Catalunya is home to one of the coolest cultural traditions you’ll ever encounter: castellers.
If you’ve just thought to yourself, “Hey, castell looks like castle,” then you win a high five from us, because you’re right on the money! A casteller is someone who builds human castles.
Yeah, human castles. How cool is that?
Castellers: Seeing the Castle in Action
This past weekend we did a bike tour for a group of Dutch clients. We took them through the heart of the Old City, weaving our way through Raval’s colorful streets; snaking our way down Las Ramblas; finagling our way through the Gothic Quarter and eventually ending up at our destination: the Santa Caterina Market.
On the way there, we came across a castellers exhibition in Plaza Sant Jaume. The exhibition was part of a weekend celebration of the canallas, the little kids who climb to the top of the human tower. More on that later….
Nearly every big town in Catalunya has a team of castellers who compete against other teams of castellers from other towns. Their performances are full of bravado, enthusiasm and focus. The human tower starts with a base of dozens of people. A voice in the middle of the foundation shouts out commands and a team of castellers climbs up onto the foundation to build the first level.
More shouts and another level goes up, each person crawling up the tower like a strange insect. The process continues until the final piece of the castellers puzzle — a small child whose size and weight make them the ideal tree-topper — scurries up the side of the human tower as he or she grabs, claws and clings to the intricate arrangement of arms, legs and torsos which make up the human structure.
More castellers!! A photo posted by Barcelona Experience: (@bcn_exp) on
The tension in the audience builds as the kid gets closer to the top. The youngster carefully selects hand holds and foot holds, as only open air separate him or her from the sea of castellers and people below. Their final challenge is to climb up over the shoulders of the people — usually kids, too — at the top of the castle, stand up under the support of the hands of those below and raise their fist in the air. The castle is officially done when this happens.
You might be wondering how the Plaza Sant Jaume castle turned out. If you look close enough in the Instagram photo above, you can see the canalla climbing up the left side of the tower. She made it all the way to the last level of the castle. As she climbed over the shoulders of the final person in her journey, she lost her balance an fell off the tower, landing on the sea of people below with a thud. Two or three other castellers came crashing down, too.
Thankfully, there were no serious injuries (we think). Falls are a common occurrence with human towers of this magnitude, which is why the canallas wear safety helmets to protect themselves in the event of an accident.
The tradition of castellers is a source of pride for Catalunya’s towns and villages. To commemorate this beloved cultural treasure, Barcelona commissioned a sculpture to create an homage to human castles. Can you see the symbolism?