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.

El Glop – Taverna del Teatre – Barcelona

El Glop - Taverna del Teatre

El Glop – Taverna del Teatre

I had just walked around L’Eixample for three hours or so, following a route that took in various Modernist buildings, and finished down by Plaça Catalunya. I had originally planned to head off to a restaurant recommended in one of the guide books but couldn’t find it on my map and, anyway, it would have been another 10 minute or so walk so decided on one that I passed just before the end of my itinerary El Glop – Taverna del Teatre (the theatre in question being Tivoli cinema house).

The problem with eating anywhere in Spain is that there are so many places to choose from. A good few years ago I read that there were more eating/drinking venues in Spain than in all of the rest of the EU combined. That might not still be the case as the EU has got so big but the choice is still huge (TripAdvisor lists 5,514 eating places in Barcelona!) and you don’t know what sort of risk you might be taking, especially so close to the centre of the tourist area.

Here I think I should say something about the walk I had been following. Way back in the 90s when I first started coming to Barcelona I happened on a book of 5 walks around the centre of the city. These walks were so devised as to not only take you to a different part of the city centre but also in a way so you could concentrate on a particular style of architecture or historical period. I’d done the other four so this day I did the final one. The book is called BarcelonaWalks by George Semler, Henry Holt, New York, 1992. Don’t think it’s still in print but it will be available on the internet and is a good introduction to what the city has to offer. I’ve come across a few mistakes, minor errors in street numbers, for example, but that doesn’t detract from the value of the book in general.

El Glob – which means ‘gulp’, ‘swig’, ‘mouthful’ or something along those lines – was offering a midday menu for €10.70. The restaurant has a very narrow frontage with a handful of tables out on the street. These were full (although it was just at the start of the Catalan lunchtime) so I went inside and was surprised to see that it went way back, getting much wider after the long bar and cooking area. Perhaps I was lucky the outside was not available. Although it had been quite warm in the sunshine walking around I think it might have gotten a little uncomfortable sitting still for an hour or so, the air temperature still being relatively low.

There were 5 options for the first two courses. It will not come as a surprise that paella was one of them. I thought that this always appeared on a Menu to pander to the tourists but talking to a Catalan friend he said that he would, from time to time go for the paella, and that on Thursdays all places in Catalonia offering a Menu would have paella on the list – that was something I hadn’t realised before. One thing to remember about this particular dish is that it often is only available for a minimum of two people.

For the starter I chose the Escalivata with anchovy. This was something new to me. It consists of onions, sweet red pepper, aubergine and tomato, all having been previously cooked but served cold. They are presented in a line across the plate and an anchovy placed on top. Being a cold dish it was quite refreshing. I had cause to stop and think when I tried the tomato. Why is it not possible to get decent tomatoes in Britain?

I can’t remember the last time I bought a tomato that had any taste, even during the tomato ‘season’ in the summer. I don’t go chasing around so-called farmers markets to find the sweetest (shopping for me is a necessity not a life choice). Perhaps I’m expecting too much from the nearest large supermarket but if they don’t have them who does? If I can eat a decent, tasty tomato in Barcelona in February why can’t I do so in Liverpool?

I hope that changes taking place in Spanish shopping habits don’t lead to the same ‘lowest common denominator’ approach. I always used to say to people I took around Spanish cities to have a look in the markets in order to see the quality of the food on sale as compared to Britain but even those places, like the Boqueria off the Rambla in Barcelona, are being turned into tourist gastro traps rather than markets. The same happened with the Mercado Sant Miquel next to the Plaza Major in Madrid so perhaps blandness could be on the way for the Catalans/Spanish in the not too distant future as more shopping is done in supermarkets.

To drink I again opted for the red wine. This came in a half litre carafe, so I have no idea of where it came from (probably a keg) but thought it was quite good, full-bodied and fruity. Better than the wine served at Le Nou, although there quantity made up for quality. One thing that I’d forgotten about drinking red wine in Catalonia is that it’s always served cold, not just in the summer. Some might find this a bit odd, in fact I still do. Once you learn about wines and then think you know a little about them it’s likely that you come to the understanding that reds should be served at room temperature. Not is Spain. The trouble is I’ve never let the wine stand long enough on the table to test whether it improves as the temperature increases.

Sitting not too far from the entrance I was able to get an idea of the customers. Obviously a problem that all tourists face when they travel is lack of local knowledge. I was staying with friends on the outskirts of the city and could get recommendations there but for the centre of Barcelona I was like most other visitors. Having chosen ‘blind’ it was good to see that the majority of those who came in after me where obviously locals who returned on a regular basis.

How am I so sure that these were Catalans as they entered? Their form of dress. Although I had been walking around allowing the sun to caress my bare arms on Montjuic (a few days before) and L’Eixample this particular morning the overwhelming majority of locals still considered it was winter. The standard winter clothing for Catalan women is the padded, quilted jacket, together with a scarf. For the men similar long scarves with leather bomber jackets. I had confirmation of their status as they passed me. I was sitting with my jacket on the back of my chair and could read their thoughts through their looks of astonishment. To a Catalan I must have only recently escaped from an asylum which would not have been the reaction of most other foreign visitors.

