Europe '96: Castellers: A Tall Story

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One more story.

On Friday night, my next to last night in Europe, walking in Barcelona, in Grácia, on the Plaça Rius i Taulet, I saw a rather amazing sight: people practicing the old Catalan tradition of forming human towers. Now, understand, this was something I had previously heard described and had even seen in photographs, but seeing it in the flesh is another matter. A hundred or more people, dressed Barcelona normal (actually, a bit of a leaning in the grunge direction: how many of the younger ones are stage divers and crowd surfers?) except for these big cloth belts which actually consist of a long, slightly stretchy cloth wrapped several times around the waist, are in the plaza to practice their technique.

And quite a bit of technique there is. I saw towers up to five people high, with anywhere from two to five people to a layer, each standing on the shoulders of the group below. Some of the towers were uniform top-to-bottom (except for the size of the people!). Others thinned as they went up, say five at the bottom but only 3 at the top. Some were built by people clambering up and forming successive layers. In these, the cloth belts provide a foothold on the way up. Others were formed by the top group -- say, three small women -- setting up first, then being hoisted into the air by, say, three larger women, then all six being raised by three strong men, and the now nine being hoisted by 3 absolutely strapping guys. Methods of descending were just as varied, including descents down the outside or down the middle.

The crowd stayed in close, so that if anyone fell (no one did) they would simply fall down onto other people, not the pavement. Otherwise, a fall could get pretty serious: people ended up a good 25 feet in the air, maybe more. It was particularly amazing watching some 7-year-old girl clamber up to take her place at the summit. Fearless. You would not want these people as your enemies in hand-to-hand combat.

They did this for hours, people drifting in and out of the operation, another couple of hundred just hanging out, very good business for the bars on the plaza. And while I am sure I am not the only tourist who happened upon this, there weren't many. This was not a publicized event. This was a Friday night's recreation for the participants.

[Marc Ignasi adds February 2002:
Read your note on the castellers; the record is up to 10 people high. The good groups on "castells" (human towers) build up 9 humans high (there are at least 4 groups which we call "colles castelleres" that perform those "castells" every year). The easier ones are the ones with 3 people per floor, the most difficult are the ones with 5 people per floor, or the ones with "agulla" (needle): that means that inside the castle there is a tower (a single person per floor castle), which when the castle is being undone has to remain standing until the outside part of the castle is already down.]

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Originally written: 1996

Last modified: 26 February 2021

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