Els Castells: What you need to know about the human towers of Catalonia

"Força, Equilibri, Valor y Seny" – strength, balance, courage and mindfulness - is the motto of Catalonia's most famous cultural tradition

Els Castells: What you need to know about the human towers of Catalonia
All images: Deposit photos

Els Castells, the human towers, represent solidarity and team spirit among Catalan people. On these depend the success of the tower and even the life of the aixecadors, the young children that climb up to airy heights of more than eight meters to complete the tower.

The experience of watching a team of castelleres forming a tower is quite breath-taking. During cultural festivals, a big group of people, dressed in light, mostly white trousers and shirts, gather on a square that is full of spectators.

To the sound of the Gralles, traditional flutes, and the drums that seem to accompany almost every Catalan culture event, a group of the heavier members of the team forms a circle.

All around, other members are supporting them from behind. They are the pinya (pine cone), the foundation of the castell.

The bigger the pinya, the safer.

Now athletic women and men start climbing on their shoulders to build the tronc (trunk) that consists of up to ten identical levels. They use the sash that every member carries around their waist to hold on to. By now, the square has gone completely quiet. Everyone is watching the castelleres that climb higher and higher while the melodies of the flutes change with every level.

Once the tower has reached its desired height, four children climb up to complete the pom de dalt (upper knob). The last one that goes all the way is the enxaneta.

The child chosen for this role is usually the smallest and lightest and also the one that is celebrated the most after he or she greets the audience with a short wave from the top of the castell.

But only after everyone has made it to the ground in the right order and without falling – because only then is the tower finished successfully.

This is a rule that was only recently established – just like the obligatory helmets for children that climb to the top – after an accident in 2006 when a 12-year-old girl died after falling from the top of a castell. There have been three recorded deadly accidents in the history of the human towers.

Sometimes human towers fall.

Today, the smallest ones have to wear helmets. The material must not be too hard – otherwise they might kill other castellers if they fall down.

Competitive sport

Starting off as just one of many cultural activities at village fiestas, building castells has become a competitive sport with its own championship. Since 1952 it has been held every two years in October at Tarragona's Tàrraco Arena Plaça.

Performance in the Tarragona stadium.

In 2018, the final, in which the twelve best teams compete for the top prize, sold out for the first time and castelleres performed in front of 25,000 spectators.

First place was won by the team Colla Vella dels Xiquets de Valls. Watch their performance in the final below:

A bit of history

People in Catalonia started to build castells in the early 18 century. They took inspiration from traditional Valencian dances, the Balls de Valencias, which used to end with a small human pyramid.

By the mid 19 century, the human towers had become popular across Catalonia, and at the end of the century the tradition reached its peak period when the Xiquets de Valls, the fellows from Valls, set the record as the first team ever to build towers with eight and nine levels.

At Rambla Nova in Tarragona, there is even a monument that honours the historical meaning of the castells tradition.

After that, the towers lost some of their popularity.

The tradition reached a low point under the Franco regime (1936 to 1975) when the dictatorship banned not just the Catalan language but also many of the region’s traditions.

After his death in 1975 there was resurgence of the tradition and in 1998 a team managed for the first time ever to build a tower with ten levels – at an event that included more than 800 castellers and marked a new high point – literally!

In 2010 the Unesco awarded the castells with World Cultural Heritage status.

Links to the independence movement

In recent years, the popularity of the sport has been growing fast and human towers are now more popular than ever before.

One reason for this can be attributed to the rise of Catalan nationalism. Even though most of the over 60 teams across Catalonia don't explicitly follow a political agenda, many members do support Catalan independence.

“Volem votar” – we want to vote – says the banner held up by a young casteller in Barcelona in September 2017, only a few days before the referendum on Catalan independence.

Interest in the tradition has particularly grown amongst young people, bucking the wider trend that sees the number of youths participating in traditional cultural events around the world declining.

This has led to criticism from some that that the independence movement ´uses`the castells to harvest support for its cause, when the tradition, though deeply embedded in Catalonia is not automatically connected to the struggle for independence.

Maybe most importantly, it is the social element that makes the human towers so attractive. Not only does their construction require strength, balance, courage and mindfulness, but they also bring together people from different age groups and backgrounds who want to celebrate their culture.

By Leslie Fried / The Local

READ ALSO: Ten colourful Catalan phrases you should learn right now 

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It’s still not too late to get a ticket to Denmark’s summer music festivals

For hundreds of thousands of Danish people, the big music festivals that take place across the country are the highlight of the summer, with many visiting more than one. It's still not too late to get your tickets!

