Santa Creu i Sant Pau Recinte Modernista

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Administration Building

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Administration Building

The largest, and in many ways the most impressive, of the Modernist sites in Barcelona, indeed in all of Catalonia, is probably also one of the least known and visited. This is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, designed by the architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner who was also responsible for the Palau de la Música Orfeó Català.

Although it’s always been possible to get an idea of the place (I first had the chance to walk around in the late 1990s) it was still used as a working hospital up to 2009 so access was limited to what you’d find in any hospital in the UK. Following its closure as a medical facility it has undergone a clean up and restoration and all I can say is that they have done a magnificent job – it looks as if it had just been completed rather than having the first stone laid on January 15th 1902.

The history of the hospital itself goes back a long way. The first Santa Creu (Holy Cross) was established in the Raval area of Barcelona with the foundation stone being laid on February 13th 1401. This became a large Gothic structure designed along the lines of an ecclesiastical cloister. However, after 500 years it was showing its age and not really up to the demands of ‘modern’ medicine and was also taking up space in the centre of an expanding industrial city. (The Raval area includes what is presently known as the ‘Barrio Chino’, for some a no-go area on the southern side of La Rambla, more or less the area behind the Liceo Opera House.)

The money to kick-start the development came from a bequest in the will of a Catalan banker, Pau Gil i Serra, who made his ill-gotten gains in Paris – it’s his statue that stands above the fountain on the steps up to the main entrance, with Charity looking after the sick and poor in front of him and huge frogs on either side (I don’t know what they signify). He stipulated that the hospital should take up the challenge of the rapidly increasing advances in medical science and also that it should be dedicated to Sant Pau (Saint Paul), so his name was added to the original Santa Creu.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Pau Gil i Serra

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Pau Gil i Serra

There was a competition but none of the three submissions were considered adequate so the commission was given to Domènech i Montaner (obviously no hint of nepotism or cronyism there!).

By all accounts he did his research and studied what was happening in hospital architecture throughout Europe and came up with the arrangement which had separate pavilions, devoted to different aspects of medicine, and then connected them all together with an extensive underground passageway system, providing access without having to go outside. That idea has gone out of fashion now and most modern hospitals are huge all-encompassing buildings, few of them seeming to have been designed with a scintilla of imagination.

The complex seems vast now but it’s only just over half of what was in the original plan as Domènech i Montaner planned 48 buildings, only 27 were actually constructed. He died, in 1923, before even that number was completed and the work was continued by his son to make the hospital ready for its official opening in January 1930.

The jewel is definitely the main building on the corner of Carrer de Cartegena and Carrer de Sant Antoní Maria Claret. The building embraces the corner of the two streets and the approach is up the wide steps in the centre (with the statue and fountain). If you scan the façade of the building you start to notice those signature elements of Catalan Modernism: nature, the female form and Catalan nationalism as well as the use of the locally produced (then) building materials of brick, tiles, glass and wrought iron.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Entrance Hall

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Entrance Hall

Once inside you’re greeted by intricate and colourful tile work which continues as you walk along the passageways and into the rooms off them. When there’s a natural break, a doorway or a corner, there’s a different style and/or colour. I’ve still not really understood why this all works. In other buildings (most notably the Palacio Real in Madrid or the Baroque Basilica de San Juan de Dios in Granada) when I’ve been faced with such extremes of ornamentation I’ve felt physically sick and have to leave to get some fresh air (or a beer) but that isn’t my reaction to Modernism. Something ‘softens’ the attack of colour and design and the overall effect becomes less of an assault on the senses.

The plan is to use the Administration Pavilion as an event/conference venue and that has meant that some of the spaces have been adapted for a future use but as far as I could see this had all been done whilst at the same time maintaining the integrity of the original designs.

