Castles in the Sky

Human towers and Barcelona’s La Mercè festival are forever linked together in my mind and heart. It happened 10 years ago by chance, and as serendipity goes, set off a domino effect that later led me to relocate here from San Francisco (I’ll share more on that next week).

 While it feels like yesterday, I wrote this essay shortly after I saw the castells for the first time in 2003 during a solo six-month backpacking trip across Southern Europe. It still gives me goose bumps when I re-read it and think of that sunny afternoon. I remember my jaw dropping in awe, the big smiles after the towers were finished, and the friendly woman who helped me find someone who spoke English and could explain this borderline-crazy, and most definitely one-of-a-kind, tradition. It’s not a stretch to say the castells made a lasting impression—and continue to do so.

 If you happen to be in Barcelona this Sunday (Sept. 22) for La Mercè, head to Plaça de Sant Jaume to witness tower-making firsthand. Get there before noon—the square will be packed. If you prefer armchair traveling, check out the photos on this site or watch a few videos here.


 I close my eyes, hoping not to witness imminent destruction. A young child, about five years old, hovers almost three stories above the ground, barely balancing on top of a shaky pillar of flesh.

I can’t resist. Despite the pounding in my chest, I peek through my fingers and watch another boy scamper toward the sky. Pressing his hands and bare feet into the backs and shoulders of men and women with wobbly knees, the lanky 10-year-old tow-head passes the balcony where the mayor and other dignitaries stand open-mouthed. The boy climbs higher. The human obelisk sways.

In a few seconds, I’m certain, bodies will collapse upon one another and screams will pierce the crowded Barcelona square, now blanketed in silence.

“What the heck are these people doing?” I whisper to no one in particular. Back home, this would be banned. The insurance liability alone would send shivers down any actuary’s spine.

This, though, isn’t the United States. This is Catalunya, and here, in a province fiercely protecting its customs, language and independence from Spain’s stronghold, human castle building is as much a sport as an art form.

“This is not just a hobby,” Cisco, a casteller (castle maker) for more than 50 years, tells me later. “I don’t think there is anything I have spent more time doing, besides spending time with my wife.”

The tradition dates back to the late 18th/early 19th century, and is loosely tied to a religious dance from nearby Valencia. Over the years, the custom has morphed into an endurance event requiring a yogi’s balance and Cirque du Soleil dexterity. Teams throughout Catalunya, which rests on the shores of the Mediterranean and in the shadows of the Pyrenees, train for months to perfect the technical aspects of castell (castle) construction and deconstruction. And, for months, as the sun bronzes their cheeks, wide-eyed locals pack open-air plazas to see if the spires—much like the Gaudí-inspired ones adorning La Sagrada Família cathedral—will reach heaven.

An American expat tipped me off about the castellers, and with a child’s enthusiasm, he urged me to stick around for La Mercè, the late-September party to honor the city’s patron saint. The castells were one of the festival’s highlights, and would be worth skipping a beach day to witness, he promised. I pictured the U.S. equivalent of stuffing 20 frat guys into a phone booth. It sounded quirky. I was intrigued.

Now, instead of sprawling out on white sand, I’m watching children hoist themselves further up a trembling human ladder. One small misstep could easily send them to the hospital with broken legs or crushed ribs. I’m certain I’ll join them there with the heart attack I feel coming on.

A few minutes ago, things weren’t this stressful. I huddled among the masses in Plaça de Sant Jaume and waited for something to happen. Those in nearby apartment buildings hung out of windows, taking long drags on their cigarettes and Voll-Damm beer. Politicos in suits whooped it up on city hall’s second-floor balcony. A father perched his daughter, ice cream cone in hand, on his shoulders. Tourists readied their cameras. Vendors hawked bottled water and balloons.  I caught a whiff of an entrepà (sandwich) stuffed with Iberian ham and slathered with tomato and olive oil (pa amb tomaquet).

Four middle-aged men, with Herculean physiques and attitudes to match, elbowed their way through the noisy horde. They interlocked arms and formed a tight circle. A dozen other men and women of varying shapes and sizes, in mint-green shirts and white pants, slid into the middle of the ring. They crooked themselves under armpits, squeezed against the chests of the burly men and braced for what would be a painful 10 minutes.

Along the perimeter, more green-shirted men leaned against the inner circle, and behind them, even more men and women pushed in for support, resting their arms on the arms of the person in front of them. Male spectators, stupefied, were pulled into the mix and crammed into a foundation at least 15-people deep.

