The Castell Tradition: Why Catalans Build Human Towers, & Where to See One
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
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
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.
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.
UNESCO Recognition for CataloniaIn 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).