It's still not too late to get a ticket to Denmark's summer music festivals

Denmark’s love of music festivals dates back to 1970s, when a string of huge rock festivals were held across the country in the wake of the Woodstock Festival in the US. 

The first was the Sound Festival, which was launched in 1971 at the dyrskuepladsen, the area of common land just outside of Roskilde, growing over the years in the Roskilde Festival, the biggest music festival in northern Europe.  

Then came the now discontinued Midtfyn Festiva in 1976, and then in 1980 came the Skanderborg festival just south of Aarhus, which has since mutated into Smukfest. 

While these festivals were all originally launched as not-for-profit ventures run by volunteers, with the exception of Roskilde, Distortion, and Smukfest, most of big festivals are now run by private companies. 

What are the big festivals you can go to this year? 

May 31st to June 4th

Distortion, Copenhagen’s largest electronic music festival with a 25-year tradition, kickstarts Denmark’s summer festival season drawing in around 100,000 visitors each year.

Taking place from May 31st to June 4th, the festival (divided into Distortion X, Distortion Ø, and Distortion Club events) is run by a not-for-profit foundation, and it takes place in some of the best venues in Copenhagen.

The Distortion X events centre around big street parties catering to lovers of EDM, HipHop, House, and Trance (confirmed artists for this year include Bjerregaard, Djames Braun, Dø Chef Dø, Felix, Hedegaard, Helle Helle, and more). On the other hand, Distortion Ø revolves around a major forest rave and is promoted as the weekend finale of the festival. Some 36 artists (you can find the full line-up here) are expected to perform across four stages at Ø this year. You can find more information about the Distortion Club program for 2023 here.

A festival pass for Distortion Ø, X, and Club events will set you back around 1100 kroner, but daily tickets are also available.

June 1st to June 3rd.

Festival fever then moves north to Jutland for the The NorthSide festival in Aarhus. This year’s headliners include Muse, The Chemical Brothers, NxWorries (feat. Anderson .Paak & Knxwledge), Lukas Graham, The 1975, First Aid Kit, Sam Fender, LP, Yemi Alade, Pusha T, and the British rapper Little Simz. 

Prices went up on April 3rd, but at the time of writing you could still buy tickets here, for 2,545 kroner for the full three days.  

Unlike Roskilde, festival-goers cannot camp at Northside, with the majority of festival goers travelling back and forth from Aarhus every day. The festival recommends staying at the Blommehaven and Aarhus Camping campsites.  

Northside is a profit-making festival run by the British events company Superstruct Entertainment, which runs more than 70 music festivals and other events in Europe and Australia, including Denmark’s Tinderbox festival. 

June 8th to June 10th

The party moves back to Copenhagen in the second weekend in June with the Syd For Solen festival held in the Søndermarken park in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen, which is easy to get to from anywhere in the capital by metro, bus or cycle. 

Headliners this year include Bon Iver, Aphex Twin, Peggy Gou, the War on Drugs, and Iggy Pop. 

At the time of writing you could still buy tickets for the Thursday, June 8th here, for Friday June 9th here, and for Saturday June 10th here, all for 740 kroner a day. All were all marked “few tickets remaining”. 

You are not allowed to bring your own food or drink to the festival, meaning you are reliant on the food trucks on site. 

The festival is arranged by the private Danish promotors Smash!Bang!Pow!, which arrange more than 300 concerts each year in Denmark. 

The other big event this weekend is the Heartland festival in the grounds of the stunning Egeskov Castle on the island of Funen.

This is a more upmarket festival aimed at an older audience, with food organised by gourmet restaurant Falsled Kro, and a series of talks put on by the Danish publisher Gyldendal. The music programme is arranged by Live Nation, the giant US promoter, which is the festival’s co-organiser. 

Headliners this year include Robbie Williams, Sting, Minds of 99, The Cardigans, Fatboy Slim, Mø, and Jack Johnson. 

At the time of writing you could still buy a three-day ticket for 2540 kroner, a two-day ticket for 1,840 kroner, and a one day ticket for 1,240 kroner. 

You can camp at the site for an additional 250 kroner, for 1,000 kroner for a pre-pitched tent, and 1,250 kroner for a caravan, although the last two were sold out.

