Finding the Spirit of Catalunya: My ‘Castellers Challenge’

Who’d have thought I’d be spending a Sunday afternoon attempting to be part of a human tower? Not me, until…well, until I spent a Sunday afternoon attempting to be part of a human tower. It’s time to experience Catalonia, and delve into the world of castells…

*this post is a paid collaboration with Catalunya Experience and the Catalan Tourist Board*

Castells (which translates in English to ‘castles’) are human towers, built by groups called ‘colles’ in Catalunya. It’s a tradition that dates back to the 18th century, and they’re usually built in the main square of a village on Sunday mornings. The towers are usually 6-10 levels high, formed by castellers standing on each other’s shoulders. In 2010, castells were declared Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO – making them a universally recognised element of cultural identity.

The best way to get an idea of how epic these towers are? Video time…

The Castellers of London group was formed in 2015, aimed at promoting the castells tradition in London. They hold open rehearsals and events in the city, and also travel to perform in cities such as Tarragona, regarded as the home of castells. In collaboration with Catalunya Experience, the group invited me along to a training session for my very own ‘Casteller’s Challenge’. For someone who doesn’t have the best strength or balance, I was pretty nervous, to say the least…

I was welcomed into the session by Jordi, the group’s manager, who presented me with a t-shirt and bandana, before whirling a sash tightly around my waist. The purpose of these, as he explained, soon became clear – firstly, they keep your core strong; and secondly, climbers use them to get a foothold.

Adults and children taking part in a Catalunyan castell rehearsal in LondonAdults and children taking part in a Catalunyan castell rehearsal in London

The climbing aspect is rather more technical than clambering onto your drunk mate’s shoulders at a festival, that’s for sure. Tucking one foot as high as possible into their upper leg, castellers going up will lift themselves up using their arms, pushing upwards on the other person’s shoulders. Considering I have NO arm strength whatsoever, I was in awe of this part. I just about managed it with a little (read: quite a bit of) assistance. But once I’d made it up, I felt pretty accomplished. It’s definitely harder than it looks!

I also had the chance to be in a base position – the bottom level of the tower, which supports the rest, is called the ‘pinya’. Which involved a little less dexterity, but some solid core strength. The pinya isn’t just those offering a supporting shoulder though – the bodies surrounding them are packed tightly to give the structure strength (and provide a safety net if there are any slips!).

Once I’d had my turn, it was time to watch the experts at work. And I couldn’t take my eyes off them…

Adults and children taking part in a Catalunyan castell rehearsal in LondonAdults and children taking part in a Catalunyan castell rehearsal in LondonChild taking part in a Catalunyan castell rehearsal in London

One thing I hadn’t appreciated about the building of human towers were the small children that snake their way to the top of the pyramid. Seriously, these kids are fearless.

The London Castellers are heading to the ‘Concurs de Castells’ event this October in Tarragona, where castellers groups from all over Catalunya (and the world) come together to compete, perform and celebrate.

My own first attempt at castells didn’t particularly set the world alight, but what really struck me is how comfortable the group made me feel about just having a go. Jordi explained that the community element of the castellers is hugely important to what they do; it’s not just an activity, but a chance to get together and socialise. The children at the top? Most of their parents are castellers too.

While many of the group are of Catalan heritage, not everyone is. But for certain, here, in a North London youth centre, Catalunya’s sense of community, tradition and inclusiveness is standing strong…just like their castells are.

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