“Cuando empiecen, no levante la cabeza; no mires parriba,” says the stocky, bald Spaniard beside me.*
I respond with “no comprendo” – pretty much the only Spanish phrase I know.
“When they start,” he says, switching immediately to fluent English. “Keep your head down. Don’t look up.”
All of a sudden, joining in with the Castellers de Sant to build a human tower feels like it might be more dangerous than I expected. In the Sant Jaume square in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, the annual La Merce festival is drawing to a close with three teams of human-castle builders – “castellers” – engaging in a traditional competition to see who can build the largest castle.
I’ve joined in at the ground floor of this castle after a member of the team wandered through the crowd grabbing young (and some not-so-young) male onlookers and asking for help. The thing is, this next tower is going to be the biggest yet, and the team doesn’t have enough people to create the ground floor.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. When a member of the team grabbed me on the shoulder and asked in English “You wanna help us?” (clearly my pale winter complexion marked me as a foreign visitor), I complied. After being instructed to leave behind my backpack, sunglasses and water bottle, I found myself on the outer edge of the ground floor. I’d got in too late, I thought. Here on the outer edge, I was unlikely to see any action. I was wrong.
Participation in local culture is one of the best bits of travelling. Unless that means you’re a brick in a human pyramid. And you’re at the bottom.
A nearby team member taps me on the shoulder and points at my watch. Then he shakes his head. I take this to mean I should take the watch off, lest it be torn from my wrist. Maybe I’m in a hot spot after all.
After a minute or two a few members of the team shout some orders in Spanish and suddenly I’m pressed in from behind and the sides. My shoulders are locked forward and I realise I can’t move my arms – and therefore can’t protect my head in any way.
It’s at this time I receive my instructions from the squat man beside me.
“Put your head on the shoulder in front,” he adds.
I already feel I’m receiving far more intimate contact with the young man in front of me than I want, but when the castellers start climbing up over our shoulders, my head goes down on his shoulder as instructed.
No one knows where the arts of building these human castles came from, or how they became a tradition, but it seems that human castle building has been part of Catalonian culture for a long time. The Spaniards of Catalonia may not go in for bullfights (city officials voted to ban them last year) or flamenco dancing, but when it comes to risking their lives and the lives of their children by forming 10 metre-high human castles, they’re bang up for it.
The castles are formed by a tightly packed group of 50 or more men and women on the base, gradually forming smaller and smaller tiers. The fourth tier, made up of four men or as few as two, is where the strongest members of the team take their place, gripping each others arms to maintain stability. Above them, the castle gets smaller and younger until the top level, which is created by a tiny child who clambers up the backs of the others.
The La Merce festival celebrates Mare de Deu de la Merce, the patron saint of Barcelona, who, in 1637, is credited with saving the city from a plague of locusts.
During the festival, hordes of tourists from others parts of Spain, Europe and beyond descend on the city. It’s a busy place all year round, but during the week of La Merce the whole of Barcelona is partying. It seems like every one of the city’s many squares has a band playing – not surprising, considering over 3000 musicians and artists perform at the event. Fireworks can be seen every night, and it’s almost impossible to avoid the giant balsa-wood puppets parading around the town for three days – seemingly non stop.
Indeed, when my partner and I decided to head home on Saturday night at 1am, we felt like we were the first people in the city to go to bed – before small children and the elderly.
When I arrived at the Sant Jaume square the next morning for the human castles, I expected to see a reasonably professional show, like being at the circus. Yes, these people were performing without a net, but the expectation was that they were old hands – what could go wrong?
The first attempted castle of the day put paid to this belief. The Castellers of Barcelona built their castle to a height of around seven metres before, almost without warning, it collapsed. Bodies fell through the air headed towards the cobblestones below. That’s it, I thought, there will be broken bones, concussions – the Castellers of Barcelona are done for today.
But no; within 15 minutes, the same team was giving it another shot.
The team I had joined had proven more successful. But this tower seemed to be the most ambitious yet.
With my head planted on the shoulder in front of me, I had to rely on the crowd to indicate how things were going. It was fairly obvious: cheering and applause = good. Gasps and screams = bad.
Quicker than I had expected, in fact it seemed like less than a minute, I heard a chorus of cheers indicating that the tower had reached its apex, and it was time for it to be slowly disassembled.
That’s when the screams started. The tower was shaking too much, causing the two girls at the top to fall as they were beginning their descent. At this point, I couldn’t help it. I lifted my head and looked up… just in time to see a burly Spaniard’s arse falling towards me. I ducked, but not quickly enough. Instead of my head lying on the shoulder front of me, my face was. And my nose was being squashed flat by the weight of multiple castellers collapsing. My arms were still locked in beside me, so I couldn’t do a thing to lift the fallen man off my head.
In the few moments it took for the falling castellers to be lowered to the ground, I had enough time to wonder whether my travel insurance would cover any injuries I sustained in this activity. I’m sure the volunteer next to me, who came away from the experience with a bleeding head, may have been wondering the same thing.
*This may have been spoken in Catalan, rather than Spanish, but my response was the same regardless.