If you only walk long enough

Barcelona Travel Blog

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Barraques fun

I had had a very late night-early morning at the Barraques and crashed when I returned to the appartment. A few hours later, the wonderful festival sounds from the Plaza Major woke me and I was drawn to the balcony to see the end of the Gigantes parade. Soon after, I was in for my next treat - watching the building of Castells, one of the most exciting and unusual traditions I experienced in all of Spain.

For hundreds of years, in many towns in Cataluña there are teams of people (colles castelleres) who practice all year round to build their castells during local festivals. These 'human skyscrapers' can be as tall as appartment buildings and the highest recorded was 10-storeys high (equivalent to a 5-storey building!). During fiestas, several local teams (or colles) will take turns to build the most impressive towers.

Gigantes parade
I was so blessed to be able to witness this from close range and also from Ramon's balcony with a birds-eye view of the spectacle.

How does it work? The base level is called the 'pinya' (because it looks rather like a pineapple) and is a honeycomb of the strongest men. It forms the support base for the castell to be layered over top. The pinya spreads out wide, also forming a safety net should the castle topple sideways (very dangerous) rather than collapsing inwards (much safer). This bottom row of men need to shoulder the combined weight of the top levels - up to eight or nine hundred kgs. They will hold the calves of those above, forming the next tier as successive tiers continue to be added over the next two minutes.

The particular design is determined by the chief 'cap de colla' who holds the blueprint for each castell construction.

Winding the 'faixa' sash for back support and grip
Some designs require two people per level, some up to four and five  and others are formed from two concentric towers built simultaneously. They are calculated precisely by knowing the height, weight and experience of the castellers involved. I was fortunate to experience several different styles of Castells by the three participating collas.

Each colla sports a different coloured shirt. Midriffs are wrapped tightly in a 'faixa' which is a black sash (2-8m long) whose role is to support the back and act as a grip for those climbing up the castell. Crisp white cotton pants and a red scarf to protect ears finish off the uniform. Each colla has their own musical accompaniment and supporters, much like our football teams!

At a pre-defined point in the construction, the colla band begins to play.

Playng a 'gralla' during the Castell build (like an oboe)
The two main instruments are the drum and the 'gralla' (an oboe-like instrument dating from mediaeval times). The music directs the castellers to tell them at what point the construction is at.

With successive tiers, the castellers required need to be lighter and more nimble; often young teens or small women. The very top level (acoxedor) is a young child who is followed closely by an even younger one often 3-5 years old (anxemeta) who clambers over the previous child and raises four fingers of one hand in the 'aleta' symbolising the castell is complete (also a symbol of the Catalan flag). The dismantling of the castell is just as precarous as the building and care is taken not to topple at this stage.

Castellers have a motto: "Strength, balance, courage and reason".

First man up on the pinya

  • Strength: A casteller is usually a stocky person. The first castellers were peasants who were accustomed to holding great weights and much physical exertion.
  • Balance: To support those above you in the castell while relying on those below you for support requires a strong sense of balance and trust in others.
  • Courage: The most important characteristic for castellers, especially among the young children that form the highest levels.
  • Reason: In planning, rehearsal and performance requires a great deal of planning and reason. Any error can make the structure fall down.

So I spent three glorious hours taking turns watching from the balcony and dashing downstairs to the plaza below to take in the atmosphere and wander among the collas, smelling the courage and sensing the pride as each castell was successfully completed.

Little one making her way to the top
It was a scene of much jubilation and collective joy. Each community colla had spent countless sessions practising in private and these opportunities to show off their skill are cause for letting their hair down. I really felt a part of this fabulous community in Igualada.

By late afternoon, the plaza had emptied and the event team was already setting up for the evening concert and open air ballroom dance for the older folk. I was hoping for a little siesta but Ramon took me to the local swimming pool (and restaurant) for a magnificent lunch and told me about another surprise he had in stall for me.

I was told that I would be taking part in the 'Ghetto' activity which involved a run to the top of the big hill behind the town, called Cursa de la Sindria.

