“The top of your foot should rest on the inside of his thigh, as high up as possible,” I’m told. I’ve never been this intimate with someone without knowing their name, but this is all routine when you’re a casteller, apparently.
I’m in a community hall in north London, learning how to climb up people. This rather bizarre-sounding pastime is actually part of an important Catalan tradition that originated in Valencia, and the Castellers of London — a team of about 50 people from Spain, the UK, France and Lithuania — are practising for their big day. In a little over a month, they’ll perform their best human towers among other international groups (or colles) for the Mayor of Tarragona, Spain.
Clinging like a monkey to the back of an alarmingly slender stranger — my fingers hooked around his collar bones and my knees squeezing his waist — I’m told to imagine I’m pushing myself up and out of a swimming pool, so I can get one foot in the faixa (a black sash that’s wrapped tightly around his middle). Except it’s nothing like pulling myself out of a pool; instead of a concrete base beneath me, there’s a trembling man trying his best not to collapse, and there’s certainly no water offering a buoyant landing.
After much struggle and some assistance from fellow castellers, I’m finally standing on his shoulders, steadying myself, surveying the room behind me. As if to rub salt in the wound, I watch two other pillars (single-person towers) rise up with little effort and plenty of grace.
It’s a truly astonishing, mesmerising sight, and the London colla (team) are impressive. Yet, the real wow factor comes when we arrive in Tarragona. This quiet coastal city was the first Roman settlement on the Iberian Peninsula and one of the most important in the region for hundreds of years. Today, it’s important for another reason: it’s the home of the Concurs de Castells — the biggest gathering of human tower groups in the country.
The city’s obsession with the sport is evident throughout its pretty sandstone streets. In prime position between the old town and the seafront are the training centres of two of the top colles, and in a nearby square a plaque commemorates the first ever gathering of castells, in 1970. Standing tall and proud in the middle of Tarragona’s main artery, which leads from its commercial centre down to the Mediterranean, is a sculpture depicting a tower of eight levels — this is my first glimpse of a castell this big, but it pales in comparison to the real thing.
Inside the arena (a former bullring), over 30 teams have come together to build their best, most complex and — hopefully — stable towers over the course of two days. As the teams enter to traditional music, the crowd cheers for their favourite colles, and the floor quickly fills up with thousands of castellers — each team wearing its own colours — decorating the arena.
Owing to their relatively small numbers, the London contingent can usually only construct towers up to six people high. But the castells built in Tarragona get as high as 10 ‘storeys’, consisting of a tightly-packed human base (the pinya), a trunk up to seven people tall and four people wide, arms interlocked for stability, and a crown of two children, one crouched on top of the other.
Towers go up and down with astonishing speed, with as many as five being built by different teams at once. There’s an eerie silence as each structure goes up, and an eruption of delight and relief as a tower is completed and deconstructed safely. But it’s not always smooth climbing.
When one woman is taken off on a stretcher, the mass of people part like the Biblical Red Sea and the crowd offers a sympathetic round of applause. We’re all feeling their pain and devastation, too. I later see one man dislocate his shoulder, have it popped straight back in, then carry on into the next tower. It is, quite frankly, madness.
But after two days of watching these towers go up and down, some with as many as 500 people working together to make it stable, I can see the appeal for those who take part in this unusual cultural practice. The castells are more than just entertainment; the entire tradition is a beautiful display of unity and strength in numbers. Something a London casteller told me echoes in my mind: “No matter how fit, tall or short, everyone is equal. Everyone is an essential part of the tower.”