A couple of spaces are worthy of special mention. The first is what would have been the chapel which is now called the Montaner Hall. You really have to look for Christ as he’s on a cross on the back wall of a first floor balcony. There’s no obvious altar now so I assume that it would have been a table structure on the ground floor underneath that crucifix. There’s the words of a short prayer (in Catalan) forming the balustrade of the balcony on three sides of the hall; an image in relief of Sant Jorge (Saint George) slaying the dragon above one of the doors; and a large mosaic which is more geometric with stylized plants and flowers rather than anything religious – this mosaic is underneath the crucifix.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Chapel

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Chapel

These mosaics, made from small pieces of ceramics and called ‘trencadis’ in Catalan, is very much a feature of Domènech i Montaner’s style of working. His style is much more in the tradition of the Roman mosaics where it’s possible to discern an image, be it of a plant, decorations on columns or pictures of choristers (as it is in the Palau de la Música). On the other hand Gaudí’s style was to break the tiles into larger pieces and creating a colourful design without necessarily wanting to represent anything identifiable – as is the case on the benches in Park Güell. His use of the smaller pieces on the Dragon on the fountain is to create colour rather than form as the creature is made out of stone onto which the tiles are fixed.

The other area of special note is the main stairwell immediately to the left as you enter the administration building. Here the supporting arches are covered with ceramic tiles and the spaces in between contain geometric mosaics made again by smaller pieces of, this time, white and beige tiles. Also interesting here is the skylight that’s very reminiscent of ‘The Sun’ above the main auditorium of the Palau de la Música. The large wrought iron lamp on the banister half way down is also a one-off in the building.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Main Stairwell

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Main Stairwell

In order to get to the other buildings you head down into the basement and then along part of the network of underground passageways that unite all the separate parts of the original hospital. You can’t explore all of these as the pavilions that are out in the garden are either used by different organisations or have yet to be restored. Nonetheless you do get an idea of what Domènech i Montaner was aiming for, keeping all the servicing of the hospital’s requirements underground and creating the ability to get to all the pavilions without having to pass through or disturb any of the others.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Basement

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Basement

Once outside the main administration building it’s easy to see why Sant Pau was sometimes referred to as a ‘garden hospital’. In fact, if you didn’t know the different buildings were part of a medical complex you would be hard pressed to come to that conclusion. Used, as we are now, to generic, functional and normally boring and uninteresting structures where we go to have our medical requirements fulfilled (the new hospital in Reus being a noteworthy exception to this ‘rule’) the buildings seem to be more like homes for the rich than wards and laboratories.

Although I find their exteriors fascinating I wouldn’t have liked to have spent any length of time either working in them or being a customer (what used to be called a ‘patient’). Photographs of the wards make them seem cold and austere, however much they might have been ‘state of the art’ on their completion in 1930.

Only a few of the buildings have been fully restored and now have a new lease of life as offices for different organisations that look for attractive pictures to put on their publicity. When I visited it was part of the open days and some of these organisations allowed people to look into their space but I assume that on a regular basis it would only be the outsides that are part of the tour. But the outsides are enough and stylised plants and fruit made from colourful tiles sits well with the orange trees below.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Garden Pavilions

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Garden Pavilions

Also worth looking for whilst out in the garden are the different mosaics which decorate the sides of some of the pavilions. There are a couple of Sant Jorge and also (just above the entrance to the obligatory souvenir shop cum exit) depictions of the planning of the project and the laying of the first stones.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Mosaic

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Mosaic

At the moment only eight of the buildings have been fully renovated. The initial plan, for which a budget of €100 million has been allocated, takes in 12 buildings and they are those around the central building of the garden as well as the administration building itself. That still leaves 15 (assuming they have all survived into the 21st century) and some of them are very large indeed so whether the finance will be there in the future must be in some doubt. The present funding was secured before everything went down the pan and we are now rewarding the bankers with ever-increasing bonuses means there’s less for other projects.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Pavilions

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Pavilions

I’ll finish this introduction with a couple of anecdotes.

During the Spanish Civil War the hospital was taken over by the Republican local government of Barcelona. As in all civil wars things get dirty and the antagonism between the Catholic Fascists of Franco and the atheist Republicans was intense. Church buildings were burnt by the Republicans and Catholic Priests blessed and gave absolution to the Fascists as they murdered those who were fighting in defence of the legitimate government. So it’s no surprise that this had an effect on the hospital.

The religious name was changed from Santa Creu I Sant Pau to the General Hospital of Catalonia. All the pavilions had been given religious names based on Saints and the Virgin Mary (as they are now) and these were replaced by numbers. This was the case until February 9th 1939 when matters reverted to the pre-war condition with the entry of the Fascists into the city of Barcelona.

