When Time Stands Still

la foto 4There it is–that moment just before the anxaneta, the young person climbing up a wall of people, throws up her hand to signal the completion of a human tower.

It’s the moment I’ve come to love the most in my 10 years of watching castells, or castles.

It’s when time stands still for a split second. It’s when my American eyes take a quick look around, and my journalist-trained ears tune out the gralles’ music and hone into what will be said in the seconds after she raises her hand skyward. It’s when my traveler’s heart rediscovers a custom worth preserving, as UNESCO has wisely done.

During Barcelona’s annual La Mercè festival, the sensation is heightened for me because the event has a distinctive international flair. The collective sense of awe, surprise and relief is shared across a plaza filled with Catalans, Spanish, Germans, British, Dutch, French, Italians, Irish, Americans, Canadians, Japanese, Chinese and whoever else is willing to cram themselves into the crowd for a couple of hours.

“Wow! That’s incredible,” is the first thing I hear from a British guy behind me as the anxaneta reaches the top. He sounds astonished.

“Ostres! Molt bé! Molt bé,” shouts the Catalan guy with his son hoisted on his shoulders. It’s his “Bloody hell!” equivalent. He’s totally impressed with the gamma extra tower–a technically difficult construction requiring considerable precision, strength and stamina.

la foto 2 There’s some Italian and French coming from either side of where I’m standing, and plenty of spectators are clicking their smartphone and iPad camera buttons, hurrying to freeze the fleeting image digitally.

“The kids are so cute. But I wouldn’t climb up there,” is the last snippet of English I catch as the square explodes with applause. There’s excitement and doubt in her voice. I wonder if she’s thinking the same thing I thought all those years ago (and still often do): How do you begin to make sense of this odd-looking climbing stuff? It’s an unusual tradition by anyone’s measure, but is intoxicatingly strange to witness it for the first time.


Making sense of things

I can relate. I remember (and wrote about) the first time I saw the human towers. It was in this exact same place–in front of Barcelona’s city hall–a decade ago. After hearing about the castells, I rearranged my travel plans to stay in the city for a few days longer, and was convinced I would miss an important display of Catalan culture if I didn’t make the effort to go. I told myself back then, “This is what traveling is about, right? Understanding why the locals do what they do and why they do what they do. Be a part of it. See what happens.”

On a hot September afternoon, I maneuvered my way close to one of the groups. As I watched the teams construct different kinds of towers, my curiosity grew. I started jotting down a long list questions. “Where did this custom come from? How do the groups train? How many groups are there in Catalonia? How many people are in the base? How do the guys on the bottom hold all this weight? What happens if the towers fall? Does anyone get hurt? How do they get the kids to climb so high? What if the kids don’t want to climb? Is this really safe?”

la foto 1When the last pillars were deconstructed and the plaza began to empty, I tapped a woman on the shoulder and asked how I could learn more about what I had just seen. She found someone who spoke English, a Catalan-English translator who answered as many questions as he could before he had to cut out for lunch with his family. He passed me off to another guy who patiently filled my head with more details than I could scribble down on the few scraps of paper I had in my pockets. We stood there chatting about human towers and our mutual love of travel for quite a long time.

I joke that this second guy–I’ll call him L.–must have had some amazing answers because a few years later I moved my life from San Francisco to Barcelona to be with him. We’re still together, and I’ve been a fan of human towers ever since.

But no matter how many human towers I’ve seen these last 10 years, there’s always that moment—that moment when time seemingly stands still and everyone in the crowd—locals from down the road or visitors from another continent—celebrates an intoxicatingly strange cultural feat of strength, precision and stamina. For me, it’s the best moment of all.


Remember the first time you saw or heard about the human castles? Tell us about it on our Facebook page or send us an email at info@humancastles.com. 

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