A stocky man, taller than the rest, shouted commands. With the pinya (the base of the tower), firmly planted, it was time to climb.

Four men with sturdy, athletic frames, walked on the shoulders of those on the lower level. They tightroped their way to the inner circle and steadied themselves on the shoulders of the men below. They interlocked arms and shouted down to the captain. Hands from the base wrapped around tier two’s legs and cupped their butts. I chuckled. I suspected this type of groping wouldn’t go over well at summer fairs back home.

On cue, the next round of climbers—men and women with slighter builds—ascended. The four monkeyed up, and, with the precision of ninjas, placed hands and feet on tier two’s calves, hamstrings and shoulders. Together, the four climbers plucked themselves up and closed their ring.

A hush fell over the restless spectators as more people ascended. Red-and-yellow-striped Catalan flags, draped defiantly down building façades, snapped in the breeze.

A drumbeat droned. Throoom. Throoom. Throoom. Then the gralles, a cross between a clarinet and what looked like my sixth-grade recorder, filled in the beat, slow at first. My jaw dropped. This was looking more serious than a frat-boy stunt.

The green-shirted team, or colla, hailed from Vilafranca del Penedès, a plush wine country suburb. Though not the hometown favorite, the team had a reputation for assembling towers that defied gravity. In the crowd, those in the know knew a 4-of-9 tower—a tower nine-people high with a circumference four-people wide—was a tower demanding attention, and respect.

The fourth tier of castellers—teenagers, this time—was on the move. Gracefully, effortlessly, hands and feet synchronized in alternating pulley patterns. Right feet bent into the small of the backs of those on tier two, just above black cummerbunds. Left knees found standing team members’ shoulders. Hands tugged at the pants. The teens grabbed each other’s arms, simultaneously getting their bearings.

There was no time to breathe. Those from fifth level were right behind them. Boys and girls, barely past puberty, sprinted to the top.

I can’t watch. I can’t help but watch. I fidget. My heart races as the timbal, a small drum, thumps louder, faster. The gralles quicken to a Bolero-like crescendo.

The crowd stands still. The little girl on her dad’s shoulders stops licking her ice cream cone. Behind me, a camera clicks.

Children, no more than ten, scurry like mice. A tug at the pants above. A clasp of a shirt collar. A mighty heave up the next person’s back. Higher into the clouds. Level six. Legs quiver. Weary arms try not to sag. I’m afraid to exhale. Afraid that my breath may cause the human tower of Pisa to lean too far in one direction.

Two kids dash upward. They hurriedly create a two-person circle. The clock, a few feet above their heads, chimes the hour. City officials on balconies tilt back their heads. A five-year-old, sporting a floppy pageboy haircut, makes his way up and squats into fetal position on top of the two kids’ shoulders. The aixecador is suspended over a 20-foot high shaft of bodies. I gasp. I wonder if his mother has already fainted.

All eyes lock on another child—the anxaneta, the only person for the ninth tier. The last to climb.

The captain bellows from the perimeter, encouraging the team, in those final moments, to find even more strength. Those in the inner circle grunt. I can’t see their faces. I know, though, they are flushed and beaded with sweat. I calculate they are holding at least a ton. Probably more.

The 10-year-old anxaneta shimmies up the tower. An air of confidence replaces a brief trace of uneasiness in his soft features.

A cautious, but quick, combination of tugs and pulls propels him past each level. He gently shifts his weight to compensate for the unsteadiness below. He’s so high he becomes a blur.

The gralles and the drum escalate to a feverish pitch. I cover my eyes. I peek through my fingers.

The success of the tower—the hope of a people reaching for greatness—rests in this fifth-grader.

The anxaneta straddles the five-year-old at the apex. He places one hand on the back of the child. He throws up the other. Victory! He touches the sky.

At that moment, Catalunya shakes off Madrid’s economic and political weight. At that moment, Catalunya stands firm, unwavering in a cultural test of persistence, tenacity, and courage. At that moment, Catalunya is free.

Applause fills the urban canyons. The anxaneta descends like a fireman sliding down a pole. Each layer peels off in the same way. The captain wipes his brow and grins a toothy smile. Men hug like brothers. Bystanders cheer in disbelief.

Without thinking, I raise my hands, too, and try to touch the Catalan sky.


This story originally appeared in The Best Travel Writing 2008 from Travelers’ Tales and was republished in Townsend 11’s No Set Boundaries.

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