Travel

In north-eastern Spain, an ancient tradition combines daredevil skill with strength and teamwork – all amid a festival atmosphere. But just viewing these human castles in the air is not for the faint-hearted. By Robert Kidd.

Catalonia’s Concurs de Castells

The Concurs de Castells festival in Tarragona, Spain.
Credit: PENNY KIDD

The young girl wraps her arms around her mother’s neck then coils her legs around the woman’s waist. She receives last-minute instructions, words of encouragement, a kiss on the cheek. She tilts her helmeted head back. Eight people standing on top of one another looks pretty high from here. It looks even higher when you’re not yet 120 centimetres tall.  

For more than 200 years, people have been building castells, or castles, from humans. These human towers are synonymous with Catalonia, the autonomous region in north-east Spain with Barcelona as its capital. In towns across Catalonia, hundreds of people form collas, or teams, to build towers in a symbolic show of community strength.

Relying on the castellers’ motto of “Força, equilibri, valor i seny” (“Strength, balance, courage and common sense”), the most complex castells reach eight- or nine-people high with two, three or four people per level.

Tarragona, a Roman city hugging the Mediterranean 100 kilometres south-west of Barcelona, hosts the biennial Concurs de Castells (human tower contest). In this festival for the fearless Catalonia’s finest collas compete to build the most spectacular and daring towers.

The Tarraco Arena Plaça is a carpet of colour. Castellers wear shirts the colour of their colla – bright and light red, pink, deep purple, blue, orange or three different shades of green. They wear white trousers and often a bandana or neckerchief. Many also display a yellow ribbon in support of Catalonia’s jailed pro-independence politicians.

The first stage of a human tower is the pinya, or base. With powerfully built men in the centre, the pinya goes eight or nine deep in a mass of squished-together bodies. Their bent backs and tangled arms form a platform for the segons, or seconds, to stand on, followed by the terços (thirds) on their shoulders and so on up the tower. The child who climbs to the top is the enxaneta. The smallest of the colla, they can be as young as five.

With the pinya set, the segons and terços emerge from the pack like ants, tiptoeing over the tightrope of arms, shoulders and heads. Before the segons set themselves, they turn their collars up and place them in their mouths to keep their shirts tight. A wrinkle could be disastrous for a climber. They hold the shoulders of the teammate opposite and prepare for the weight that will make their arms shudder and knees shake.

When the tower reaches its third tier, a collective “shhh” spreads through the stadium and silences the hum of chatter. The fourth tier climb up the knees and backs of teammates, using their black sashes, or faixas, as an extra foothold. The band that accompanies each colla plays a triumphant tune.

Standing on the edge of the pinya, the enxaneta gets a high-five and arm round her shoulder from a slightly larger teammate. A nod signals she’s ready.

The collas attract all comers and, looking around, do not discriminate based on size, strength or age. From the giant men with arms like tree trunks to the slender men and women on the fringes of the pinya and upper tiers of the castells, everyone has a role. Women have only taken part since the 1980s and their inclusion has allowed more complex castells to be built. 

In the bowl of the arena, amid the sound of tactics being debated, foil being torn off bocadillo baguettes and beer being gulped, two Australian accents.

Fred Burnell, 50, from Geelong, and Robert Tresise, 52, from Perth, wear the light green of the Castellers de Vilafranca. Winners of the past eight competitions, the Vilafranca group would eventually finish second.

Fred moved to Torrelles de Foix, in Catalonia’s wine region, 20 years ago. I ask how long he’s been involved in castells.

“Twenty years,” he says. “This is the greatest team sport ever known. We have 600 people in our colla and everyone has to be perfect.”

His team trains three times a week and had eight days without a break to prepare for the contest.

A sturdy man, Fred is positioned in the pinya or one of the lower levels with the weight of plenty of people on his shoulders. While we are talking, another colla builds. One of the segons grits his teeth and turns the same shade of red as his shirt as he fights to keep it upright.

Robert was only supposed to be visiting his friend for a holiday when he found himself at the bottom of a collapsed castell.

“It’s painful to the extent people are lying on you and there are people lying on top of them,” he says in response to the obvious question.

We see another pinya forming, tangled arms as one and faces squashed into the back of the person in front.

“There is definitely no personal space,” says Robert, who had one practice session before the contest. “But everything is very orchestrated. There are 15-year-olds who want to be part of it and men and women in there my age and older. It’s a privilege for them; it’s a rite of passage.”

He cranes his neck to watch an enxaneta scurrying up a castell with the sure-footedness of a squirrel up a tree. “I just worry about the little kids at the top.”

The sound of sharp intakes of breath is the sign she is nearing the summit. A man furrows his brow and places the nail of his index finger between his teeth. A woman uses her hand to cover her mouth. The girl makes it to her crouching teammate, a position she will likely have in a couple of years. Quickly but carefully, she rolls on top of her.

To signal their position at the peak, the enxaneta raises a hand to the crowd. The cheekier among them blow a kiss. Light from the half-open stadium roof shines on the small girl nine metres above the ground. With her left hand gripping the shoulder below her, she raises her right and the crowd roars.

The successful “deconstruction” of a castell is often the most difficult part. Points are awarded for the construction – but more for a build and dismantle. To relieve the mounting pressure on the bodies below, the smallest try to return to the ground as quickly as possible, slithering to safety down the backs and legs of teammates.

Castellers insist their tradition is no more dangerous than other sports and it’s true that serious injuries are rare. Since 2006, when a 12-year-old girl died after falling from a castell, the youngest wear specially designed helmets.

With the competition nearing an end, more complex towers are attempted. Not all are successful. When there are falls, in a messy maze of tumbling limbs, there is a collective, involuntary cry from spectators followed by a soft thud. There are sometimes bruises and bloodied noses. There are often tears from the youngest. There is always applause. Medics rush to one man clutching his shoulder after emerging from a pile of teammates. He walks away grimacing.

The pinya is built to absorb the falls and spread the impact – even if a human safety net will never be the softest of landings. The castellers build as one and, when they fall, they all feel it.

Once the stadium has seen her hand, the girl doesn’t hang around. Knees tremble and arms quiver as she zips down the tower’s top tiers like a firefighter down a pole. The cautious cheers turn triumphant as she reaches the pinya and, arms aloft, jumps into her mother’s embrace.

When the rest of the tower successfully descends, the girl is hoisted on to someone’s shoulders in celebration. It could feel mundane after the heights she’s reached. Instead she looks on top of the world.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 27, 2018 as "Control towers". Subscribe here.

Robert Kidd
is a freelance journalist based in Valencia, Spain.