The young Pablo Picasso was friendly with one of the surgeons of the hospital and for some reason when he went to Sant Pau to meet his friend in 1903 they decided to visit the mortuary. A women that he saw there inspired Picasso to paint La Dona Mort (The dead Woman) which is an example from his ‘Blue Period’.

Although the queues were literally around the block between February 25th and March 16th, 2014 when it was free to enter as a celebration of the completion of a significant part of the restoration the Sant Pau Recinte Modernista (as it is now called) still hasn’t got into the guide books and won’t be attracting the same crowds as other Modernist sites in the city. It’s still possible to get tickets at very short notice so go there soon before it gets swamped. As the plan is to make money from the likes of conferences and exhibitions in the newly renovated space you would be well to check the news section on the website to make sure access is possible when you might want to visit.

Location:

Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site
C. Sant Antoni Maria Claret, 167
08025 Barcelona

Website:

Sant Pau Recinte Modernista

How to get there:

Metro (L5): Sant Pau / Dos de Maig

Visits:

SELF-GUIDED

Cost and Timetable:

General: €8

Over 65, Aged 16-29 and Disabled: €5.60

Under 16: Free

November – March

Monday to Saturday          10.00 – 16.30

Sundays and holidays       10.00 – 14.30

April – October

Monday to Saturday           10.00 – 18.30

Sundays and holidays        10.00 – 14.30

GUIDED

Cost and Timetable:

General: €14

Over 65, Aged 16-29 and Disabled: €9.80

Under 16: Free

November – March

Monday to Saturday        12.00, 13.00, 16.00

Sundays and holidays     12.00, 13.00

April – October

Monday to Saturday         12.00, 13.00, 16.00, 17.00

Sundays and holidays      12.00, 13.00

Closed:

1st and 6th January, 25th and 26th December

Free:

25th January, 12th February, 23rd April, 24th September, first Sunday of the month

Book Online HERE

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The Roman City of Baetulo, Badalona Museum

House - Museu de Badalona. Antonio Guillén

House – Museu de Badalona. Antonio Guillén

I’d think I’d be fairly safe in saying that the overwhelming majority of people who visit Barcelona aren’t there for what remains from the Roman period – many not being aware that the Romans had actually been there in the first place – most coming to view the Modernist architecture of the likes of Antonio Gaudí and Lluís Domenech i Montaner. That’s a shame as the city has remnants from 2,000 years ago, although admittedly some of them need to be searched out. Even fewer people would be aware that just a few kilometres down the Metro line to the north-east of Barcino (the Roman name for Barcelona) is the Roman City of Baetulo at Badalona Museum, one of the most important Roman archaeological sites in Catalonia.

Baetulo dates back to the early part of the first century BC (or BCE, as it is sometimes referred) and was one of the first Roman settlements to be established in the Iberian Peninsular. Later there would be a whole line of these along the coastal road that would go as far south as Andalusia, passing by Baleo Claudio (for the salted tuna and garum) just south of Cadiz on the Atlantic coast, up to Italica, at present day Santponce, just across the Cuadalquivir from Seville, the virtual bread basket of the Roman Empire.

The city was walled and originally would have been much closer to the coast. That’s difficult to imagine nowadays as the beaches of Badalona are a long way from the museum. However, everything falls into place when you remember that to the south-west, just under halfway to Barcelona, is the River Besos. Its delta in the past was much more extensive and the years of taking water from further upstream for agriculture and its ‘taming’ close to human settlements has changed the ecology of the littoral.

Excavation of the site were the museum now stands began in 1955 and soon after it was decided to build the museum on top of it to aid in its preservation. I’m not sure if I am a big fan of such preservation. Yes, it does prevent erosion and other damage caused by the weather but it makes for a strange experience when visiting the site. Recent modernisations and improvements to the exhibition space have meant that you see the ruins in very subdued light and creates a sensation quite unlike any other such archaeological site I’ve visited. The city that originally would have been bleached and burnt by the Mediterranean sun now exists in a permanent twilight, with all the concrete and metal surfaces of the modern building being painted black.

