I had never expected to like Girona as much as I did. In fact, we almost didn’t bother making the trip there. BUT, one evening I was searching for more walks we could do in the area when I came across some information about the Festival of Saint Narcis and the celebrations that would be taking place in Girona the very next day. And one of the things that caught my eye was that there would be a group called the Marrecs de Salt who would be building human towers in the Placa del Vi, right in the centre of the city. I had heard about these human tower groups before and had seen a programme on television and so was very excited at the prospect of seeing them in action myself.
On arrival in Girona we headed straight for the Placa del Vi, where we knew they would be performing. As we approached, we could already hear the excitement of the crowd that had gathered. Not only was the area all around the square heaving with people, but every balcony and window around was also packed with bodies and faces trying to get a good view of the action. We made our way slowly round the outside of the square so as to get a better view ourselves and one where the sun wasn’t in our eyes.
Straight away we saw a tower being constructed – 4 people high and with one person on each level. We watched with amazement as a young child scampered seemingly effortlessly to the top and held up his or her hand to the cheers of the crowd. We were instantly hooked and wanted to see more.
The group who were performing were called the Marrecs de Salt and they are the oldest human tower group (‘colla castellera’) in the province of Girona. Alongside them was another group called the Minyons de Terrassa who were also performing. The towers are called ‘Castells’ after the Catalan word for castles, and the people doing the building and climbing are called ‘castellers’. The tradition apparently originated in the town of Valls, near the city of Tarragona and was first documented in 1712. Since the 1980s it has become increasingly popular and widespread throughout Catalonia and is a source of pride for the castellers themselves and the towns or villages they come from. In 2010, castell building was declared by UNESCO to be amongst the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.’
There are rules governing the building of the towers and their different formations, with varying numbers of people on each level and differing numbers of levels, each with increasing difficulty. Indeed, the next tower we saw built was much bigger and involved a lot more people. The base layer is called the pinya and usually consists of the more heavy set men in the group. It is this layer that provides the tower with its stability and is of utmost importance. The members of the pinya also act as a safety net if the tower collapses, cushioning the fall of the people above.
Also important are the wide black sashes that the castellers wear around their waist. These support their lower back and also provide foot or hand-holds for fellow castellers when building the tower. When we first arrived we saw one member being wound into his sash. It was about a foot wide and several metres long and someone was holding it out and pulling it taut whilst he turned round and round to wind it up around his waist.
Once the base is deemed sturdy enough, the people forming the next layer start to climb up. This stage of construction is quite slow as they need to make sure the weight is balanced and the tower is solid. After that, things speed up a bit, with the castellers forming layer after layer in different formations. The final layer is always the same though: the ‘enxaneta’ or ‘rider’, who is always a child, scrambles to the summit and raises one hand with four fingers spread out, a gesture that is said to symbolise the stripes of the Catalan flag. This indicates that construction is complete and then almost immediately de-construction begins. The enxaneta climbs down the other side of the castell, after which the remaining castellers descend in order until they have all reached safety. Apparently this is often the most dangerous part of the display and a castell is not considered a success unless it is fully assembled and then disassembled without collapsing. The children looked like they were bears sliding down a tree trunk, so quick were they to progress from the top to the bottom. They also looked incredibly young and were obviously totally fearless!
One of the towers we saw built did collapse and it was terrifying to watch. There were two enxanetas and as they got towards the top, you could see the whole tower start to shake. They quickly made it into position, held up their hands and started to shimmy back down. The crowd, made up of other castellers as well as tourists and locals, anticipated what was going to happen and the whole tone of the spectacle changed. Cheering voices became concerned shouts as they implored the castellers to get down as soon as they could. We held our breath, but only the top layer made it down before the whole edifice collapsed in on itself. It was quite a shocking sight and we stood open mouthed hoping that everyone was unharmed. We couldn’t see to the base of the tower and so had no idea if anyone was injured.
After that, the girls didn’t have much of an appetite to watch any more, so concerned were they for the safety of the castellers. We moved around to the other side of the square and saw one final, successful tower being built. Unlike the previous one it only had two castellers on each of the upper levels, but they made it to seven levels high. The excitement in the crowd and from the castellers themselves was incredibly powerful: once everyone was finally down on the ground again, they punched the air and whooped with delight at their accomplishment. It was only then that I realised I had been holding my breath the whole time!
We saw the castellers again later on in the afternoon: they were all gathered in another square near to where we had parked our car, only this time they were socialising rather than building towers. Seeing the groups up close, as they strolled across to enjoy a paella supper followed by music and dancing, we noted they were an incredibly diverse group of people, of all ages and sizes, all proudly wearing their coloured shirts and group logos. You can see why this is such a popular pastime here, bringing together as it does many generations in a pursuit of a common goal. There can’t be many activities that exist that can really bring a town together like this one does.
After watching the castell building, we explored the city of Girona for a while. It is a truly charming city, with captivating views almost everywhere you look – a delightful courtyard here, a quaint cobbled street there, a striking cathedral and beautiful squares a plenty. I particularly loved the pavements around the old town area and near the cathedral, many of which were cobbled in beautiful patterns.
We ate our lunch at the side of the cathedral, which stands at the top of a flight of 86 steps, with wonderful views across the town below. We then made our way back down to the river where there were more pretty views, wide covered arcades, busy squares with interesting markets and colourful buildings along the waters edge. It was a festival day here and the city was full of people celebrating the feast of Saint Narcis. There were couples, families and big groups of people all coming together to enjoy the atmosphere, stroll around the markets and relax in the sunshine.
Another thing to note about the city, and in fact Catalonia as a whole, is that everywhere you will see the Catalan flag hung from balconies and flying from flagpoles. The Catalan people have for years been campaigning for their freedom from Spain and these flags are a constant visual reminder that this is a divided country and a fiercely independent region.
We stopped for some tapas for tea and there were children running and playing in the square whilst their parents enjoyed a meal at one of the restaurants around its edge. In Spain children stay up very late and we could still see and hear them laughing and having fun well into the evening.
The last thing we did before heading back to Roses and to our campsite was to walk along Girona’s medieval walls. I wished that we had set off along the walls earlier, as the light was already beginning to fade, although the setting sun did give the views an ethereal quality that was just breathtaking. The walls are quite narrow and feel very high up, so they are only for those who have a good head for heights. There are several places you can get access to them: the main ones being near the Place de Catalunya by the river and also opposite the Banys Arabs (Arab Baths) below the cathedral. We joined near the Arab Baths and here there are steep steps leading up to some gardens and then onto the walls themselves. At various points along the walls there are towers with spiral steps in the middle where you can climb up even higher for even more spectacular views. We could see the bright lights and big wheel of a huge funfair on the edge of the city and far off in the distance the sun was setting behind the peaks of the Pyrenees. The whole city looked as if it was in soft focus, the pale stone and sun-bleached terracotta fading away into the distance.
All in all we had had an incredible day in this beautiful city. The castell building had been both terrifying and exhilarating to watch and it is a spectacle that we will never forget. We felt extremely privileged to have been able to experience this unique part of Catalan culture for ourselves. We had also loved the wonderfully relaxed atmosphere in the city and as we drove back home we felt as though we had been swept along all day on a wave of good will and happiness. Girona is definitely my favourite city we have visited on our trip so far!
You can see more photographs of castell building on the Marrecs de Salt website where they also detail their calendar of events and performances.
You can also read more about them on their Facebook page.
They even have their own YouTube channel where you can watch past events in full. I believe they even have a video of the whole of the day that we saw in Girona.
For more information about Girona, head to their tourist information site