The courtyard filled with dozens and dozens of people in white pants and either red or orange shirts.
The two teams had arrived to prepare for building castells, the human castles or towers that are part of many festivals in Barcelona and other parts of Spain.
In Spain, the building of castells originated in Valls, near the city of Tarragona in CataloniaIn in the 1700s. In 2010, castells were classified by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
I had seen photos, videos and artwork of castells, with castellers standing on their team members’ shoulders — six or seven layers high.
Now I was going to see castells built as one of the event of Festes Sant Josep Orio being held in Placa del Pi outside Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi.
Team tents were set up to sell team shirts and bandanas and provide information about the castellers.
The teams were a mix of ages and included both genders. Women were allowed to become part of castell teams beginning in the 1980s and led to the towers becoming even taller than before.
Role of the faixa (sash)
A key part of the preparation was for each team member to wrap in a black sash (faixa).
The team member would position one end of the sash around her waist, and a teammate would hold the other end, as she wrapped the sash tightly around herself.
The length of the sash — from 1.5 to 12 meters — depends on the casteller’s position on the tower, with those at the bottom wearing the longer sashes.
Once the sash is secured, it provides double service. The tight sash provides back strength and stability for the casteller. The sash also provides a hand or foot grip for those climbing to the higher levels.
Building the castell
The base of the tower, the pinya (pine cone), was created with more than 50 people, usually the adult males, tightly packed together. Members of the other team would press in on the outside of the team’s pinya to provide additional support.
The pinya not only provides a strong base but a safety net if a casteller were to fall.
Once the base was solid, a signal was given to the team’s band that played the traditional Toc de Castells music as the tower was built.
From the pinya emerged the castellers for the next layer, who then stood on the shoulders of the pinya and placed their arms on each others’ shoulders.
As that layer stabilized, the next layer of castellers started climbing.
The castellers were barefoot and used their feet to help gain a grip on their team members’ hips and waists as they climbed. I could see them gaining a toehold on a teammate’s faixa or using a teammate’s bent knee as a step up.
Once in position, the castellers sometimes held the collars of their shirts in their teeth to keep the fabric of their shirts from slipping as their teammates climbed.
The building of the levels happened quickly but methodically with members of a level climbing in unison to reach their perch and then create their level.
The two top levels were built by young girls, with the top casteller, the enxaneta, being about 6 years old.
The enxaneta would deftly climb up the tower, wearing a specially designed safety helmet. (I later learned that the safety helmets were required after the death of a 12-year-old girl in 2006.)
Once the exaneta moved to the top of the castell, she raised her hand, indicating that the tower was complete.
The crowd would roar its appreciation.
Then quickly the exaneta would begin her descent down the castell, sliding down her teammates as if they were a giant playground slide.
When she reached the pinya, the enxaneta, who would jump from the pinya into the outstretched arms of one of her parents, receiving the cheers of both teams and the crowd.
The other levels disassembled quickly but systematically and carefully.
When a castell team is being judged, the assessment is based both on the successful completion and successful disassembling of the castell.
Every time a castell was built, it was surrounded by the crowd, calling encouragement, taking photos and video, and sometimes gasping in concern or relief.
What an experience to see the teamwork and skills of the castellers!
The motto of the castellers is: “Força, equilibri, valor i seny” (Strength, balance, courage and common sense).
That’s good advice even for those of us who aren’t catellers.