June 14th to June 17th 

For lovers of hard rock and heavy metal the Copenhell festival is not to be missed. Held on the Refshaleøen peninsular in front of the famed mural of a wolf’s face, the festival has become a city institution. 

This year’s headliners include giants of hard rock history such as Guns n’ Roses, Def Lepard, Mötley Crüe, Slipknot and Pantera.

At the time of writing could still buy a four-day ticket for 3,855 kroner here, although it was marked “few tickets remaining”. Tickets for Saturday alone are already sold out.  

The other big festival of this weekend is the Tinderbox Festival in Odense, Funen, which like NorthSide is run by Superstruct Entertainment. 

Held in the Tusindårsskoven forest, southwest of the city, this year’s headliners include Black Eye Peas, Dean Lewis, George Ezra, Jada, Lukas Graham, Maroon 5, Nik & Jay, Tobias Rahi, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. 

At the time of writing, three-day tickets were still available for 2,595 kroner on Ticketmaster here, with two-day tickets for 2,195, and one-day tickets for 1,595 kroner. 

June 24th and July 1st 

The Roskilde Festival is Denmark’s oldest and biggest music festival, with over 130,000 visitors annually. It is run by the non-profit Roskilde Festival Charity Society, with any profits going to their programmer of charitable, non-profit and cultural work focused on children and young people. 

This year’s headliners include Kendrick Lamar, Queens of the Stone Age, Lil Nas X, Blur, Rosalia, Christine and the Queens, and Lizzo. 

You can buy an 8-day festival pass for 2,400 kroner here on Ticketmaster, with one-day passes selling for 1,200 kroner. Tickets include access to the vast but somewhat chaotic camping area, where you can choose where to pitch your tent. 

For an extra 1,600 kroner, you can rent a pre-pitched tent, with two mattresses pushing the price up to 2,200 kroner.  

The stage at Smukfest in 2022. Photo: Scanpix

June 30th to August 6th 

Taking place from July 13th to July 15th at Syðrugøta, Faroe Islands, the three-day-long G! Festival gathers thousands of indie rock lovers from all over the world.

Both media and festival goers describe G! Festival as a unique experience. It takes place in Syðrugöta, a quaint village on the island of Eysturoy. The festival sets up its stages on the beach and the football field, in close proximity to the houses of the village.

The 2023 line-up includes 200, Annika Hoydal, Antti Paalanen, Beharie, Benjamin Rajani, Jada, Lucky Lo, and many more.

Tickets are around 1495 kroner (available for purchase on the festival’s page – Stripe payments are accepted), and you can also pay for several add-ons, such as tent spaces (also available in family options).

Smukfest, Denmark’s second largest camping festival that boasts a crowd of 60,000 guests a day, is a somewhat different animal – it takes place in a forest outside Skanderborg, and it caters to heavy metal, rock, blues, electronic music, pop, and folk. It takes place from July 31st to August 6th, and roughly 200 artists from Scandinavia and abroad visit Smukfest each year.

Big names that are part of the program this year include Imagine Dragons, Megadeth, Ava Max, Sigrid, Christina Aguilera, David Guetta, Christopher, Jason Derulo, Sean Paul, Suede, and many, many more.

Daily passes start from 1495 kroner and can be found on the festival’s website. At the time of writing, passes for Friday and Saturday are already sold out. The 5-day tickets (August 2nd – August 6th), priced at 3295 kroner, have already been sold out.

August 24th to August 27th

Over the last four decades, Tønder Festival has emerged as a prominent music extravaganza in Denmark. It has witnessed continuous expansion over the years while remaining closely connected to its original charm and handmade music, such as folk, blues, country, old-time, cajun, and roots.

The festival takes place from August 24th to August 27th, and the festival site – which has nine stages – is located close to the Tønder town centre. The 2023 line-up is already live.

You can buy 1-day tickets for 700 kroner, or a pass for all four days for 1975 kroner, on the Tønder Festival website.

Karrusel, a three-day festival dedicated to house, disco, and techno, takes place (almost) at the same time (from August 24th to August 26th).

This event is held in central Copenhagen, close to an abandoned shipyard at Refshaleøen. Around 30 artists are expected to perform across three stages.

Confirmed acts for 2023 include Haensen&Gretel, Kölsch, Mira, Acid Pauli, HAAi, RSS Disco, and many others. Daily passes can be purchased on Ticketmaster for 450 kroner, while the festival pass is priced at 950 kroner.