10 things you didn’t know about Castellers

When I said I was moving to Catalonia, a friend said I should join the human pyramid teams. I laughed at the idea.  But here I am nine months later, a weedy, British casteller, embedded in the mass of bodies above.  So here are some insights from within the castellers:

 

Castellers de Vilafranca form a human tower called "castell" during a biannual competition in Tarragona city

1.They’re not human pyramids: English descriptions of the castell tradition normally describe the formations as human pyramids – but they’re not: they’re human castles.  The word ‘castell’ literally means ‘castle’ in Catalan.


Catalan

2. Castells are Catalan: Human tower building is very Catalan; it is considered a proud symbol of Catalonia’s culture, independent of Spain. In my group of 100+ castellers, I am told I am the first international member.  Having said that, it is a little known secret that the idea actually originated in the folk dances of southern Spain.

Pinya Diagram

3. It starts with a pineapple: 90% of castellers are positioned in the ‘pinya’, or ‘pineapple’, at the base of the tower. People in the pinya have two purposes: 1). To be stood on and support castellers above and 2). To be fell on if the tower collapses.  Glamourous, I know!  But what’s great is that it genuinely feels like everyone is valued equally – whether you’re down in the pinya or sky high.  Until recently, the pinya was formed by leaders shouting instructions but now apps and diagrams are used to create this kaleidoscope of human bodies.

pinya 3

4. What is it like to be in the pinya?  Sweaty.  Very sweaty.  Remember that these castells are being performed in thirty degree heat and you’re effectively spooning with about 70 other people.  Being in the pinya can make it hard to remember why becoming a casteller seemed a logical life choice.

music 2

5. The music is key. The performances are accompanied by stirring casteller music.  The different stages of the song coordinate with the different stages in the performance.  This means that technically even if your head is wedged between an armpit and an ankle, you should be able to figure out what is going on above you.  To be honest, I rarely know what’s happening but the music heightens the drama and radiates out through the pinya and crowd beyond.

close together

6. It’s all about the social side. When I first went along to a castellers training session, I wore leggings, trainers and a sports top, expecting weights and exercises.  But it’s really not about the sport and you don’t do exercises.  Both training and performances are more like chat, chat, tower,  chat, chat, chat, tower and so on…  And this is the great thing about it: it’s a welcoming community of people brought close together (literally) by a common goal.

competition

7. It’s a competition – and yet it’s not. At performances, normally 3 colles meet to “compete”.  Each team scores points for the height, complexity, construction and deconstruction of the castell.  But normally, as a fellow casteller explained, it’s more about competing against your own team’s past performances than against other teams.  Hence, you’ll see that members of the blue team might help in the pinya of a green team.

Falling

8. It’s risky. Castellers make it seem easy – but trust me, it’s not.  Castells are made of gritted teeth, quaking muscles and dripping sweat.  There is a reason that the people at the top wear helmets; when the teeth, muscles and sweat fail, it’s a long way down.  Not to mention the injuries which come with being crushed by the weight of those above.  As one teenage girl explained, “Some people think I’m crazy to continue.”

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9. The clothes. Castellers typically wear a black band (faixa), a shirt, a bandana, bare feet and white trousers.  Why?  Hard to say really!  To be fair, there is some logic behind the pirate-inspired costumes.  The black band acts as both a back support and a ladder rung for the climbers.  The shirts are different colours for different colles (teams).  The bare feet allow better grip – just like it did for pirates.  The white trousers … There is no valid reason for white trousers. I don’t have any; I have to wear white pyjama bottoms instead.

exaneta

10. The exaneta: The child who climbs to the top is called the exaneta.  They often start as young as six and their role is crucial.  The moment they cross the top of the tower and raise their hand signals that the construction is complete.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that their hand is raised with four fingers, signifying the four stripes of the Catalan flag.  They rarely seem nervous – but their parents always make up for their lack of nerves.

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Getting naked in Spain

My Britishness is difficult to hide; my skin glows white and I still speak Spanish like a toddler.  But most British of all, I find getting naked in public horrifying.  For me, trying to blend in in a Spanish changing room is an absolute nightmare. 

First, getting changed.  To give you some idea of my public nakedness to date, as a Brit, I have been brought up to obey the following rules of changing room nudity:

A Brit’s guide to getting changed:

  • Step 1: Choose the corner bench (for added privacy).
  • Step 2: Wrap yourself in your extra-large towel and clench it between your teeth.
  • Step 3: Extract (with some difficulty) your clothes from beneath the towel shield.
  • Step 4: Tuck in your extra-large towel – firmly.  
  • Step 5: Shuffle to the shower (while avoiding eye contact).

In contrast, as far as I can tell, Spaniards feel very little difference between having their clothes on and having their clothes off.  In the changing room, they chat naked, stroll naked and look in the mirror – naked.

And don’t even get me started on the changing room showers.  Why are there no shower doors? It may just be my gym, but there are no doors.  The first time I went to the gym showers, I kid you not, I did a quick recce of the doorless situation to see if people were wearing swimming costumes to wash.   The answer: a revealing no.

