The casteller tradition, specific to the region of Catalonia, Spain is said to have originated during the 18th century near Tarragona, where different colla (teams of castellers) began competing against one another to see who could create the tallest human castle possible.
In 2010, castells were added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list alongside the Mediterranean diet, flamenco and the summer solstice fire festival, other traditions also from Spain. During my time in Catalonia, I’ve seen a bunch of castells during Les Santes, the city festival of Mataró, as well as in Barcelona and it still makes an impression on me every single time.
Last week marked a historic moment in the tradition. The Castallers de Vilafranca completed a ten of three (ten people high, with three people on each level), which is the tallest tower ever! This tower, which was attempted, but had never been successful before was showcased at this year’s castaller competition in Tarragona. There was even a colla from China, Els Xiquets de Hangzhou (Children of Hangzhou) who successfully completed a tower of nine of three.
There are many different styles and techniques used to create the castles, which are usually between six and ten levels high, but all have a similar structure. The base is made up of many people who are supporting the tronc (trunk), the vertical section, which is topped with the fearless children (pom de dalt). The child at the very top will raise a hand marking the completion of the castle before quickly sliding down the bodies of his sturdy teammates back to the ground.
Although beautiful to watch, creating and disassembling a tower is very dangerous and despite its rarity, there have been fatalities. In 2006, a 12-year-old girl from Mataró died after falling from a tower of nine stories (around 10 meters). The tragic accident marked the mandatory usage of helmets for the children who make up the top levels of the towers.
The faixa (sash) is an important part of the casteller uniform worn tightly wrapped around their lower back as a makeshift back brace, but also used as a foothold for others to climb up or go down the tower. Another essential element is the music. Different songs are played on a traditional flute and drums to signal when certain things are taking place in the formation of the castles. If the base is formed well, the music begins, telling the castellers that is should be safe to attempt the tower. If the bottom levels look unstable, they will call it off and try again.
Where to watch them:
There are always castells during most town festivities and holidays, so try to plan your trip during this time so you are able to see it. Make sure to check out the festival program online and arrive early! Be careful not to stand too close to the tower. Those below act as a cushion if they fall.
- La Mercé – The annual city festival of Barcelona held at the end of September
- Other town or city festivals in Catalonia
- Get tickets to the Concurs de Castells, the biannual competition in Tarragona
You can also watch one of the colla during their training sessions.
Castallers de Barcelona -Training sessions are on Tuesday, Thursdays and Fridays from February to November near Clot metro station. For more information click here.