The Tower Builders of Catalonia

We all need a shoulder to climb on

By / November 2015

A young girl climbs a scrum of bodies and hands. She scrambles over shoulders, backs, thighs. Up one level then another, now three, four. Finally she pulls herself to the top and balances on the shoulders of her teammates. She raises her hand, signaling that she has peaked. Below, the crowd erupts with cheers, loud whistles, and applause.

The girl is not a cheerleader but rather a castellar, or human tower builder, part of a team of tower builders in Valls, a small town just west of Barcelona. What began as a local diversion in the 18th century has morphed, in recent years, into a national phenomenon. In 2014, a total of 30 human tower groups from around Spain competed in the Castells Competition. They can also be found filling town squares on holidays. The tower builders of Valls uphold a proud past. It’s a tradition literally built on the shoulders of others.

When I visited Valls this fall, the hotel clerk told us that a practice session was taking place that evening and that we should check it out. The Colla Vella, a dominant contender and winner of many Castellar titles, was using the local gymnasium. “I love the Colla Vella,” Maria, the clerk exclaimed. They wear the pink shirts. They are very good. The other team in town wears red. It’s a great rivalry.”

Photograph by Debbie PorterCalla Vella practicing in Valls, Spain. Photograph by Debbie Porter

The gym floor was filled to capacity with what looked like a cross-section of Valls. Old men, former castellars, sat in white plastic chairs along the back wall. The participants wore pink button ups and pants with a thick black cloth wrapped around their core. The rumble of conversation, laughter, and bonding filled the gym to the rafters. Suddenly a loud voice called out in Catalonian. The chatter stopped. A hush fell over the gymnasium. The castellans fell into position.

I asked a bystander how it worked. Castellar teams, she told me, are called colles. There are three parts to their formations. The base, called the pinya, is a ring of around 40 people. Above them is the tronc, made up of several additional rings of about nine people each. The top level is the pom de salt, or tower dome, which is typically scaled by young kids.

“Parents take their kids and sign up to join a team,” the bystander told me. “It is like baseball in America. The kids try out and go to practice. If they are good enough, then they participate in the competition.” During early training, the climbers practice with the safety of netting until their skills are honed. The castellars do occasionally fall, even in competitions, but the human base creates its own buffer.

The trainer called out the desired formation. Climbers crawled across the base and built a three-man tier. With the peak reached, the tiers of three began to collapse. The fearless dependence of the castellars pulled me up short. As one group slid down another pulled itself into a needle formation of four adults with one little girl at the top. Only when the final climber’s feet touched the ground again did the crowd erupt. I let out a gasp. I did not know that I had been holding my breath.

 

Debbie Porter is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.

 

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