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The Castells

“Castells” are human towers up to ten floors high that have been built by “colles” (organized groups, teams) in Catalonia for more than 200 years. It is a powerful display of popular culture rooted in tradition that combines spectacle, beauty and, at the same time, remarkable social and civic values. 

“Castells” were born between late 18th and early 19th centuries, in the Camp de Tarragona and Penedès areas, but in the last 50 years have extended to most of Catalonia and even further. In fact, “castells” are living their finest hour now, with close to 100 “colles” that build the most difficult towers. This sweet moment is completed with an important media attention and prestige, expressed by their inscription on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Representative List. 

This success is caused by the fact that “castells”, though rooted in tradition and maintaining most of its original attraction, have also been able to adapt to current times on matters such as to incorporate women –initially it was an exclusively masculine practice-; risk decrease –for example, through a special helmet to protect the kids-; or a general openness to society. “Castells” are traditional, yes, but at the same time they are radically modern.  

In fact, “castells” offer values that often are not easy to find in contemporary society: solidarity, team effort, democratic running... “Castells” are open to everybody, and men and women, elder and younger and people from every background and economic, cultural or social status take part together. That is why it is also a very inclusive activity, promoting social cohesion. 

It’s important to stress the fact that it’s an amateur activity. The team members (“castellers”) don’t get paid and they are not athletes or circus artists, though a good physical shape is needed to take certain posts and also lots of rehearsal hours are due to build human towers. They are regular men and women that get together to enjoy an activity they love.

“Castells”:  types and technique

“Castells” are made up of three different parts, the “pinya”, the “tronc” and then the “pom de dalt”. The “pinya” is the wide base for the tower, a group of people standing on the ground, applying pressure towards the nucleus of the tower and, at the same time, working as a mattress in case there is a fall. The “tronc” is the central part of the tower, the people who are seen above the “pinya”.  Finally, a “castell” ends with the “pom de dalt”, which is normally formed by the youngest members, the lightest, and is always composed of the same three layers: first layer being two “castellers” grasping each others arms (called the “dosos”);  then a casteller crouching across their shoulders like a frog ( the“aixecador” or “acotxador”); and  finally, the “enxaneta” who crowns the castell by crossing over the top and who raises their hand symbolically as a salute when at the pinnacle of the tower.

The different types of “castells” are based on the combination of two parameters: height (the number of floors of the tower) and width (number of “castellers” at each floor of the “tronc”). These two parameters also give us the name of each tower: for example, a “quatre de vuit” (four of eight) is a tower eight floors high with four “castellers” at each level. 

Regarding width, the most usual “castells” have two, three or four people per floor. Towers with only one person per floor are called “pilars”. Obviously they don’t have a whole “pom de dalt” and are built usually at the end of a performance, sometimes also at the start, as well as in protocol events, etc. They are considered as some kind of greeting. There are also towers with five or even more people per floor. These are combination “castells”: they combine several structures of two, three or four people, with separated “poms de dalt”. Combination “castells” include also towers built with a “pilar” inside. 

Regarding width, the smallest towers have six floors but they can get up to ten. The exception are “pilars”, that go from four to eight floors. The highest towers may use a smaller second or even a third “pinya”, called “folre” and “manilles” respectively. 

Finally, there are also some kind of “castells” which are special because of their building technique, the ones called “aixecats per sota”. These are towers in which the different floors are lifted up into place out of the “pinya” rather than people climbing up. 

Of course, some towers are more difficult than others. In general, the higher the tower, the more difficult it is. But you have to also take into account other elements, such as the width (for example, a “three of eight” is more difficult than a “four of eight”), how it is built or if additional “pinyes” are used. That is why it is possible to establish a hierarchy of difficulty and, thus, a score table, which is one of the elements that define the Concurs de Castells.

“Castells” and Tarragona

The history of “castells” cannot be explained without the role of Tarragona as one of its main promoters, both as a host to “colles” from all over and through its local teams. At the same time, “castells” are really a strong presence in the city, which considers them one of its most important identity features. 

Through the 19th century, Tarragona welcomed the performances from the Valls teams, as well as the local Balls de Valencians. The first documented nine-floor tower was built in Tarragona in 1851, like the most important tower in this whole First Golden Age, the “quatre de nou sense folre”, in 1881. 

In the 20th century, Tarragona had a key role for the “castells” rebirth that starts precisely with the appearance of a local team in 1926. From then on, there have always been local “castellers” in Tarragona. Nowadays the town has four teams: Xiquets de Tarragona (born in 1970), Colla Jove Xiquets de Tarragona (1980), Xiquets del Serrallo (1988) and Colla Castellera de Sant Pere i Sant Pau (1990). There is also a university team, Pataquers de la URV (2007). 

Obviously, one of the main links between “castells” and Tarragona is the Concurs, born in 1932 and celebrated every two years since 1980. 

Apart from the Concurs, the main performances in Tarragona are as follows (all of them host the four local teams, except the pre-Santa Tecla Sunday one, in which two local “colles” share the spotlight with two from outside): 

  • April 23rd (Sant Jordi): evening at Rambla Nova
  • June 24th (Sant Joan): evening at plaça de la Font
  • August 19th (Sant Magí): noon at plaça de les Cols
  • September 11th (Catalan National Day): noon at Pla de la Seu
  • Pre-SantaTecla Sunday: noon at plaça de la Font
  • September 23rd (Santa Tecla): noon at plaça de la Font
  • September 24th (La Mercè): noon at plaça de les Cols

This last performance finishes with the amazing walking “pilars”, which has become one of the most distinctive features of “castells” in Tarragona. These four level pillars go up and down the Cathedral stairs and then walk until the City Hall. It takes them almost ten minutes! 

Moreover, through the season there are other performances: some organized by local teams, neighborhood festivals and, recently, performances designed especially for tourists on Wednesday evenings during summer due to the “Tarragona, city of human towers” program.

“Castells”: a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage

UNESCO approved the inscription of “castells” into the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) Representative List in Nairobi, on November 16th, 2010. Thus, “castells” achieved the maximum institutional recognition at the international level. According to UNESCO, “’castells’ are recognized by Catalan people as an integral part of their cultural identity, transmitted from generation from generation and providing community members a sense of continuity, social cohesion and solidarity”. 

UNESCO’s ICH Convention (2003) aims to give value to cultural elements such as rituals, festivals or traditional knowledge, which during much time have been considered as second rate culture. UNESCO remarks that this heritage is fundamental to communities which display it and feel attached to it. 

The inscription of an element to the Representative List means that the different administrations involved have a responsibility to safeguard this practice, that is, to work so that the conditions that make possible the continuity of this element are kept. The Concurs de Castells and the Biennial constitute, to that extent, an important tool for safeguarding. 

Other elements included in the ICH Representive List –such as the Mediterranean diet, the flamenco, the art of dry stone building or the Sybilla Chant- are also present in Tarragona, but there is no doubt that the one that is most identified with the city is “castells”. Furthermore, the Tarraco archeological ensemble is also included in the World Heritage List. This means that Tarragona hosts in the same urban space both tangible and intangible heritage recognized by UNESCO.