What are Castells and why they are so famous in Catalonia and around the world?

Castells, or human towers, are one of the symbols of Catalonia. In this article we’re going to tell you a little bit more about their history and how they have become so popular today, not only in the region, but also around the world.

Chances are if you’ve spent some time in Barcelona or Catalonia, you may have come across these simply breath-taking towers built by castellers with their bodies, by climbing up each other’s backs and standing on the shoulders of the person below.

Castells - Concurs de Castells a Tarragona
Castells Contest in Tarragona

The history of castells

Despite the origin of castells – meaning castle in Catalan – being slightly unclear, it is thought that they come from similar, smaller structures erected at the end of traditional dances – specifically the Valencian dance from the 15th century.

However it wasn’t until much later, in 1801, that the first castell was documented in la Candela, Valls (Tarragona). It was here that they were first built with the aim of constructing original and increasingly taller human towers, and not as part of a dance. From this moment on, these mind-bending structures became an essential part of local celebrations and festivals.

It wasn’t until the late 20th century that this tradition truly began to be recognised in all its glory. Unlike other Catalan customs, like the traditional dance the sardana and the Catalan flag and national anthem, castells were not prohibited during Franco’s reign.

It was in the 90s that it became more commonplace to find castells and colles (community groups of castellers who practice castells) throughout the whole region of Catalonia and over a decade ago, in 2020, they were recognised as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

So, what makes castells so special?

Over the years castells have become ever more complex, reaching heights of up to 10 people. Anyone can take part – men, women and children over the age of 5 of varying strengths, heights and sizes – but it’s certainly not for the faint hearted. Extensive training sessions are required.

In fact, nowadays a total of 13,000 people in Catalonia call themselves castellers and there are over 100 colles castelleres.

To explain exactly how these towers are built, we’ll need to brush up on our castells vocabulary!

The base of the tower is called the pinya. Arguably the most important part of the tower, it holds its entire weight and will absorb the impact of any falls. Next comes the tronc, or the trunk, which is the main body of the tower, formed by two to five levels. The heavier castellers are at the bottom and the lighter, more agile nearer the top.

On top of the tronc sits the pom de dalt – literally the upper part. It is formed mainly by children, wearing safety helmets. And finally, on the very top goes the enxaneta: a young child who climbs the entire structure to the summit and raises his or her hand for the tower to be considered complete.

However for the castell to be considered valid, it must be taken down slowly without anyone falling. The leader of the group – known as the cap de colla – who has perspective over the entire structure from the ground, guides the castellers through the entire construction and deconstruction.

Castellers de Viafranca - Castells
Castellers de Vilafranca – Castells

What else do I need to know about castells?

To accompany this wonderful sight and, more importantly, to mark the rhythm and coordination of the entire structure, live music is played as the castell is built. This particular music is called the toc de castells and is played by gralles – a Catalan type of flute– and timbals, a percussion instrument.

You’ll also realise that the casteller uniform is very important. Each group wears a shirt of a specific colour with an embroidered crest of the city or village to which they belong.

Where can I see castells?

Now you know all about them, we bet you can’t wait to see one in action. The good news is that at almost any local festivity or celebration, you’re sure to catch one of these towers being built.

Castells are normally constructed in main squares in front of the town hall. Some of the best can be seen during Barcelona’s festa major, Sant Jordi or the upcoming day of La Mercè.

Despite castells being recently approved by the local government, with a maximum duration of 15 minutes, this year’s day of La Mercè will see a condensed format of this tradition on Passeig de Gràcia on 24 September at noon, in line with COVID-19 restrictions.

Also may interest you:

Your Complete Guide to La Mercè 2021

La Mercè is synonymous with the end of summer. As the nights start drawing in and the heat of the estival sun lessens, the citizens of Barcelona and its surrounding areas eagerly await the city’s festa major.

As you may or may not know, La Mercè is the co-patron saint of Barcelona, sharing this title with Santa Eulàlia.  Since the year 1871, the official day of celebration has been held on 24 September, meaning this year marks 150 years of the festival of all festivals.

To celebrate this special occasion, the French artist Malika Favre, who has illustrated for the likes of the New Yorker, was invited to design a poster that captured the essence of Barcelona and the powerful Lady of Mercy behind these celebrations. In only four colours, this year’s poster reminds us that our city is indeed a beautiful, powerful and defending female.

This year’s festivities, events, and activities will place from Thursday 23 September to Sunday 26 September 2021. La Festes de La Mercè are special for many reasons, one of which being their focus on music and tradition.

Read on to find out more about this year’s line-up jam packed with over 500 events! Discover live concerts, the customary castellers (human towers) and correfocs (fire runs), and of course, the ever-famous closing ceremony that combines light, fire and sound.

Are you ready for La Mercè 2021?

La Mercè 2021 concerts
LA MERCÈ 2021. BARCELONA

Covid-10 Restrictions at La Mercè 2021

One of the main differences due to the Covid-19 pandemic is that this year prior bookings are necessary to access many of the activities. However, all these events are still completely free!

Remember, you’ll need to head to the La Mercè official website to get your tickets in advance of the celebrations. Bookings open on 14 September for all BAM concerts and on 15 September for all Música Mercè events. There are two tickets available per person.

There are 23 spaces equipped with distanced seating for this year’s festival and at the largest there will be a maximum capacity limit of 3,000 people. Traditional activities will allow for three tickets per person.

The city’s mayor has asked all citizens to be responsible when attending this year’s daytime festival held from 10:00 to 12:30 am and to remember that masks are compulsory.

Live music at La Mercè 2021

Over four days, Barcelona will welcome an eclectic mix of international and national artists, singer-songwriters and bands to perform at 12 different venues throughout the city: from the Moll de la Fusta, Plaça Joan Coromines, the Antiga Fàbrica Estrella Damm, and the Teatre Grec.

Some highlights of the BAM – Barcelona Acció Musical – events include Viva Belgrado, Rusowsky, Rata Negra, Ed Maverick, Samantha Hudson, Wind Atlas, and many more! We recommend you check out the full list here and be sure to book in advance!

What’s more the Música a la Mercè programme brings a combination of concerts, theatre and performances to the city, including Joana Serrat & The Great Canyoners, Oques Grasses, Núria Graham, and Nueva Vulcano.

Activities at La Mercè 2021

This year on the streets of Barcelona you can expect to find art and performance, giant heads (or capgroços), traditional sardana dances, fire runs, and human towers. The main stages will be the Ciutadella Park, Plaça San Jaume, and Vía Laietana including daytime events designed for the younger members of the family.

What’s more, this year’s guest city is Havana. The Cuban capital will be represented in a range of artistic activities and performances at the Parc de l’Estació del Nord among other venues.

Keep a close eye on the official Mercè website for a full list of events and timetables released shortly.

La Mercè 20219 - La Mercè activities

Closing ceremony La Mercè 2021

The grand firework show that is the Piromusical will bring the festival to a close with an eclectic explosion of light and sound from four locations around the city.

We’re still waiting for the official confirmation of the time and date of year’s finale to La Mercè, but we do know that this much-awaited performance – set to commemorate 150 years of La Mercè – will be broadcast live on TV to avoid large crowds forming.

Can’t wait to see you there!

La Mercè
La Mercè 2021