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.

The air raid shelter of Placeta Macià, Sant Adrià de Besòs

Paw print of a dog, also an anti-Fascist, who first heard the bombers

Signature of the Republican air raid wardens

The air raid shelter (refugi antiaeri) in Placeta Macià, Sant Adrià de Besòs, Barcelona, provides an insight to what life was like for ordinary, working class, people during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39.

Many thousands of visitors go to Barcelona each year but an increasing number of them are starting to go off the beaten track of the Rambla and the Gaudi buildings to explore some of the lest ‘touristy’ aspects of the city.

Of the hoards who walk down the bustling Rambla some might have read George Orwell’s depiction of the Spanish Civil War in his book Homage to Catalonia. Standing outside Café Moka they might imagine what it was like in the stand-off between two armies, on the same side, on the brink of their own ‘civil war’, occasionally taking pot shots at one another.

Orwell had the luxury, the wealth and the opportunity to get out of the country before Hitler and Mussolini’s aircraft, happily brought in on the side of the rebel Franco, started to regularly bombard this Republican city, using a strategy taken to an even higher level a few years later. That was the strategy of terrorising and punishing the civilian population with mass bombing and the destruction of their cities, as was seen in Warsaw, Liverpool and Leningrad, amongst many others.

As in those other cities the people of Barcelona didn’t just sit and wait for what was to rain down on them. If they could not fight at the front then they would construct shelters to protect themselves from the bombs and deny the enemy the satisfaction of their acquiescence and defeat. This form of passive resistance was evident in Barcelona and many other Catalan towns and cities.

In the intervening years, since the end of the war in 1939, many of these air raid shelters have been bulldozed both to eliminate any popular memory of resistance and then later as the country started to develop and modernise after Franco’s death in 1975. However, since 2007, following a decision of the Generalitat (the Catalan government), much of what does remain is coming to light and is being made accessible to both local people and any visitors with an interest in an important and significant struggle in the middle years of the 20th century.

Those facets of war that might have been hidden are now being visited by an increasing number of people. In their visits they are offered the opportunity to consider the war in a different way from that presented on the big screen. This representation has evolved over the years from the morale boosting antics of Errol Flynn through the gung-ho approach of John Wayne to the more poignant aspect of war as depicted in Saving Private Ryan.

In Catalonia this unveiling of the past is part of a much bigger project, the first in Spain but part of a much wider, in fact worldwide, scheme called Democratic Memory. Of the more than 70 sites already on the list in Catalonia here I just want to talk about one of them, located in the working class district of Sant Adrià de Besòs, (easily reached via Metro L2 from the central cultural highlights of Barcelona), the air raid shelter in Placeta Macià.

This is an impressive construction in its own right, especially taking into consideration the conditions under which it was built, and is the only one of the seven that originally existed in the district to have survived into the 21st century. Constructed in the shape of a rhomboid it has a central corridor with alcoves on either side and was built, in 1938, to provide shelter for up to 500 local people.

Although it is underground the aim of the cleaning and restoration has been to make it as accessible as possible. First, it is free to enter. ‘Why should those who built it, and their children and grandchildren, now be charged to visit it – 70 years after its construction,’ says Jordi Vilalta, the enthusiastic coordinator for the shelter. He is based in the Museu d’Història de la Immagració de Catalunya (itself one of the 71 sites) which is situated a short distance away on the opposite side of the River Besòs.

One of the aims of the project is to involve children in a conversation with the past of their families and so school visits are organised where those who were themselves school children in 1938 tell of their memories, experiences, fears and daily life in general during the relatively short, but incredibly intense, life of the shelter.

‘We have found it very difficult to find actual photos of people in the shelter’, continues Jordi, ‘but what we do have are some drawings made by children at the time. What we find fascinating is the fact that, apart from the ‘advances’ in aircraft and technology, these images are almost the same as those produced by children in the Palestinian city of Jenin in 2002.’

To encourage the involvement of the young in this small and intimate museum the visitors are encouraged to touch the exhibits and to try to understand the idea of destruction but without any images of death.

A particularly interesting story is that of the dogs that acted as virtual air raid wardens for the population. They would be able to hear the drone of the bombers coming over the sea, from the Balearic island of Mallorca, long before humans. As Pavlov suggested the dogs associated this noise with the inexplicable (to them) consequence of explosions, fire, noise, strange smells and potential death that comes with aerial bombardment.

The people of Sant Adrià suffered on two accounts. Theirs was an industrial area, and so a ‘legitimate’ target in times of war, but they were also implacable adversaries of the fascists and so had to be terrorised.

Visiting the shelter: Open the last Sunday of each month, though Jordi can be contacted, via email jvilalta.pmi@gmail.com or on +34 609 033 867, to arrange visits at other times.

For more on Memoria Democratic see:

Rosanes – a military airfield during the Spanish Civil War