Ok, I may be exaggerating the differences slightly – but seriously not much. And I’m not alone: statistics reveal even more: 63% of British women feel uncomfortable naked.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is good thing.  I mean, let’s face it, British changing is a far more time-consuming and difficult process.

But despite this, I can’t imagine myself blending in at the gym anytime soon – not without a fake tan and a personality change anyway.

Why are the Catalans banging pots and pans?

At 9.55 every night, the tension mounts.  In every household across the land of Catalonia, matriarchs stare at the clocks, waiting.  And then the moment arrives: 10pm. The matriarchs hurl their battle-cries: ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends – and bring the pots’, and families dart to the front-line of the balconies to wage war with their woks.

Ok, I’m exaggerating but it genuinely is dramatic.

Each night, independentist Catalans take to their balconies and protest against the Spanish government by banging pots and pans.  Pro-independence Catalans object to the Spanish government’s choice to ignore Catalonia’s right to a political voice, most recently through trying to ban a referendum.  The cacophony of sound, created by the pots and pans, serves to symbolise Catalans’ right to be heard.  It spreads a soundwave of solidarity so loud, it’s a wonder they can’t hear it in Madrid.

The protest is performed at 10pm on the dot.  Nightly, you will spot Catalans brandishing saucepans and spoons (and confused tourists cowering below), as the bombardment begins.  It feels as regular as clockwork.

In fact, on Tuesday 3rd, I was shocked to hear the sauce-panning begin one hour early – at the same time as the Spanish king’s speech.  Coincidental?  No; King Felipe is widely criticised in Catalonia, and the time-change was a deliberate attack.  In fact, following the King’s broadcast, one protestor took to Twitter: saying ‘After listening to that, the only decent thing to do is to find a pot and bang it to hell’.

I thought the kitchenware protest, known as a cacerolada or cassolada, was a Catalan tradition but actually it originated in Chile.  It began in the streets of Santiago and then latterly in the houses, where protestors were less at risk of physical attack.  Since then, caceroladas have spread, being used to protest in Argentina, Canada and Turkey.

Wandering through the streets during the cacerolada, it originally felt like the whole world, or the whole of Catalonia, had gone to pot – literally.  But I should have known better than to underestimate the Catalans.  The protest is peaceful, simple and effective.  The Catalans have used their pans to whip up a storm, one which will be felt far beyond the streets of Catalonia.

Girona: What’s on in October

In October, Girona will hold three more festivals; I love this city!  Find out more below.

Girona’s ultimate festival

Spanning two weekends, this is my favourite time of year in Girona.  The city celebrates its patron saint, Sant Narcis, in style: with an amusement fair, chestnuts, drinks stalls (barracas), castellers and performances.  Make sure that you are in Girona for this festival.

  • 27th October – 5th November
  • All over the city (the amusement park and drinks stands will be located at Parc de la Devesa)

Taste Festival

In mid-October, Girona hosts Firatast, a festival of food with traditional tapas from all over Spain.  Enter a huge hall with stalls exhibiting food from all over the country, offering snack-sized taste-bites, allowing you to try as many different samples as you like.  (Beware of going tapas crazy though, as price-wise it will tot up).

Temporada alta

The annual festival of performing arts with over 80 performances of music, dance, theatre, circus and film.  The line-up is endless featuring international artists as well as new finds.  Check out the programme:

 

Catalans chant “I’m not afraid”

As tensions rise between the Catalan and Spanish governments, the Catalan people protest, chanting “We’re not afraid”. But as I watch from the balcony, I can’t help but feel they’re wrong: the Catalans should feel afraid.

Catalonia is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, all overseen by Spain’s central government in Madrid.   The Catalan people have long expressed their wish for more autonomy and in the last decade for independence.  In response, the Spanish government have refused to consider this as an option and refused an independence referendum.

This Sunday, 1st October, the conflict will come to a head.  The Catalan government intends to lead an independence referendum and in the case of a positive result aims to announce Catalonia as a new independent country within 2 days.  The Spanish government, meanwhile, has deemed the vote not legal, not relevant and not happening.

Thus far, the Catalan people have campaigned peacefully. They have held informal votes, waved flags and built human chains, 2 million people long.  This week, protests have continued to be colourful and proud with songs, drums, children and tractors all taking part.  And until recently, I would have felt confident that this latest independence campaign would continue to be a peaceful one.

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School pupils protest in aptly named ‘Placa de la Independencia’.

But despite the colourful flags, you can feel the frustration and desperation rising. There is a new passion for independence fuelled by Spain’s recent moves.

In recent weeks, Spain has arrested 14 junior associates and officials, confiscated ballot papers and withheld funds from the Catalan government. Even more threatening are the contents of the three ferries full of thousands of Spanish police waiting offshore.  On top of this, the regional police forces have been unwillingly put under the control of the Spanish police.

In response, the Catalan anti-Spanish sentiment has intensified.