Nonetheless, what you get is a very good idea of what a Roman town would have been like, there being set conventions and structures that were common in settlements of the Republic and Empire that were repeated for the 500 years or so before internal conflict and foreign invasion saw the inevitable end of the most powerful empire up to that time. More recent empires can only dream of such a period of dominance – just remember the Nazi dream of a ‘Thousand Year Reich’ and the way that US dominance of the world is being threatened by the upsurge in the Chinese economy.

The area in the museum, which covers about 3,400 m², must have been the earliest to have been built as parts of the Cardo Maximus and Decumanus Maximus are both within the uncovered site. These roads were the two principal thoroughfares around which the rest of the city would be constructed.

The Cardo Maximus took an east-west orientation, often strictly adhering to the points of the compass, but in Baetulo the line of the coast was taken as the point of reference (as well as the compass) so here this main street runs from the coast to the mountains. The Decumanus Maximus was normally constructed along a north-south axis but in Baetulo is parallel to the coast. At the ends of these two main roads you would have found the gates into the walled town. Also it was traditional that the Forum would have been built at their intersection and that would place it, more or less’ in the top left hand corner of the site, just to the left of the exhibition area. When the town was first constructed the Forum would have been very much in the centre of the settlement but as the place grew in importance it expanded massively and reached about 10 hectares in size before its decay in the 6th century AD (CE in modern parlance).

What of the buildings on show. One of the main areas, and one of the most important in any Roman town, is that of the bath house (thermae). These always followed a very regular pattern and anyone who has already visited a Roman town will be aware of the arrangement.

First there’s the atrium, which is the first room on entry where entrance fees were paid and people would meet up with their friends, business acquaintances or fellow plotters if something nefarious was on the cards.

The baths proper began with the apodyterium (the changing room) and connected to that is the frigidarium (a cold plunge pool). Through a doorway next there’s the tepidarium (the warm room, so that customers would be able to adapt to the rising temperatures). This was a place to sit and talk and at Baetulo they have reconstructed a bench to give a better impression of the look of the room – many years in the past the original bench had been taken and all that was left was the depression in the floor. This is also the room with the only mosaic on show (there are more at another nearby site, the House of the Dolphins). Although much of the worked stone would have been looted once the Roman town fell into disuse the mosaics survive as stealing them would be like stealing a jigsaw puzzle where the box lid had been lost.

Mosaics - Museu de Badalona. Antonio Guillén

Mosaics – Museu de Badalona. Antonio Guillén

Next to that is the caldarium (the really hot room), what we would now call a sauna. This was closest to the fire which provided all the heat through under floor channels and vents. You look down on these rooms from the metal walkway that leads you around the site.

Traditionally along the two major roads virtually every building would have a commercial use at street level – any living accommodation here being on the first floor – all ready to get people’s money as they came through the city gates. These premises would be a mix of shops, taverns and brothels – although the information boards are quiet about the latter product of the free market. Here it’s worth mentioning that there’s a lot of information on these panels, by each building or place of interest, in three languages, Catalan, Spanish and English.

One of the good things about visiting these different sites is that either a new piece of information is pointed out to you or you see something that makes you think in a different way. Here looking down at a modest house, more like a one room bedsit, our guide pointed out that there were rarely any cooking facilities in the more modest homes and that all cooked meals would be taken in the local taverns, something which is still seen in certain parts of the world to this day. (I’ve noticed a similar situation in countries as far apart as Peru and Vietnam.) Also there’s one building that still has the remains of wall paintings and another that’s been identified as a workshop.

However, the aspect of the site that’s very obvious is the importance the Romans placed on their drainage and sewerage system (cloacas in both Catalan and Spanish). As what has been uncovered contains parts of the two principal streets it’s possible to see how the system goes from the smaller channels from each building, then into the smaller streets and finally from there to the main drains which go downhill towards the sea. I can’t imagine that anyone would want to swim in the Mediterranean just below Baetulo but the system meant that all the filth was kept away from where people lived, ate, shopped and worked. The remains of a water supply duct constructed in the time of Tiberius, in the 1st century AD, can be visited only a couple of hundred metres away from the museum.

