castelleres de Catalunya – “Under the traditional motto of “strength, balance, courage and seny” (a Catalan expression encompassing virtues such as good sense and calmness), castells are an excellent way of showcasing Catalonia to the world.”