Catalan Castellers Scrape The Sky

Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.
— Lawrence Block

During our first weekend in Spain we happened to stumble upon the Festival of Santa Eul├ália, the patron saint of Barcelona (more about that here). There are lots of crazy things that happen during this festival the most exciting of which is the appearances by the collet castelleres (groups that build human towers called "castells"). 

The last day of the festival was cool and rainy and we had considered not taking the train into the city at all but the promise of seeing these amazing human castles convinced us to go anyway.

I'm so glad that we did! The way that the castellers build and dismantle these huge human towers was nothing short of impressive. In fact, castells were declared by UNESCO to be amongst the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

The  enxaneta (little kid that is the at the top)  sliding down to disassemble the castell.

The enxaneta (little kid that is the at the top) sliding down to disassemble the castell.

To begin, each of the collet castelleres enters the square with their own little music group playing traditional woodwind type instruments and drums to draw attention to themselves and let everybody know that there will be something happening soon. The band plays a very important role as their music signals what is going during the entire show (they even have a signal for when its time to take a snack break).

Traditionally at least three castle groups will perform their castles in a town square on a Sunday for local festivals but in recent history they have expanded out to other performances. During the performance each of the groups builds three castles and a special farewell castle that features only one person on each level.

Almost finished building some of the first castells with the Spanish and Catalan flags flying.

Almost finished building some of the first castells with the Spanish and Catalan flags flying.

At this particular festival there were 5 groups, each from different neighborhoods in Barcelona. They all built their first castles at the same time then erected the others as they pleased.

Building a castell is actually pretty technical and there is a good deal of strategy involved in the different designs. On each of the teams every single person has a designated position within each of their castell variations

The base of the tower [pinya] and the first level or two of the trunk [tronc] is made up mostly of big, strong men. Then the next few levels are smaller adults, mostly women. Finally the top couple levels or crown [pom de dalt] of the castle are made up of kids with the very top person [enxaneta] on the crown of the castle being a very small child. The whole time I was standing there watching those tiny kids climb up to the top imagining what I would say if one of my girls informed me that was something she'd like to do in the next year or so...

This looked like a tricky double width tower.

This looked like a tricky double width tower.

Most of the castells that we saw were 7 or 8 levels tall. What was surprising was how quickly they were completed, crowned (the enxaneta raises their hand with 4 fingers up at the top) and disassembled. I would say the whole process was less than 5 minutes for each castell. Each casteller wears white pants, a colored shirt with their team name, a black sash (faixa) wrapped very snuggly around their waists, a bandana (mocador) and bare feet so they don't hurt their teammates with shoes (or dirty the white pants).

The most important part of their outfits is the sash which helps support their backs and is used as a place for the climbers to hold onto and step up on. 

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Castelling is a cultural phenomenon that exists primarily in within the Catalan speaking areas of Europe. At this time there are only 9 castelling groups in the rest of the world. 

It was so cool to get to be a part of something that is so specific to that region of Spain. It's the sort of thing people travel to Barcelona for specifically so we really lucked into being there at the perfect time. 

What about you? Have you ever gotten to experience a crazy festival or local tradition during your travels? Where was it?