Roman Drains - Museu de Badalona. Antonio Guillén

Roman Drains – Museu de Badalona. Antonio Guillén

It’s one of those questions which will never get a satisfactory answer. Once the Romans lost their power, in all parts of the known world where they had a presence, the marble, the worked stone, anything of removable value was looted but it seems that no one thought to ‘steal’ (or even borrow) the knowledge of underground heating, providing a clean water supply and getting rid of human waste. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that these issues were accepted as needing a solution in order to make it possible to actually live in the major industrial cities that were mushrooming with the advance of the industrial revolution. Up to that time most cities were literally cesspits of filth, stench and disease. We started to get it right in Britain for about a hundred years but now we’re going backwards as privatisation puts profit before anything else. The only benefit from that, together with fracking, is that soon people will be able to get their gas and water through the same pipe. (See the 2010 film Gasland.) To the best of my knowledge the water and drains in Roman times were a public enterprise.

The basement also houses an exhibition space with artefacts found within the area of the old Roman town as well as an audio-visual presentation that, through the use of Computer Graphics Imaging, attempts to give an idea of what the city would have looked in its heyday (together with graffiti on the walls).

Exhibition Space - Museu de Badalona. Antonio Guillén

Exhibition Space – Museu de Badalona. Antonio Guillén

The collection, which is well presented, contains the ‘usual’ articles you find in such museums: amphora – for the storage and transport of, in the main, olive oil and wine; little pottery olive oil lamps for lighting – being so used to instant light at the flick of a switch we forget that in previous times light was at a premium and there must have been millions of these delicate and often beautifully decorated vessels made during the time of the Republic and Empire; sculptured heads on a spike – the bodies of the statues were made on a production line process and the individual heads were then added to order, this meant that when an Emperor was deposed they only had to change the head; pieces of glass and ceramics used in everyday life and which were discarded in huge quantities – so much of archaeological knowledge comes from people sorting through previous generation’s rubbish; funereal stelae, including three from the Iberian period; capitals and pieces of columns that had either been missed by looters or thought of no use; toys for children and pieces of wood, bone or stone that had been shaped and carved for use in games for both children and adults; and, as always, a small collection of erotica used as amulets and sometimes on a much bigger scale.

As is often the case each of these museums/exhibitions will have their unique finds and that’s the case with Badalona. One object is called The Badalona Venus. This is a beautifully carved and extremely anatomically accurate statue of a young woman. It would have stood about 18 inches high but unfortunately all that remains is the torso, the head, arms and the lower legs having suffered the ravages of time. These statues are often given great importance as symbols of love, fertility, desire, wealth and all the rest. It might have been all of those or none but it is still a very attractive statue and perhaps more so due to its small size, something that might have been lost if it was bigger.

Badalona Venus - Museu de Badalona. Antonio Guillén

Badalona Venus – Museu de Badalona. Antonio Guillén

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before but on looking on this Venus I started to wonder why the skill of artistic perspective was lost at the same time as the knowledge of sewer construction – and other technological advances of the time. In Romanesque Art (from about 1,000 to the rise of the Gothic and then the Renaissance 3 or 4 hundred years later) the human figure is represented in a comic, grotesque, primitive, naïve way depending upon the location. Not that it doesn’t have charm, and in Barcelona it’s possible to see one of the best collections of such art in Europe in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, but it lacks perspective. That skill only started to re-emerge during the Renaissance but for almost a thousand years it was lost.

And that’s disturbing. If we neither learn from our mistakes or successes then we are well and truly snookered. Knowledge, it seems, is not linear in that we can gradually, perhaps sometimes in leaps and bounds, learn more and more. We have to forget, at times for many, many years before we can return to the road towards a higher understanding.

Before I depress myself too much I’ll return to those artefacts in the Badalona Museu that are relatively unique. And the two I’m going to highlight are both made of metal.

I’ve already mentioned that the Cardo and Decumanus Maximus roads would lead to the city gates and in the excavations in the area two bronze sockets were found which would have held the wooden jambs for those substantial gates.

The other metal object is from the end of the 1st century AD and is known as the Tabula Hospitalis (a contract and binding agreement dating from Greek times establishing the norms of hospitality towards guests and visitors), a bronze plaque which records the agreement between the population of the town and the patrician Quint Licini Silvà Granià (part of the grounds of what are considered to have been attached to his house are another area that had been excavated and which can be visited).

