All eyes are
on the tiny child, perhaps seven or eight years old, as she gingerly but
quickly and purposefully scales up the side of the tower. There is no safety net or rope to catch her
if she falls. All the more nail-biting
given it’s a human tower on which she precariously balances, seven human
stories high, perhaps 12 meters tall, that is beginning to creak and sway. The buzz of the arena fades to a momentary
silence as everyone looks to the barefoot girl in her traditional outfit - white
trousers, cummerbund and team orange shirt, her ponytail trailing down her back
beneath her safety helmet. The gralles, primitive
oboes, blast and drums rally her spirit, hurtling towards a crescendo. Thousands in the arena call out and chant in
support. Then the whole stadium bursts
into feverish cheers as the little girl reaches the top of the dizzyingly high
apex, crouches on the shoulders of those beneath and raises her hand, crowning
the tower - job done - or almost, she still needs to get down.
an immediate descent and reaches the base within a few seconds. The thick bough of people that forms the tower’s
foundation reminds me of the nature-inspired patterns of Gaudí’s architecture. Without pause, the girl thrusts herself into
the outstretched arms of her proud and relieved mother, who caresses and kisses
her. The little girl is delirious with
joy. She has learnt some of the most
important lessons for a Catalan: “Strength, balance, courage and common sense”
- the de facto essence of the Catalan spirit.
Welcome to the 24th Concurs de Castells competition,
celebrating its 80th anniversary, in the stunning Catalan coastal
city and 2012 “Capital of Catalan Culture”, Tarragona.
Declared a UNESCO “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”
in 2010, the “castell”, human castle, according to the organisers of the competition, is a tradition that began 200 years ago in the
small village of Valls,
just 20km away from Tarragona
after a village dance. From these small
roots the tradition spread around Catalonia
until in 1932, the competition was inaugurated in Tarragona to mark these amazing feats of
In the competition there are
currently 39 different types of human towers that can be built, varying in size
and structure, with names such as “quatre de vuit” – four by eight, which
represents the people width versus the people height of the tower. A group of twenty experts calculate and
debate the points to be awarded for each castle. The teams get five rounds of tower building
each. The most stable towers have a
girth of four people. The highest and
most difficult tower ever achieved was a tower three people wide by a staggering
ten people high.
We are human towers
In the pit
of the arena I speak to the red shirted, Maritxell Marti, team member of the
reigning castell champions, Villafranca.
She says castells epitomise the Catalan spirit. “I think when you build a human castle; all
the things that Catalan people aspire to like solidarity, everyone helping each
other, are there”.
In fact the
tagline for the castells competition is “Som Castells” – we are human towers;
and many Catalans believe the demonstration of teamwork and courage demanded in
these extraordinary displays reflect the region’s psyche.
teams from throughout Catalonia
compete for the esteemed trophy and prize money, this year €15,000, it is the unity between
them that one notices most. As Martin
den Ambtman and Anouck Wiggers, young tourists from the Netherlands
said, what they liked to see was how different teams encouraged and even
physically supported other team towers if they faltered.
Jene, of team Poble Sec, Barcelona,
sweating and breathless after completing a third round of castell building, agrees
that these towers are a powerful symbol of what it is to be Catalan. He says the castells are built from “tradition,
cooperation, strength, targeting an objective and overcoming challenges”.
And the castells
increasingly seem to strike a chord amongst Catalans. Jordi Suriñach,
spokesperson for the castells competition told me that that this year was the largest
in the event’s history - both in terms of competitor and spectator numbers. 32 teams amounting to an estimated 11,000 castellers
took part and it attracted a crowd of almost 10,000. The organisers even had to extend the
competition duration from the traditional half day to over one and a half days.
So what is behind the sudden growth
in interest in this uniquely Catalan tradition?
A groundswell of support
The groundswell of involvement and
support in the competition has been interpreted as a reflection of the
strengthening pride and regional identity amongst Catalans and the dramatic increase
in support for independence. Recent
polls suggest backing for a referendum on independence is at an all time
high of 74%.
A month ago, on 11th
September, 1.5 million protestors took to the streets of Barcelona,
national day, La Diada. From a sea of
yellow and red Catalan flags could be heard the chant “Catalonia
- a new European state”. Many were
calling for complete secession from the rest of Spain. Those leading
the rallying cry were high-profile Catalan politicians and personalities
including Sandro Rosell, the president of
FC Barcelona, one of Catalonia’s most revered
According to Spanish writers and
commentators Ricard González and Jaume Clotet in a recent New
York Times article: “The immediate cause of Catalonia’s sudden
outbreak of secessionist fever is so-called fiscal looting. Before taxes, Catalonia
is the fourth richest of Spain’s
17 autonomous regions. After taxes, it drops to ninth - a form of forced redistribution
unparalleled in contemporary Europe.”
But it is not just economic woes that
have driven Catalans to seek more autonomy from Spain. Its population often feel out of sync with
the rest of country. This led to violent
oppression during Spain’s
Franco era that began in 1939 when democratic processes were annulled, the
Catalan language was suppressed; and approximately 4000 Catalans were executed.
Even after the transition to
democracy in the late 1970s Catalans still found their values at odds with the
rest of Spain. In 2010 Catalonia
banned bullfighting, a practice that purportedly represents the epitome of
Spanish culture; sending a clear signal that Catalonia’s
sensibilities were very different to those of the rest of Spain and more aligned with the rest of Western Europe.
Catalonia also punches above its weight when
it comes to global cultural influence which gives it a real sense of regional
pride. Its famous sons include the
genius architect Antoni Gaudí and
artist Salvador Dalí; the
region is seat of the legendary Barça
football club; was the home of Ferran
Adrià’s El Bulli,
regarded as the best restaurant in the world before it closed in 2011 and whose
influence revolutionised global cuisine; and despite Franco’s attempt to crush
the Catalan language, its usage has enjoyed a renaissance and is spoken as the
lingua franca in much of the region.
An independent Catalan state?
When I ask the beaming Maritxell
Marti, whose Villafranca castells team has just won the 2012 Concurs de
Castells, whether Catalonia
will be independent one day, it is clear she has a taste for victory: “I hope
so, I really, really hope so.”
But despite the towering success of
the Catalan independence movement, it’s still at risk of being toppled. The Spanish government is not going to concede
easily to increased Catalan autonomy, let alone independence; and has made its
position very clear. There’s a ban on
secession in the Spanish constitution and Spanish
Army Colonel Francisco Alamán Castro recently made the following ominous
statement: “Catalonia’s independence will be over my
dead body and many others’ too.”
However, despite the hostile undercurrents,
Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia
has called a snap election for 25th November, considered essentially
a referendum on greater autonomy saying to regional parliament: "The time
has come to exercise the right to self-determination."
If what it takes to build something
as magnificent as the human towers is courage and solidarity I wouldn’t be too
surprised to find that the Catalan independence movement powered by such spirit
is heading towards a crucial tipping point.
Upon an ever strengthening base of grass roots support, it’s conceivable
that the Catalans might just one day build a new architecture on which its
children can climb towards a more autonomous future.
Photography: Charles Wardhaugh