15 Apr 2012


          Do you enjoy watching children fall through the air for the purposes of entertainment? Come on, now. It’s a simple enough question. Do you?
          As a sensitive, caring person, and what other type of person reads this blog, faced with this question you have doubtless reeled back a little from your computer screen. I come here for information about restaurants and sights and stuff, you are thinking. I do not come here to answer unpleasant questions about the entertainment value of imperilled children. But, you continue, if you insist (and I do) then allow me to firmly inform you that my view on falling children is like my view on war, pestilence and Real Madrid winning La Liga, I am opposed to it.
          Hmm, I say. How about an activity where there is the threat of falling children but the participants aim to avoid it? I sense you are wavering. I suspect your opinions on falling children are not quite as concrete as you previously led me to believe. Which is a good thing. Because otherwise you might miss Barcelona’s greatest free show:
          Their origins are lost in the midst of time (or I couldn’t be bothered to look them up - take your pick) but sometime long ago in one of Barcelona’s less salubrious barrios one man (or woman) turned to another man (or woman) and said, “You know what? Today I really fancy standing on someone else’s head.” (In fact they actually said, “Sabes de qué? Hoy me apetece estar a pie en la cabeza de alguién” Actually they didn’t even say that because they were probably speaking Catalan – see my post Two Languages for more on this.)
          Anyway, by an amazing coincidence it turned out that the person being spoken to actually fancied having their head stood on. Soon word spread and it turned out that everybody in the barrio either fancied standing on someone’s head or being stood on or both. There was only one thing to do : build a human castle.
          They quickly realized that if you were going to build a successful human castle you needed your older, stouter people at the bottom then your younger, slimmer people in the middle and your tiny children right at the top. So pausing only to drag the protesting kids away from their games of hide and seek they set to building.
          Soon word spread to the other barrios and to outlying towns and villages. And it turned out that everyone rather liked the idea of getting together to build a human castle. And once there were lots of groups of people building human castles then there was only one thing for it – to compete to see who could build the best one.
          It’s all so straightforward when you think about it.
          Troupes of Castellers appear all over the place in Catalonia at all sorts of times but the best time to see them is during La Mercè (Barcelona’s Biggest Festival Week) in Plaza Jaume at the heart of Barri Gotico.
          From one o’ clock onwards the whole square is jam-packed with people waiting for the ceremonial arrival of the castellers. The whine of the flabiol (a wonderfully named though not so wonderfully sounding Catalan instrument – think of the bagpipes without the commercial appeal) calls them in. A troupe (which numbers between thirty and fifty castellers) all dressed in red shirts enters the square behind a small, mobile human castle (normally no more than four people high) which with a tottering majesty awkwardly makes its way through the throng towards the centre, the small child atop it  jauntily saluting the crowd. 
Castellers 2 :Wobbly entrance
 Another troupe dressed in green follows. Then a third dressed in blue. The small, mobile human castles disassemble themselves, the flabiol players take a breather and the anticipation and the heat begin to build.
          Then, without warning, one of the troupes begins to make its foundation. Four or five men link arms to form a solid circle and the majority of the troupe form a gigantic protective circular base (la piña) around them to provide support and to cushion the landings of any fallers.
          On top of this large base three or four of the strongest men form a second layer. And on top of them three younger men climb and set themselves. Together they form the trunk (el tronco). From now it is a thrilling race against time as the strength of the young men speedily saps. The young women clamber expertly up their backs and then stand on their shoulders. Then the teenage boys. Then then teenage girls. Each layer smaller, lighter and faster than the last. 
Castellers 3: The tronco forms
 By now the strain is beginning to tell on the supporters down below. The  men grimace in pain and urge each other to hold strong. The woman set themselves and refuse to buckle. And now just when they need a boost to their morale the band strikes up. The flagiol manages to sound triumphant and melancholy seemingly anticipating both success and failure while robust beat of the tambori sends the little children scurrying up the backs of the men…the women…the boys…the girls to provide the final pivotal touch.
          When the tiniest child makes the seventh…eighth…or even ninth level (el pomo de arriba) and throws out a flash of a wave the tower is complete. 
Castellers 4: The brief second of triumph
 A moment later it is already disassembling for now the supporters' strength is almost spent and the rules state it doesn’t count unless you get down as well as up without a fall.
          Each person slips back down the living edifice below as the young men at the bottom begin to sway and suffer. Will they hold? Will they give? You’ll have to go and see.
          The truth is that both happens for each troupe builds a number of castles and in the heady atmosphere the temptation to build that one extra storey is irresistible. Which brings me to the falling children. They’ve got comical crash helmets and the elders below provide them with a soft(ish) landing should the castle crumble. You need not worry.
          The culmination of the day is when the winning troupe builds a tower up to the high balcony of the Casa de la Ciudad (Barcelona’s town hall) and the mayor leans over and plucks the child from the top. It’s quite a sight (though I suspect any mayor dropping the child could kiss his re-election chances goodbye).
          So why are the Castellers Barcelona’s best free show? Because the atmosphere on the day as tourists and locals squash together is a sunny cocktail of bemusement, excitement and pride. Because it genuinely feels as though this is still something a barrio or a village just does as a community for the sheer, crazy hell of it. Because it is utterly pointless and absolutely magnificent. Because there isn’t a reason.

Useful Spanish Words/Phrases:

Perdona – Excuse Me
¿Donde está Plaza Jaume, por favor? – Where is Jaume Square, please?
¡Bravo! – Bravo!

If you fancy chatting:

¡Que grande la piña! – How big the base is!
¡Qué fuerte el tronco! – How strong the trunk is!
¡Que alto el pomo de arriba! – How high the top bit is!
¡Aiiiiiii! – Ouch!

1 comment:

  1. OK. It turns out that the best place to see Castellers is in fact the Diada de Sant Felix in Vilafranca del Penedes as I have been reliably informed by Jordina, and anyone who knows anything about Catalan names will know that means she is right. This is a little inconvenient as I do not keep BigVilafrancadelPenedes blog but my committment to truth means I cannot keep it from you. Sant Jaume and La Merce is still pretty good though.