So in a relatively small space a lot to see.

A short video to give you a taste of the site can be seen by clicking here

After a tour that lasted about an hour and a half it was our guide, the Directora of the Archive, who suggested we could do a lot worse than try Can Joan for a €10 lunchtime menu (that’s, of course, if you visit in the morning).

Thanks to Montse and Esther of the Badalona Museum for permission to use the photos of Antonio Guillén.

Location:

Museu de Badalona

Plaça Assemblea de Catalunya, 1

08911 Badalona

Tel: +34 933 841 750

Opening Times:

Tuesday – Saturday from 10.00 – 14.00, 17.00 – 20.00

Sunday and Holidays from 10.00 – 14.00

Closed: Mondays, 1st and 6th January; 1st May; 24th June; 15th August; 11th, 25th and 26th September

Cost:

€6.48 – which includes the House of the Dolphins and Quint Licini Garden

Pensioners: €2.70

Website: Museu de Badalona

How to get there:

Go the very end of L2 (the purple one) on the Metro at Badalona Pompeu Fabra. From the main exit go up hill to the next set of traffic lights and cross Avinguda de Martí Pujol and then go along Via Augusta for a couple of hundred metres. The Museum is on the corner of Via Agusta and Carrer de les Termes Romanes.

Instead of rushing out of the Metro, which is the norm in all parts of the world, stay a while and take a look at the pictures in the upper vestibule of the recently modernised station. These are images of the Devils (and the year of their construction) which have been burnt on the night of the 10th May as part of the the May Festival. This act records the attempt of The Devil to seduce who was to become the patron saint of Badalona, Sant Anastasi.

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The Castellers de Sant Adrià de Besos, Barcelona

Castellers de Sant Adria

Castellers de Sant Adria

Anyone who has travelled around the not totally foreign tourist dependent areas of Catalonia in the summer months might well have come across a group of castellers, the people who construct human towers which vary in height and complexity dependent upon the number, size, experience and expertise of the colle (group). I’ve only seen these towers a few times in real life (although quite a number of times on the television – a similar experience I have to bull fighting) and didn’t really understand much about the practice until I had the chance to attend a practise session of a group that has recently been formed, the Castellers de Sant Adrià de Besos, Barcelona.

I was only there for little over an hour and a half but on leaving I had a much greater understanding of what the construction of these towers entailed and, I must admit, a greater appreciation of not only the skills, courage and strength needed to get to the dizzying heights achieved by the most famous colles in Catalonia, but also of the amount of time and effort that’s needed to even get into the lower leagues of the game.

After such a short time I’m by no means an expert and won’t attempt to go into too many of the technicalities here but I’d just like to express a few observations that came to me as I walked around the local community hall trying to capture the feel of the session on film (OK, it’s all digital now but it doesn’t have the same effect if I said ‘on digital’) in somewhat difficult light conditions.

The fact that this session was talking place indoors (it was still winter) placed a certain limit on what could be even attempted. The group had only been established a few months before (in the autumn of 2013) and although there were a few who had done this before, and they had an experienced ‘cap de coller’ (group leader) who decided what they should attempt and where people should go as a group, they were generally novices.

I say that in no way disparaging what they were doing or attempting when it went wrong. One thing I believe I took away from the session was the need for trust amongst all those participating and that only comes with time and knowledge of the abilities and capabilities of those around, above and below you.

As in performance dance each participant has to have faith that the other people in the tower are doing what they should be doing. On the television I had seen towers collapse either during construction or as they were trying to get everyone down on to terra firma. In those situations those who form the base (the ‘pinya’ – bulk) have to stay put. Instinctively if something is going to fall on top of you most people will try to get out of the way. For those that make up the pinya that’s the last thing they should do. They are there for two reasons, to provide the support and take the weight of the climbers and to break the fall of those very climbers, in the event of things going belly up, who might have climbed on the shoulders of anything up to eight people to get to the top.

