Sometimes I’m incredibly slow on the uptake. The penny doesn’t so much drop as make its way casually to what should have been an obvious conclusion.
This time the penny reached its destination thanks to the trumpeted arrival of a troupe of bright eyed, smiling men and an elvish girl all dressed in turquoise shirts, pristinely white three-quarter length trousers and wide cummerbunds.
The itinerary for the #catalunyaexperience blog trip had mentioned something vague about team building. Despite being in an area famed for its human towers and despite even seeing one constructing itself outside the Cathedral in Barcelona, the words ‘team,’ ‘building’ and ‘castellers’ didn’t come within nodding distance of each other in my head.
In short, it came as a surprise when the elvish girl smiled and asked: “So, do you want to build a castle?”
An enjoyably messy lesson in learning how to cook and eat calçots at Mas Trucafort whilst drinking generous amounts of wine was followed by lunch. This consisted of a hearty meal of local sausages, grilled lamb so fresh it had recently been skipping about in a nearby field, roasted artichokes (thanks to Akila from The Road Forks and Julie from Collazo Projects for the tips on how to eat artichokes) and more copious amounts of wine.
Being wine-fuelled might not seem the ideal preparation for climbing up someone’s back to balance on their shoulders. In retrospect, it might have been exactly the ideal preparation.
The Catalan tradition of building human castles dates back to the end of the 18th century, originating in the town of Valls near Tarragona. Like many visually vibrant Spanish traditions, the ritual clearly acts as social glue, bonding communities and engendering a feeling of local pride where everyone works together to achieve one aim.
Our enthusiastic tutors were members of one of the most accomplished and famous casteller groups in the land if not the world, the Castellers de VilaFranca, winners of the last five prestigious Concurs de Castells in Tarragona. This is the biggest event in the casteller calender, attracting the cream of casteller groups (collas) and thousands of spectators. The next one is due to be held on the 6th and 7th October 2012.
Having first watched a video of the Concurs de Castells in Tarragona where hundreds of castellers worked together to build a human tower as tall as a… well as tall as a tower (sometimes a vertigo inducing ten human storeys high), it was a relief to realise that our castle was going to be less ambitious. However, that didn’t detract from the thrill of being part of a casteller group for a short while.
To show us how it was done, the Castellers de VilaFranca effortlessly created a tower three people high before it was our turn to take part in the action.
Climbing up the back of the ‘base’ casteller like a human monkey involved a lot of hilarity, what might be considered compromising positions in any other situation and finally cheering, as each person stood triumphantly on the summit of a two-person high castle.
When it came to my turn, climbing up someone’s back to stand on their shoulders with one arm up displaying four fingers (the sign you’re confidently in position) seemed:
a) not quite such an effortless task
b) an awful long way from the ground.
In the seconds that I was twirled around, balancing on nervous legs, I found that I’d gained a new found respect for casteller members whilst also being glad that what little ‘valor’ I possessed had been bolstered by the wine consumed earlier.
Reading Julie Collazo’s wonderfully emotive take on the experience, I was comforted to note that she wasn’t quite as calm on the inside as she’d looked to me at the time.
There’s nothing quite like trying something for yourself to ram home how seasoned experts and professionals can make the difficult appear simple. Try standing on someone’s shoulders with one hand on your hip and the other in the air whilst they twirl and you’ll see what I mean. If you do, place plenty of mattresses on the ground first… unless you’ve got a casteller holding you.
After the individual efforts came the biggie, the building of a human tower involving all of us.
The excitement rose as we physically bonded to make the foundation of the tower and the next tier climbed upwards. Alas our attempts to build a human tower came to an abrubt end as castellers rained from the sky.
Okay, that’s poetic license. There was a bit of a stumble and a tumble and our tower collapsed. Thanks to quick reactions by the team working as one, there were no injuries save for the odd bruise.
In the end it didn’t really matter. By that time we’d had an elightening taste of what being a casteller meant.
Our human castle might not have been built but a feeling of team spirit had.
Buzz Trips became a nervous casteller for an afternoon as a guest of Catalunya Tourist Board.