TRAVEL: Hu­man tow­ers in Spain.

In north-east­ern Spain, an an­cient tra­di­tion com­bines dare­devil skill with strength and team­work – all amid a fes­ti­val at­mos­phere. But, writes Robert Kidd, just view­ing these hu­man cas­tles in the air is not for the faint-hearted.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week - Robert Kidd

The young girl wraps her arms around her mother’s neck then coils her legs around the woman’s waist. She re­ceives last-minute in­struc­tions, words of en­cour­age­ment, a kiss on the cheek. She tilts her hel­meted head back. Eight peo­ple stand­ing on top of one an­other looks pretty high from here. It looks even higher when you’re not yet

120 cen­time­tres tall.

For more than 200 years, peo­ple have been build­ing castells, or cas­tles, from hu­mans. These hu­man tow­ers are syn­ony­mous with Cat­alo­nia, the au­ton­o­mous re­gion in north-east Spain with Barcelona as its cap­i­tal. In towns across Cat­alo­nia, hun­dreds of peo­ple form col­las, or teams, to build tow­ers in a sym­bolic show of com­mu­nity strength.

Re­ly­ing on the castellers’ motto of “Força, equi­libri, valor i seny” (“Strength, bal­ance, courage and com­mon sense”), the most com­plex castells reach eight- or ninepeo­ple high with two, three or four peo­ple per level.

Tar­rag­ona, a Ro­man city hug­ging the Mediter­ranean 100 kilo­me­tres south-west of Barcelona, hosts the bi­en­nial Con­curs de Castells (hu­man tower con­test). In this fes­ti­val for the fear­less Cat­alo­nia’s finest col­las com­pete to build the most spec­tac­u­lar and dar­ing tow­ers.

The Tar­raco Arena Plaça is a car­pet of colour. Castellers wear shirts the colour of their colla – bright and light red, pink, deep pur­ple, blue, or­ange or three dif­fer­ent shades of green. They wear white trousers and of­ten a ban­dana or neck­er­chief. Many also dis­play a yel­low rib­bon in sup­port of Cat­alo­nia’s jailed proin­de­pen­dence politi­cians.

The first stage of a hu­man tower is the pinya, or base. With pow­er­fully built men in the cen­tre, the pinya goes eight or nine deep in a mass of squished-to­gether bod­ies. Their bent backs and tan­gled arms form a plat­form for the segons, or sec­onds, to stand on, fol­lowed by the terços (thirds) on their shoul­ders and so on up the tower. The child who climbs to the top is the enx­aneta. The small­est of the colla, they can be as young as five.

With the pinya set, the segons and terços emerge from the pack like ants, tip­toe­ing over the tightrope of arms, shoul­ders and heads. Be­fore the segons set them­selves, they turn their col­lars up and place them in their mouths to keep their shirts tight. A wrin­kle could be dis­as­trous for a climber. They hold the shoul­ders of the team­mate op­po­site and pre­pare for the weight that will make their arms shud­der and knees shake.

When the tower reaches its third tier, a col­lec­tive “shhh” spreads through the sta­dium and si­lences the hum of chat­ter. The fourth tier climb up the knees and backs of team­mates, us­ing their black sashes, or faixas, as an ex­tra foothold. The band that ac­com­pa­nies each colla plays a tri­umphant tune.

Stand­ing on the edge of the pinya, the enx­aneta gets a high-five and arm round her shoul­der from a slightly larger team­mate. A nod sig­nals she’s ready.

The col­las at­tract all com­ers and, look­ing around, do not dis­crim­i­nate based on size, strength or age. From the gi­ant men with arms like tree trunks to the slen­der men and women on the fringes of the pinya and up­per tiers of the castells, ev­ery­one has a role. Women have only taken part since the 1980s and their in­clu­sion has al­lowed more com­plex castells to be built.

In the bowl of the arena, amid the sound of tac­tics be­ing de­bated, foil be­ing torn off bo­cadillo baguettes and beer be­ing gulped, two Aus­tralian ac­cents.

Fred Bur­nell, 50, from Gee­long, and Robert

Tre­sise, 52, from Perth, wear the light green of the Castellers de Vi­lafranca. Win­ners of the past eight com­pe­ti­tions, the Vi­lafranca group would even­tu­ally fin­ish sec­ond.

