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What does it take to build a human pyramid? A creative tourism experience in Girona

Through the Cultsense programme we have been introduced to a range of engaging cultural and creative tourism experiences across Europe. Last week we were lucky enough to be invited to a practice session of the Marrecs de Salt castellers group by Mireia, who introduced us to some of the 150 members of the club who build castells, or human pyramids. This is a Catalan tradition that was listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2010.

The practice session we visited at their premises in Salt (Girona) on a cold January night seemed a world away from the view of castells usually seen by tourists. Most public displays by castellers are held at festas in public spaces during the summer months, often attended by thousands of people. The practice setting was a relatively empty hall with foam mats on the floor to catch any falling bodies.

In order to participate in the building of castells, you need to be appropriately dressed. The most important piece of casteller clothing is the sash (faixa) wrapped around the midriff. This helps to protect the body against the strains of castell building, but it also provides the people climbing on top of you with an essential foothold. A few brave volunteers from our group were helped to wrap themselves with the faixa in preparation for the practice.

Jan-Jaap joined in with some of the first climbing practices, learning how to climb on somebody’s shoulders with the help of the faxia, but also learning how to be a climbing frame for somebody else. Luckily, the castellers climbing to the top of the pyramid are the lighter members of the group - usually small children.

Mireia gets help putting on the faixa

And then shes shows Jan-Jaap how its done

Jan-Jaap is then ready to participate in his first practice session....

Getting a good foothold is important for the first stage of the climb...

Once you get to the shoulders it is a bit easier...

But now you have to become a human climbing frame....

Lucky the enxaneta who climbs to the top is not too heavy!

When you see a group building a castell at a festival in Catalunya, it can seem incredibly easy. A base of the strongest members is quickly formed (the pinya), and lighter members clamber over each other to add successive layers to the human pyramid, sometimes reaching 9 or even 10 stories. Each member of the team has their own specific position and function in the castell, and assembling the structure takes a lot of practice.

Attending a practice session like this in the dead of winter also makes you appreciate how much unseen work goes into producing the public display of culture. The Marrecs de Salt practice two or three times a week, and this process is being repeated at halls across Catalunya by the 100 or so castellers groups. This underlines the importance of cultural associations and other civil society groups at the base of the cultural pyramid topped by the high profile cultural institutions such as museums and galleries. This kind of ‘creative tourism’ experience is therefore a great way to get behind the scenes and under the skin of local culture – one of the important aims of the Cultsense Project.

Building the pinya at the base of the castell

In practice sessions you can use a net....

But it still looks impressive, particularly when you see how it's done!

Having seen how much work goes into producing castells, the public performances seem even more impressive. The Marrecs de Salt are also involved in one of the most spectacular casteller displays: The walking pillar of the cathedral, during which the Marrecs build a castell at the bottom of the cathedral steps in Girona, and then walk en mass up the 90 steps to the cathedral façade. You can see for yourself how spectacular this display is in the video Ho portem dins (It is inside us in English) made by journalist and member of the group, Ester Bertran. If you want to see this live, you’ll have to visit Girona in November. Hopefully by then the practice will have paid off!

The expansion of the casteller tradition has also included the opening of a Human Towers Museum in Valls (Tarragona), which presents the essential elements of the casteller experience: Courage, Good sense and balance, and strength:

“Courage refers to that which drives people to build human towers. Good sense (“seny”), that self-defining Catalan concept of levelheadedness, and balance are the keys to understanding how human towers are possible. And strength is the rush of emotions that culminate in a human tower.”

No wonder castells form part of the curated cultural tourism experiences offered by platforms such as Culture Trip.

We certainly got to appreciate all of these elements of building castells during our creative tourism experience. Whether the members of our group also have another essential quality of the Marrecs de Salt – perseverance, remains to be seen.

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