Catalan officials, this week, felt the need to reiterate the importance of non-violence, revealing their concern – a concern which I share. This Sunday, thousands of Catalans will walk out of their front door to go and vote – and thousands of Spanish police will try to stop them.  While Catalan officials have emphasised the need for peaceful protest, it would only take the smallest spark to light the fire.  And it’s a fire that has been well fuelled by both propaganda and the Spanish government.

I truly admire the determination of the Independentists and perhaps they truly aren´t  afraid … but I am.  And so on Sunday, I will be watching on fearfully for both the Catalans and Spanish as they enter their biggest battle of the 21st century.

Kissing in Spain

“Whoops, they were going in for a kiss…  Whoops, and a second kiss.” 

Meeting Spanish friends after a summer in the UK, I came down with a nasty dose of kissing culture shock.  And based on previous experience, I knew that if I didn’t readjust to the greeting custom fast, the results could be catastrophic; symptoms can include awkwardness, sweating and accidentally  kissing gym instructors. 

The Spanish favour the double cheek kiss manoeuvre.  Unfortunately, I was out of practice, having spent the summer performing very British hugs and handshakes.  The Spanish double kiss may seem simple, but don’t be fooled.  You need to adopt four head positions (forward left, back, forward right, back) at the same time as an “Hola”, “Encantado/a” or “Qué tal?”  All four steps are crucial.  Exhausted after a gym class, I once neglected to move into the “back position” between cheek bumps.  The resulting sweaty lip kiss with my yoga teacher still gives me the severe heebie jeebies.

On the plus side, after a couple of days back in Spain, I found it quite easy to get back into my Spanish greeting groove. The Spanish are very consistent.  It doesn’t matter if you’re saying hello to your childhood best-friend or goodbye to your chiropodist’s milkman, the double cheek kiss is a must. 

In contrast, I’ve lived in Britain for 25 years and I still don’t know what to do!  The British greeting is the ultimate social conundrum; we just can’t make up our minds.  We know we must have stiff-upper lips – but what the hell should we do with them?  Kiss the air?  Kiss the cheek?  Kiss both cheeks? 

And it’s not just kissing. Greeting options include: the half-way hug, the one cheek kiss, the double cheek, the handshake or the air-kiss ‘mwah’.   To make matters worse, the pecking order is perilously unclear.  Every time you meet someone you have a millisecond to figure out which of the 5 manoeuvres is appropriate.  It depends:  Are they young or old? Male or female? Posh or not? Friend or colleague? Well-known or stranger?  And worst of all: right or left?  As a consequence, Brits’ famous red skin, commonly believed to be sunburn, is actually a state of near-permanent blushing. 

Fortunately, moving from Britain to Spain, I know my kissing culture shock and accompanying red cheeks will be temporary. My cheeks may turn black and blue, from playing bumper cars with Spanish cheeks, but at least I know what to do!

 

 

 

 

Girona: What’s on in September

What’s on in September?  Swords, beer and jazz.  Check out the line-up of events and opportunities below.

Charge the battlefield

Don’t be surprised if you wander around a corner in the old town and find yourself in the middle of an epic battle.  The weekend of 16th and 17th, the Old Town will be brimming with reenactments and activities based around the Napoleonic sieges.  In particular, catch the parade starting at Plaça de Sant Feliu at noon and follow it all the way to Plaça de la Independencia on the Saturday.

Become a beer expert

Head to Plaça de la Independencia, to soak up the atmosphere and the artesan beer at the Craft Beer Fair.  Don’t worry if you’ve an empty stomach, there’ll be food stalls too.

  • Plaça de la Independencia
  • 18 hr – midnight
  • 23rd, 24rd, 25th Sep.

Make the most of the Jazz Festival

Check out the national and international Jazz artists bringing their music to Girona.  They’ll be at various locations across the city for a whole two weeks.

Girona: What’s on in August

Although many locals abandon Girona in August to the scorching sun, there is plenty to do.  Check my top picks out below:

Music under the stars

In the evening, head to the gardens behind the cathedral.  One of the most atmospheric night-time venues of the city, the gardens will host a food market from 19 – 23hr and concerts from 21hr onwards.

Guided tour

Book on to a guided tour of the Jewish Quarter.  The tour will explore the history of the Jewish Quarter – one of the most historic and beautiful areas of the city.  You will also get the chance to visit the Museum of Jewish History.

  • Every Sunday in August, 12.30hr
  • Meeting venue: Museu d’Història dels Jueus (Jewish Museum)
  • 6€ (and 3€ for children under 14)
  • For more info and to book: callgirona@ajgirona.cat or (+34) 972 216 761

Experience Game of Thrones

Girona takes centre stage in many of the key scenes of the sixth season.  Tour the scene locations and find out more.  For Game of Throne geeks this will be worth it, but for the less obsessed, beware the price (see below).

  • Every Tuesday and Friday in August , 18.30hr
  • Meeting venue: Sant Lluc Church
  • 20€ (Children under 12 go free)
  • Catalan, Spanish, English and French