Fred moved to Tor­relles de Foix, in Cat­alo­nia’s wine re­gion, 20 years ago. I ask how long he’s been in­volved in castells.

“Twenty years,” he says. “This is the great­est team sport ever known. We have 600 peo­ple in our colla and ev­ery­one has to be per­fect.”

His team trains three times a week and had eight days with­out a break to pre­pare for the con­test.

A sturdy man, Fred is po­si­tioned in the pinya or one of the lower lev­els with the weight of plenty of peo­ple on his shoul­ders. While we are talk­ing, an­other colla builds. One of the segons grits his teeth and turns the same shade of red as his shirt as he fights to keep it up­right.

Robert was only sup­posed to be vis­it­ing his friend for a hol­i­day when he found him­self at the bot­tom of a col­lapsed castell.

“It’s painful to the ex­tent peo­ple are ly­ing on you and there are peo­ple ly­ing on top of them,” he says in re­sponse to the ob­vi­ous ques­tion.

We see an­other pinya form­ing, tan­gled arms as one and faces squashed into the back of the per­son in front.

“There is def­i­nitely no per­sonal space,” says Robert, who had one prac­tice ses­sion be­fore the con­test. “But ev­ery­thing is very or­ches­trated. There are 15-yearolds who want to be part of it and men and women in there my age and older. It’s a priv­i­lege for them; it’s a rite of pas­sage.”

He cranes his neck to watch an enx­aneta scur­ry­ing up a castell with the sure-foot­ed­ness of a squir­rel up a tree. “I just worry about the lit­tle kids at the top.”

The sound of sharp in­takes of breath is the sign she is near­ing the sum­mit. A man fur­rows his brow and places the nail of his in­dex fin­ger be­tween his teeth. A woman uses her hand to cover her mouth. The girl makes it to her crouch­ing team­mate, a po­si­tion she will likely have in a cou­ple of years. Quickly but care­fully, she rolls on top of her.

To sig­nal their po­si­tion at the peak, the enx­aneta raises a hand to the crowd. The cheekier among them blow a kiss. Light from the half-open sta­dium roof shines on the small girl nine me­tres above the ground. With her left hand grip­ping the shoul­der be­low her, she raises her right and the crowd roars.

The suc­cess­ful “de­con­struc­tion” of a castell is of­ten the most dif­fi­cult part. Points are awarded for the con­struc­tion – but more for a build and dis­man­tle. To re­lieve the mount­ing pres­sure on the bod­ies be­low, the small­est try to re­turn to the ground as quickly as pos­si­ble, slith­er­ing to safety down the backs and legs of team­mates.

Castellers in­sist their tra­di­tion is no more dan­ger­ous than other sports and it’s true that se­ri­ous in­juries are rare. Since 2006, when a 12-year-old girl died af­ter fall­ing from a castell, the youngest wear spe­cially de­signed hel­mets.

With the com­pe­ti­tion near­ing an end, more com­plex tow­ers are at­tempted. Not all are suc­cess­ful. When there are falls, in a messy maze of tum­bling limbs, there is a col­lec­tive, in­vol­un­tary cry from spec­ta­tors fol­lowed by a soft thud. There are some­times bruises and blood­ied noses. There are of­ten tears from the youngest. There is al­ways ap­plause. Medics rush to one man clutch­ing his shoul­der af­ter emerg­ing from a pile of team­mates. He walks away gri­mac­ing.

The pinya is built to ab­sorb the falls and spread the im­pact – even if a hu­man safety net will never be the soft­est of land­ings. The castellers build as one and, when they fall, they all feel it.

Once the sta­dium has seen her hand, the girl doesn’t hang around. Knees trem­ble and arms quiver as she zips down the tower’s top tiers like a fire­fighter down a pole. The cau­tious cheers turn tri­umphant as she reaches the pinya and, arms aloft, jumps into her mother’s em­brace.

When the rest of the tower suc­cess­fully de­scends, the girl is hoisted on to some­one’s shoul­ders in cel­e­bra­tion. It could feel mun­dane af­ter the heights she’s

• reached. In­stead she looks on top of the world.

The Con­curs de Castells fes­ti­val in Tar­rag­ona, Spain.

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