Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

Practice session

Castellers practice in the Plaza de la Vila de Gràcia

Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

“Man, they really love their human pyramids in Barcelona,” a friend commented when I posted my first pictures of the castellers practicing in the main square in Gràcia. There was something about the phrase that struck me as faintly dismissive. A ‘human pyramid’ sounds like a rather pointless trick: you might be briefly impressed, but in the end, what’s the point?

UNESCO does not agree. They have designated the castellers as part of the ‘intangible heritage of humanity’. After having watched them for an afternoon, I am inclined to agree.

There’s something fascinating about the process of building a castell. At first, nothing seems to happen: usually, the dense crowd prevents you seeing the people at the base getting into place. The first thing you see is when the castellers raise their arms, hands interlocked. A little after that, the first people in the next layer climb up, moving across the base to the center in a stealthy rush. Soon, more and more climb up. The first climbers have now formed into loose triples, and the newcomers slip inside their linked arms, forming a core to the tower. Everything starts to fit together: it’s a very precise architecture, like a cathedral, but the buttresses are made not of rigid stone but of flexible human bodies.

With the first layer in place, the next layer quickly climbs up. The whole tower begins to assemble itself with surprising speed. The upper layers are typically women and young girls, who are smaller and lighter. The summit of the castell is made of young children. Once they are in place, the smallest child of all shimmies up the bodies of his or her companions, performs a crouching circuit around the shoulders of the upper layer — one hand raised to signal that he or she has reached the top — then slides rapidly down the bodies of those below. The whole structure begins to disassemble, each layer breaking apart and its human components sliding quickly down. As each layer breaks up, the crowd claps, so that everyone involved gets applause for their role.

The castellers wear uniforms: very tight white pants, shirts in the colors of their colle castellera, a black waistband wound tightly around their waists. Their clothing provides handholds for the climbers, so they grip the collar points of their shirts in their teeth to hold the fabric taut. It’s fascinating to watch the way that the human body becomes a ladder: foot on the back of the calf, on the outside of the thigh, and so on up. When the smaller children have difficulty lifting their foot from thigh to waistband, the casteller they are climbing will reach down with one hand to provide a footrest for them, lifting them up.

There’s so much to find fascinating: the choreographed, almost balletic movements, the precision with which the architecture fits together, the courage of the participants. The somewhat laissez-faire Spanish authorities now require that the smallest (and highest-climbing) children wear helmets. Helmet or no helmet, to climb to the very top of a swaying human tower requires more courage than I’ve ever had at any age. Watching these tiny children scramble upward, looks of grim determination on their faces, was both humbling and inspiring.

There’s an art to castell-building, and a whole language to describe the different variants of the castells — how many people on each level, how many levels, whether the tower is simple or has an inner and outer core, and so on. One particularly impressive trick involves building the tower from beneath: the smallest member climbs onto the shoulders of the second smallest, and layers are then added underneath, each layer lifting the ones above it up, so that the tower is not so much built as pushed up from below. Almost equally impressive is the pilar caminat (walking column) where a base of sturdy lifters supports three people standing on each other’s shoulders – the smallest child available once again on top – and the whole shaky structure lurches into motion.

They do love their human pyramids in Barcelona. And I think I understand why.