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.

10 things that make an English girl say sorry:

I have a very English apology to make: it seems I say ‘sorry’ too much.  So much so that a friend has recently started hitting me every time I say ‘sorry’ without just cause.

In my defence, it seems it isn’t just me; according to the research, the English really are polite.  One study found that the average English person says sorry at least 8 times a day.  Another found that the average Brit says ‘sorry’ 1.9 million times in their life.  And to top it off, google (the most academic form of research), shows that the most common auto-fill question is ‘Why are the English so polite?’

However, it seems my aggressive friend does not see this English background as ‘just cause’ for saying sorry.  And as I see this friend daily, unless I want to end up black and blue I’ve got some work to do.  With this in mind, I have some confessions to make before I embark on the road to Sorryless-dom.

Here are 10 things I say sorry for (without just cause):

1. Not knowing the direction or the time when a stranger asks.

2. Walking into another person.

3. Being walked into by another person. (I’m not alone: research shows that 80% of English people will apologise if another person barges into them).

4. Almost being walked into by another person.

5. Walking into a table – or any inanimate object for that matter.

6. Sneezing.

7. Playing a bad shot in tennis therefore meaning that my competitor wins a point.

8. Doing badly in an assignment.

9. Doing well in an assignment.

10. Rainy weather (– because clearly this is my fault).

And, of course, I have found myself saying sorry when my friend hits me for saying sorry.

Sorry.

Girona: What’s on in June

If you’ve got post-Temps-de-Flors blues, do not fear; Girona has got yet more cultural titbits lined up for you in June …

Sant Joan

The tradition of celebrating the shortest night of the year is taken seriously here.  And as with all originally religious celebrations in Catalonia, what better way to celebrate than with a party?  The day of Sant Joan (St. John) is celebrated with bonfires, fireworks and fiestas.  Head to Barcelona or the beach or simply enjoy the festivities here, in Girona.

  • All towns and cities
  • Night-time, 23rd June

Beer Festival

If you went to the wine festival, you’ll know that this is definitely worth going to!  Soak up the atmosphere along with beer and tapas.

  • At the junction next to Correos by Placa Independencia
  • Thurs. 8th and Fri. 9th June: 18hr – 24hr
  • Sat. 10th June: 12hr – 24hr
  • Concerts: 20.30hr every day

Guided tour of medieval Girona

When friends come and visit you in Girona, are you embarrassed by your lack of historical knowledge?  Problem-solved: go on one of the weekly guided tours of the old town … or send your friend on it!

Tapa & Tapa

A selection of bars and restaurants across the city are offering specially created tapas menus throughout the middle of June.  And not only that, you will also get a special offer on a beer to go with it.  See the website and map below to find out where to go.

A dramatic experience of monastery life

Enjoy a free tour of Sant Pere de Galligants Monastery in central Girona.  The creative tour aims to quite literally bring the lives of people in 12th century to life through drama.

Temps de Flors Agenda (in English)

I’ve translated the best bits of the agenda for the festival this weekend.  So if English is easier than Catalan for you, check this out because on top of the flower exhibitions, there is tonnes going on.  Concerts, fire performances, museums…  (My top picks are highlighted).

Friday 19th May:

18 hr Concert at the Jewish History Museum (Located in the centre of the Old Town, in an atmospheric courtyard of the museum)

19 hr A Capella Concert at Placa de la Independencia

Saturday 20th May:

11 hr – 13 hr Choir performances at the Jewish History Museum

12 hr + 13 hr Concert at Jardins del Alemanys (Gardens nestled behind the Cathedral)

17 hr Concert at Jardins del Alemanys

16 hr – 20 hr Secret Concert at the rooftop bar (On top of Hotel Ultonia)

16.30 hr – 19.30 hr Choir performances at the Jewish History Museum

18.30 hr Concert at Jardins del Alemanys

18 hr  Traditional Sardanes performance at Placa del Vi (Behind the Ramblas)

22 – 24 hr The Musical Fire Kult performance at Placa de Sant Feliu (Visual and musical performance of fire instruments.  Not entirely sure what this is but it sounds great!)

21 hr Guided night walk of Temps de Flors.  12 euros.  More information and how to book at http://www.hotelsgirona.net

10 – 24 hr All museums are open until midnight.  (Free entry).

Sunday 21st May:

18 hr A Cappella performance by Black Voices at Placa de la Independencia

Girona’s Top Bars

Girona is brimming with bars.  Check out my favourite haunts for a drink … or two … or three…

Vadevins

Vadevins streetHead down this alley and you’ll find a bar spilling over with locals and wine.  Why are they there?  The wine is fantastic and cheap.  The cheese and meat platters are delicious and endless.  The atmosphere buzzes and bubbles. Why aren’t you there?

https://www.facebook.com/Vadevins-Girona-287416708029075/

Sunset Jazz Club

Sunset Jazz Club

The Sunset Jazz Club: a time machine.  Give me a sequined dress and I could be back in 1920s’ New Orleans, soaking up the notes and the liquor pouring forth.  The smoky atmosphere of arched ceilings and lip-stick red velvet feels as if it’s always been there.   The bar has the rare ability to recreate another era without feeling like a sham.  And that’s because, it’s not a sham: it’s a genuine jazz bar with genuine live music.

https://www.facebook.com/pg/SunsetJazzClub/

Nykteri’s Cocktail Bar

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Hands down, the best cocktails I have ever had: ever.  I cannot do justice to the cocktails or the artistry of Mariona Vilanova who crafts them.  On top of exquisite drinks, the bar oozes sophistication and intimacy without the pretentious arsy-ness which often accompanies it.  Sipping a cocktail here, you feel as comfortable as if you’re sitting in an armchair at home and as awe-struck and cultural as if you’re watching the ballet.

https://www.facebook.com/pg/nykteriscocktailbar/photos/?ref=page_internal

Txalaka

Pinchos at Txalakas

The best bar in town for pinchos.  Associated with the Basque Country, pinchos are mini tapas on slices of baguette bread.  The selection is vast and delicious: squid, tortilla, moorhen, fuet, chocolate…  Moor-ish!

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Txalaka/160619130649512

Girona: What’s on in May

If you live in Girona, don’t go away – enjoy your weekends here.  If you don’t live in Girona, get here fast!  May is Girona’s ultimate month for culture.

1. Flowers, flowers, flowers …

Girona is always beautiful, but May is the month that it truly blossoms.  Literally.  For two weeks, Temps de Flors festival will adorn the historic city with flower exhibitions.  You can follow a route through the flowers, crumbling walls and historic buildings.  At the same time, workshops, expositions and flower-filled menus will vie for your attention.  This celebration of all that is beautiful is not to be missed.

2. The Acapella Music Festival

As if your senses weren’t already overwhelmed enough with the sight, smell and taste of flowers, the Acappella Festival will also charm Girona throughout the middle of May.  The line-up features international choirs singing throughout the city and often for free.  In particular, be sure to check out the atmospheric, evening performances in Plaça Independencia.

3. Museums for free!

If you are yet to explore Girona’s museums, then May is the month.  The Museum of History, Cinema, Jewish History, Art and Archaeology… There are so many opportunities this month, and all of them are free…

  • 7th May (Museums are free on the first Sunday of every month).
  • 18th May (International Museum Day)
  • 20th May, 19.30-24.00pm (The Night of the Museums)
  • http://www.girona.cat/turisme/cat

4. The Moscow Ballet

Try ballet – well, watching ballet; see the Moscow Ballet perform for just €38 at the Auditorium.  You won’t need to be able to understand the language, you’ll get a full theatre experience and you’ll be watching the ultimate ballet masters in action.

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.