The origins of this Catalan tradition of building human towers dates back to the 18th century. It was in the small town of Valls, about 40 km west of Barcelona, that the inhabitants started building the towers, The individual groups (colles) started to compete in sporting events. Thus, not only the building itself was invented, but also the competition.
The towers at that time resembled very much the ones of today, the basic structure of a castell, as they are called in Catalan, having barely changed. Such a tower always consists of three parts. The basis is the so-called "Pinya", a relatively large ring, onto which the weight of the load above is distributed, and which stabilizes the structure. This ring also softens the fall of the castellers, when the tower falls apart.
Depending on the height of the tower, one or two additional ring-shaped floors ("Manilles") are put on top of the pinya.
On top of this, the actual tower is built. The "tronc", Catalan for trunk, consists of several levels with a specific number of people. Depending on the number and distribution of the up to 9 people of a ring, each castell has a name of its own.
Climbing to the top of the tower is only allowed for kids, because of their low weight. They form the "pom de dalt", the tower dome.
The technique of building a castell is frequently trained. Each casteller has his own position and function within the castell, even if the pinya seems to form at random to an outsider. Once the pinya is set up, the members of the manilles climb up in a pre-defined order and form the first rings. The strongest have to carry most of the weight at the bottom, and the lightest go up into the tower.
Finally, the "anxenta" climbs up to the top and remains there only for a few seconds to raise his or her arm to salute the crowds. The tower is crowned and the goal is almost reached. The castell now has to be de-constructed without falling apart, a procedure as tricky and trained as the build-up. Nowadays, children often wear a foam-padded helmet.
There are some special variants, in which the trunk is built in the opposite order. A level is set-up and then lifted up from below, where the next lower level is formed.
During the building process, a flute and a drum play the "Toc de Castells", a melody that is to indicate the different construction phases of the tower and to stir up the emotions and which also accompanies the castellers upon their entry and exit to the scene.
Traditionally, the castellers perform their tower building during the main parts of larger festivals. Usually, three colles come together and build their human edifices. Nowadays, the towers are also often built outside of the festivals – the actual season goes from June to November.
Check the website of the Castellers de Catalunya for an updated schedule. If you have the chance to watch the building of a castell, do so as it really is a very special event.
Since 2010 the Human Towers of Catalonia are part of the Intangible World Heritage by the UNESCO.
The building of castells is a rather rural tradition, which also explains why the first club in the city, the Castellers de Barcelona, was founded quite late in 1969. The founding members of the coll are mostly former citizens of Villafranca, not far away from Barcelona. There were some earlier groups, but they remained unsuccessful and no longer exist.
The Castellers de Barcelona kept on refining their technique and the towers became higher and higher.
While in the 1970s, 7-level castells were built, the already have 9 levels today. This level of difficulty has only been achieved by 10 of the colles of the casteller association. The "Coordinadora the Colles Castelleres de Catalunya" comprises 60 colles.
The castells have their origins in a traditional folklore dance in the city of Valls. The steps of the dance were accompanied with the flute, as it is still played today during the tower building. At the end of the dance a small human tower was built. This probably has encouraged the ambitions of the dancers: the towers started becoming a phenomenon of their own, and rivalling groups started building higher and higher towers. It is assumed, that the castellers were officially separated from the traditional dance by the end of the 19th century.
Complete building of a Castell
Also, this happens: A Castell collapses. This looks more dramatic than it is. Luckily, there are rarely serious injuries.