You’ve seen buildings constructed by people, but have you seen them constructed of people? Every other October, men and women climb on top of each other’s shoulders as part of the Concurs de Castells (human towers competition) in Tarragona, Spain. It’s the ultimate exhibition of teamwork as large groups of everyday people from the ages of 5 to 95 work together to build a living human structure. Watching the castellers climb to create towers reaching upwards of 9 stories high will take your breath away—a mix of fear and excitement.
How It’s Done: The Building Blocks
This cultural sport dates back to the end of the 18th century in nearby Valls, when the traditional Valencian dance took off in an upward direction. It took more than 100 years to break the 8-story level, and once it did the sport literally soared.
Dress is a vital element to the competition. Members of each team all wear the same bright primary color with a black sash (faixa) that holds it all together. Despite just looking good, the faixa provides crucial back support, and the length is equal to one’s position in the tower. Shorter faixa (2m-wide) are reserved for the light and nimble tower-climbers, while faixa of up to 12 meters long provide the ground-level team members with extra support. Wrapping the faixa is a pre-game ritual and a serious undertaking. Climbers go barefoot to help with agility and to go easy on the rungs of the human ladder.
Unlike human pyramids, human tower-building is a dance, based on order, method and ritual. It requires força, equilibri, valor i seny (strength, balance, courage and common sense). The base (pinya ) is usually made up of the strongest men, who also act as a safety net if the castell collapses. Arms are locked to create a strong foundation, and once it’s been created, a signal strikes and a band plays the traditional song Toc de Castells , so starting the construction of the tower.
The dismantling of the tower can often be the most dangerous part, and although accidents are rare, there have been fatalities.
As the tower grows, the castellers shrink in size until only the youngest and lightest remain. While the pinya is meticulously formed over time, the dance quickens as the tower grows to limit the exposure to danger and bearing of weight. Special crash helmets have been designed for the children, with a soft outside to protect their human safety net. The child crown of the tower is called the enxaneta , or rider. When the enxaneta reaches the apex of the tower, he or she raises four fingers (representing the Catalan flag) and then climbs down the other side. The dismantling of the tower can often be the most dangerous part, and although accidents are rare, there have been fatalities.
Rules and History
The 32 participating teams are judged on their three best attempts out of five. There are many different constructions, and each team is given points based on difficulty, height, and following protocol.
Concurs de Castells was recently recognized by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and is more popular than ever. Tickets must be purchased to be among the 6,000 spectators. In addition to the pillars of people, the festival puts local cultural and entertainment on display with a parade of dance, music, concerts, fireworks, and street performances.
The championship competition happens every 2 years (on even-numbered years), with the next held in 2014. If you’re visiting during on odd-numbered year or at another time, it’s possible to see the castellers at other festivals. Barcelona’s annual Les Festes De La Merce is held around September 24th and is a great option that includes other cultural events. In Tarragona, the annual Santa Tecla festival features the castellers and a special ritual of the moving pillars. This competition takes place at the Plaça de la Font around September 23rd. In late October, Valls, home of the castellers, holds back-to-back festivals.
No country has a more diverse collection of festivals than Spain, and Concurs de Castells is one of my favorites. The friendly Catalan people know how to throw a party and create a spectacle, and after watching the video linked below, I guarantee you’ll want to see this miraculous human experience in person. I’d recommend renting a house in Tarragona for a month so you can experience the series of Catalan festivals, with the highlight being Concurs de Castells. I’ve heard people say they were “standing on the shoulders of giants” when describing their ancestors, but at this festival people take that phrase literally.