Before my order had been taken I had noticed a number of plates of ‘albondigas’ – meatballs – going passed and thought to try them. They are normally a good standby on the menu. When they arrived they were in a thickish tomato sauce, in which were strips of carrot, sweet red pepper, onion and peas. The sauce was tasty but I’ve still to decide on the meat balls themselves. In consistency and taste they seemed like spam to me. I haven’t come across that before and still don’t know if I would choose again if it was on offer.

It might be worth mentioning here that you don’t normally get vegetables with the main, apart from possibly chips, so if you insist on some sort of balance think about this when ordering.

The dessert is normally quite simple and I chose the ‘macedonia’, the mixed fruit salad that came served in a small wine glass.

I thought this was quite a good place. The service was efficient and I was not hurried. The place got busier the closer it got to 15.00 but it was big enough so it didn’t seem like a crush. One touch I quite liked was the waiter asking a lone man who left to use the services whether he had left ‘alguna cosa importante’ (anything of value) in his bag at the table.

I later realised that this restaurant was part of a small local chain in the city, something that’s still quite unusual, but would have no problems trying any of the others if they were nearby at lunch time.

It was a pleasant environment – the jamones serrano were hanging from the ceiling lower down the restaurant and there were some interesting, large, Modernist-looking lamps from the ceiling

The last thing to note is you don’t pay the waiter. Take the bill that would have been left on the table to the till.

Practical Information:

El Glop – Taverna del Teatre

Casp 21

Just off the bottom of Passeig de Gràcia, near to Plaça Catalunya.

Nearest Metro: Catalunya

 

Arenas de Barcelona – Placa de Espanya

Arenas Bull Ring - Placa de Espanya - Barcelona

Arenas Bull Ring – Placa de Espanya – Barcelona

Arenas de Barcelona, the bull ring right next to one of Barcelona’s busiest roundabouts at the Plaça de Espanya, had been closed for years. Bull fighting has its supporters throughout the Iberian Peninsular but it never had such a fan base in Catalonia as it did, and still has, in the likes of Andalusia and Extremadura. Come the 1970s and it’s owners considered it wasn’t a viable concern. For bull fighting fans that wasn’t such a total disaster as there was another large ring only a few kilometres east along the Gran Via de Les Corts Catalanes at Monumental.

In some ways that was a pity. The building was completed in and opened as a fully functioning bull ring in 1900. For more than 70 years it provided those with a thirst for blood the opportunity to see a fine young animal fight a losing battle for its life. No doubt Hemingway would have been one of the paying or, perhaps because of his fame, not paying guests. In 1977 the place closed for good.

From the outside it’s a beautiful structure. Catalonia was the first region of what became Spain to have defeated the Moors so there are few examples of Moorish, or the later Mudejar architecture, in Barcelona. The architect for the original building was the Modernist August Font i Carreras, not one of the more radical of the architects of the time, such as Gaudí (of Park Güell and Sagrada Familia fame) or Domenech i Montaner (designer of Hospital de La Santa Creu i Sant Pau and the Palau de la Música Orfeó Català), but one who looked to those architectural devices of the Moorish past that are common, even ubiquitous, in cities like Granada, Cordoba and Seville.

The exterior of the structure takes on the same geometric design as what is to take place inside, that is it is circular. I mention that because that’s fairly unusual for a bull ring, at least most of the ones I’ve seen in different parts of Spain. Most have square walls at entrances or where the bulls might be corralled before facing slaughter. This is the situation at the other Barcelona bull ring at Monumental. However, Font i Carreras opted to put all these services inside the shell and so it makes for a very pleasing sight for the eyes.

The Arabic arches over the doors and windows are all around the circular building, following the normal pattern of getting smaller as they are reproduced higher up the structure. The crenellations over the entrances, the alternating stripes of brown/ocre and white, the use of blue and white tiles will not surprise anyone who had visited the south-western part of Spain.

Over the principal entrances, together with an homage to the Spanish crown there’s the red and orange stripes representing Catalonia. Although I haven’t seen pictures of it I would have assumed that these would have been blanked out during the Fascist period under Franco. This happened in those iconic buildings of Catalan Modernism, such as the Palau de Musica, so I see no reason to believe that they would have disappeared on this bull ring.

The Arenas de Barcelona was just left to rot after the last bull fight in 1977 and must have been a bit of an embarrassment for the City Council and Regional Government located as it is at one of the most important traffic junctions in the western part of the city. Not only that the Plaça de Espanya is the entry point to the city’s exhibition area and the highest point in the city, Montjuic. It was there the 1992 Olympics were staged, with the main stadium, swimming/diving pool and indoor sports hall all being found there. It is also the location of the Joan Miro Foundation.