If the pinya is not working well then it’s a waste of time to keep on reaching for the stars as failure is certain. As I watched the pinya forming I could see that those further from the centre of the circle would place their hands on the hands and arms of those closer to the centre. It’s very much the same role as a buttress plays in a large building or the spreading roots of large trees like mangroves, which send down branches to become roots to cope with the extra height and weight of the tree as it matures.

In the same way the more adventurous the colle becomes and the higher it aims the stronger and more numerous the pinya has to be. In the colles that aim for nine high there are more than a hundred people on the ground needed to provide that support. At times they will have a second ‘base level’ on top of the pinya (called a ‘folre’ – cover). The pressure the folre must place on the people below must be immense as to do their job of pressing up to support the ones constructing the tower they must be pressing down on those below. But I’m getting ahead of myself, the colle in Sant Adrià are some way from having to address that problem – which I’m sure they’d admit themselves.

The heat that must be generated in the centre of this crush, especially when they are performing outside in a Catalan summer, must be immense but like a tree or a flower the castell will not survive if the roots are not firmly planted.

Castellers de Sant Adria

Castellers de Sant Adria

One of the most important elements of the dress of the castellers is the ‘faixa’ (the sash). This is normally black and can measure up to 12 metres long for some of the bigger individuals of the pinya. It takes two people to put on the sash. One person will hold the end tight as the person wearing it turns their body to wind the faixa around their waist. They have to decide how tight it is to suit their own personal preference. It needs to be tight so that it provides support but not so tight that it becomes uncomfortable. The faixa has two roles: the first to provide support for the back and the stomach muscles (as you see with weight lifters) and secondly to provide a foot hold for those climbing up their bodies. Often there will be another, personal, bandana around the centre of the faixa to provide more foot and hand holds.

Those who do the climbing, at whatever level, do so barefoot. This enables them to get a better feel of what they are standing on and also makes it less unpleasant on those they are standing. It’s interesting to see the climbers as they clamber up people, the very young children grabbing hold of whatever seems like a handy piece of cloth or flesh in order to get to the top. It’s also interesting to see how those already in the tower bend their knees, for example, to provide yet another foothold for the climbers.

Castellers de Sant Adria

Castellers de Sant Adria

One thing I couldn’t work out and had to ask about was the reason for gripping both the collars of the shirt between the teeth. I was told that this was to prevent the shirt ripping and making the climber slip. When you think about it this makes sense. People have to move fast so that the task they are attempting can be completed before they start to put too much strain on the ones below. (If you look on the internet for videos of the castellers you’ll find that most are less than five minutes long for them to get to the top and then down again, even for the most complicated.) A slip by even a very small child could have knock on consequences that could bring the tower down.

And it’s the small and very young children of 5 or 6 who are crucial for the success of castell making. However high you go the tower is not considered complete and the exercise over until the ‘enxaneta’ (literally rider, but meaning the topmost casteller) has gone up one side, reached the top and raised a hand with 4 fingers erect (said by some to represent the 4 bars on the Catalan flag) to then go down the other side. After that the whole tower deconstructs and it is not until everyone is on the ground is it considered a success. This is very much the same way as people should approach climbing mountains, it’s all very well getting to the top but the most difficult and important is to get down again – something which the British and their infatuation with Mallory and Irving who died in their attempt to climb Chomolungma (sometimes erroneously known as Mount Everest) in 1924 don’t seem to understand.

Castellers de Sant Adria

Castellers de Sant Adria

These enxanetas are increasingly young girls. At such a young age they have little in the way of fear and as long as they are nurtured (and now wearing crash helmets) there should be no reason why those young girls in Sant Adrià won’t be able to get to the top of the 8 stage castells. Perhaps Tete in the 1994 Bigas Luna film, La teta y la luna, was too old and too obsessed for the task.

I was told that a colle has to be able to regularly achieve a tower of ‘sis’, six, levels to be accepted as bona fide. In the community hall the group was able to reach 4 high but then had the problem of the ceiling getting in the way. I’m sure that with the return of the sun and the possibilities of practising outdoors they soon be attempting such heights.

I hope that when the Castellers de Sant Adrià colle attempts the Quatre de nou amb folre i l’agulla (Nine levels of four people with the second base level and the ‘agulla’ (needle) of nine people inside) I will be there to record the achievement for prosperity.

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