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Castells Catalan Tradition Catalonia
Erin L. McCoy
May is festival season all over Spain, and there's truly no better time to travel there. You can not only plan your travel to hop from festival to festival, but you can come upon surprise celebrations. This is what happened to me in Catalonia one May when I came upon the Festa Catalana in Barcelona's Plaça Nova, in front of the city's iconic Gothic cathedral.

Suddenly, people dressed in a variety of team colors were gathering in huge groups, climbing on each other's shoulders, and reaching heights that seemed to rival even the cathedral's towers. If you've been lucky enough to witness one of these incredible displays of camaraderie and teamwork—or if you're hoping to see it while you're in Catalonia—it's essential to understand the history behind the rich tradition of building castells (castles).

Catalonia's Tradition of Castells

The tradition of building castells began in the city of Valls, El País reports, probably during the eighteenth century. Valls is today a city of about 24,500 people and is located about 57 miles (92 kilometers) from Barcelona.

However, a similar, even older tradition can be traced to the region of Valencia. The muixeranga is an ancient form of human pyramid-building and street dancing. This tradition has a religious background, whereas the tradition of castells does not. Muixeranga pyramids or towers traditionally seek to create a symbolic scene.

You can still see examples of this in La Mare de Déu de la Salut Festival (the feast of Our Lady of Health) in the village of Algemesí on September 7–8 of every year. The town is just 19 miles (30 kilometers) outside of Valencia. Records of the tradition survive from the eighteenth century, but muixeranga may date from as far back as the thirteenth century.

By the 1700s the tradition of castells was beginning to spread to other cities in Catalonia, including Tarragona and Vilafranca del Penedès. However, the tradition only spread throughout Catalonia in the last 50 years, according to El País. Women became involved for the first time in the 1980s, and have been credited with making the castells both lighter and stronger. Catalunya Radio reports that this ushered in the "golden age" of castells, when heights of nine or 10 levels were first achieved.

Parts of a Castell

Human towers Mare de Déu de la Salut Festival in Algemesí, Valencia
Human towers are built in celebration of la Mare de Déu de la Salut Festival in Algemesí, Valencia. | Photo courtesy Llapissera
Castells Catalan Tradition Catalonia
Building human towers, called castells, is a Catalan tradition.
One of the most stunning aspects of a castell is just how many people are involved in making one. You may see a dozen or so people comprising the tower itself, but step in closer and you'll find that many spokes of at least half a dozen people each are working to support the castell. This base is called the pinya. It's an incredibly moving display of companionship and mutual support.

All the members of a team are called castellers. They work together to determine if the base is powerful enough to proceed, then the music—the Toc de Castells—begins. Those tasked with building the tronc, or the body of the castell, move quickly so as to minimize the work for the pinya and the others below them. 
The anxeta, or the tower's pinnacle, is usually a small child safely wearing a helmet, and may only stay at the top for a few seconds before beginning her descent. Disassembling the castell can often be the most dangerous part of the whole process.

Castellers generally wear a recognizable outfit comprised of a mocador (bandana), white pants, and a faixa (black sash). The latter, which is wrapped around the stomach, is particularly important, as it not only supports the lower back but also serves as a tool for climbers, who can place their hands or feet on this sash to aid in ascent or descent.

Towers can vary greatly in terms of structure and width, varying from just one person per level to five and reaching as many as 10 people high.
Castells Catalan Tradition Catalonia
The anxeta, or topmost person, in a castell climbs toward the top, using the faixa (black sash) of a team member as a foothold. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

UNESCO Recognition for Catalonia

In 2010, the castells tradition was awarded the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation by UNESCO.

Miquel Botella is president of the Coordinadora de Colles Castelleres, an organization of teams of castelleres. In speaking with El País, he attributed the recognition to the sport's "spectacularity," but also to its emphasis on self-improvement.

"To feel like a winner, you can't lose anybody," Botella explained. With the tradition of castells, there are no hierarchies and the good of the team takes precedent over individual concerns. At the time, there were 70,000 castellers comprising more than 60 teams.

Where You Can See a Castell

Among the best places to witness human towers are during festivals in Catalonia. Here are a few that feature castells

  • Festa Catalana
    • When: Every Saturday between May and September
    • Where: Avinguida de la Catedral at the Barcelona Cathedral
  • Festes de Gràcia
    • When: Eight days in August
    • Where: In the Gràcia neighborhood of Barcelona
  • La Mare de Déu de la Salut Festival
    • When: September 7–8
    • Where: Algemesí, Valencia
  • La Mercè Festival
    • When: 5 days in late September
    • Where: Barcelona 

To see teams compete, check out:

  • Concurs de Castells, Torredembarra
    • When: Late September
    • Where: La Plaça del Castell, Torredembarra, Catalonia
  • Concurs de Castells, Tarragona
    • When: Early October
    • Where: La Tarraco Arena Plaça, Tarragona, Catalonia
    • Buy tickets

The city of Valls is building a human tower museum, called the Museu Casteller de Catalunya (watch this site for updates).

Tags : castellsCatalanCataloniaculturefeaturedfestivalshuman towerstraditionsUNESCO
Erin L. McCoy

The author Erin L. McCoy

Erin L. McCoy is an award-winning photojournalist who holds an MA in Hispanic studies from the University of Washington. She's traveled to 20+ countries, five continents, and 45 U.S. states, but she's starting to lose count of how many times she's visited Spain.

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