In 2000 the contract for the project was given to Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (that’s Richard Rogers of Lloyd’s bank in the City of London – among many others – fame). Fortunately it was decided to keep the original structure, or at least the façade, but create within the space originally occupied by the bull ring a new shopping, leisure and entertainment complex. It opened in March 2011.

I knew what the plan had been but it was only last month I was able to see for myself. So it was with a certain level of apprehension that I approached the structure on a sunny day in late February – shopping is not really my thing.

First impressions were good. The exterior was as I remembered it but now cleaned up and repaired. The huge roof that appeared like an unturned saucer looked strange from street level and the lift shaft just to the left of the main entrance looked out of place.

If you visit the building don’t do as I do. I went immediately towards this lift shaft and as they were only charging €1 for the return trip I decided to go up on to the roof before entering the building itself. I just assumed that if there was a lift that was the only way to get on to the top of the building, it was only when I was walking around on the upper pavement that I realised that access was available from the inside.

Now a euro is not going to break most banks but I now wonder if it might not have been better to have first experienced the interior of the building from below. The lift only takes a few seconds and is only of interest to those who might have a penchant for glass lifts on the outside of buildings – perhaps to be avoided by those who suffer from any level of vertigo.

However you get to the top it’s worth it in the end. You’re able to walk the full 360º, one side looking towards Montjuic and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (the museum which houses one of the biggest collections of Romanesque murals in the world as well as artefacts from late 18th and early 19th century Modernism), together with the steps that go on both sides of the fountains where there are sound and light shows on occasions, especially later in the year.

A walk of 180º from the lift and you can look down on to the small Parc Joan Miro, with its large bowling pin-like sculpture or up to the hills to the north, towards Tibidabo, where the silhouette of the Modernist Church of the Sacred Heart breaks the horizon. To the left of that is the spindly Torre de Collserola, the telecommunications tower, designed by another progressive British architect (or at least his partnership) and contemporary of Rogers, Norman Foster.

An attractive building on the outside it’s when you enter it that you see how vast has been the transformation from its original use. I came in from the top but would think you’d get a better impression of scale from entering at street level and then looking up.

What has been created is a huge engineering masterpiece that just uses the old structure created by Font i Carreras as a cloak to hide the intricacies of 21st engineering skills. There’s no way that the circular brick structure holds any of the weight that’s inside. This is carried by huge tubes, at the cardinal points of the compass, that hold up the five levels above the basement.

All the shops, cafés and the multiplex cinema are around the edges and there’s a circular space free of anything at all in the centre at street level. This is much smaller than the bull ring would have been but refers back to that past. This looks tiny from the very top of the building but is quite significant in size when you actually walk across it. It’s a pleasant surprise to me that nobody has appropriated this space and set up some kind of stall. This circle was clear of any obstruction when I visited but I’m sure would have been used as a performance space, for example, on occasions.

Linking the different levels are long escalators through the centre of the building which don’t call at all floors. Shorter escalators on two sides connect each floor so you could well find yourself walking the long way around to find what you want. I’m sure this was part of the plan – if you pass more shops you might be encouraged to buy – the sole reason for the existence of this 21st century structure. On one side there’s a lift with glass walls that goes from the very bottom to the very top of the building, all the workings being on show.

I thought it was a marvellous piece of engineering work in action and found myself going up and down escalators and lifts just for the fun of it – taking me back to the days of my childhood when we used to play on the first escalators to have arrived in one of the department stores in Plymouth.

I needed a reason to be there as there was nothing on sale – and everything was in a sale – that held any interest for me. All the shops were from a national or an international chain of some kind, really the only companies that could afford to be based in such a centre where more people shop with their eyes than their credit cards. One level was devoted to a multiplex cinema but even that’s no attraction as the overwhelming majority of cinemas in Spain/Catalonia show films which are dubbed and, as is the case in many countries, even ‘national’ films are confined to art house cinemas.

The whole of the basement level is devoted to a series of fast food outlets but then again mainly from chains or franchises. This increasing presence and dominance of such stores and outlets is something that is starting to take a greater hold in the peninsular. Going back 20 years or so there were few names that you would have recognised in the Barcelona shopping streets as most were one-off businesses. As the years go by they fall by the wayside as the bigger players chip away at the customers and soon walking down a Barcelona shopping street will be just like anywhere in Britain where the same names are above the doors whether you are in Brighton or Aberdeen. This has already happened with accommodation where the basic Pensiones are fast becoming a thing of the past.

Even if you’re like me and shopping provides as much joy as sticking a sharp sick in your eye the Arenas de Barcelona is definitely worth a look in if you are at this part of town for the exhibition centre, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya or on the way up to Montjuic.

Practical Information:

Getting there: The quickest way is on the Metro, Line 1 – the red one and getting off at Plaça de Espanya, though many buses also pass through this junction on the way to Sants Railway station.