A Castell at the Igualada Fiesta Major
I was a little alarmed by the name, let alone the prospect of having to run! Ramon assured me that it was all fun and not too far so I reluctantly dressed in my pilgrim shorts and boots for one last time and dutifully followed Ramon to the starting point. Here was another wonderful collection of the local families all competing in unusual and playful activities such as a road race on snow skis, a baby crawling race and a competition for the kids to see how many empty cardboard boxes they could stack up - all clean fun!

The 'run' looked a like it was a more serious matter. I had to register and sign a waiver (oh dear - what have I got myself into!). Once registered, I was directed to boxes full of watermelons! Yes, you read it right, watermelons. Apparently, not only did I have to run up the hill and back again but I had to carry my watermelon with me and not drop it.

Little one after a Castell

I lined up with everyone else, most looking very serious but a few of the boys dressed in bikinis and tutus and we were off! I followed the stragglers up the steep and rocky mountain track, at one stage we were reduced to a walking pace as the track was too narrow to pass (I was very pleased with this). I made it to the top for a spectacular view over Igualada and Montserrat and back down again. The final 300 metres was on the crowd-lined road (cheering the contestants onwards) and I felt quite elated. I sprinted (couldn't help myself) toward the finish line but as I approached I noticed the sloshy remains of watermelons and soon deduced that the highlight is to smash your melon as you cross the finish line. I did so with great gusto, pleased to have it finally out of my hands.

The big run 'cursa de la Sindria'(Ramon and his watermelon)

I was a local hero amongst the Ghetto team as I had really entered into the spirit of the Fiesta. I have vowed to return next year with a team of Aussies and Kiwis to take out the title. Any takers?

The night rolled on and we were back at the barraques for tapas, drinks and more crazy partying as per the previous night. The traditional end to the barraques is the making of large pots of hot chocolate to be eaten with a traditional cake. It was scheduled for 4.00am so I was desperately trying to stay awake to see it. By 5.30am my wheels had fallen off and no chocolate in sight so I decided to head home for a short nap and return in time for a chocolate hit! I was woken at 8.30am by Ramon, having missed the hot chocolate and the clean-up crew! Oops.

Lunch was a typical Spanish family affair with a table for 10 at Ramon's parent's gorgeous (vogue interiors inspired) 3-storey appartment sitting on a small hill overlooking the old town.

The end of the race
I was totally spoilt with home cooking and wonderful company. The outdoor entertaining deck was complete with bonsai garden, rooftop pool and assorted menagerie of pets (including a snarly angry cat, entertaining everyone).

As I was due to fly from Spain to Paris (and ultimately Melbourne) the following morning, it had been arranged for Ramon's sister and brother-in-law to take me back to Barcelona with them so I could get to the airport. I was again spoilt with a night in their totally cool appartment in the most desirous barrio in Barcelona aptly named Gracia! My last night in Spain was so wonderful with Lydia and Naxio; we had a typical catalan dinner at a local bar complete with red wine drunk straight from the special glass pouring jug.

Barcelona appartment
Afterwards we wandered around the tiny barrio to get a sense of the narrow (carless) streets, cute bars and cafes, reminiscent of the Left bank of Paris. I was only in Barcelona for a few hours but I know I will be back for a lot longer. It has an energy, a resonance that just fitted with mine.

I woke at a respectable 8.30 and made my way reluctantly to the airport. I could feel the strain on my fingernails as I struggled to hold on to my exceptional adventure for the final minutes in Spain. I did not want it to end and the sadness at leaving my Spain was palpable. Whatever it takes and however I can create it, I know I will return to create more adventures and maybe even settle in this land of swallows and wine.

Perhaps some words from my favourite book, Alice in Wonderland will be a fitting end to this 'lost and found' adventure:

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.

Alice and the Cheshire Cat
"I don't much care where - - - -" said Alice.

 "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat. "- - - - so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation

"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough"

Besos, Grace

(Stay tuned for the book version)

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Barraques fun
Barraques fun
Gigantes parade
Gigantes parade
Winding the faixa sash for back …
Winding the 'faixa' sash for back…
Playng a gralla during the Caste…
Playng a 'gralla' during the Cast…
First man up on the pinya
First man up on the pinya
Little one making her way to the t…
Little one making her way to the …
A Castell at the Igualada Fiesta M…
A Castell at the Igualada Fiesta …
Little one after a Castell
Little one after a Castell
The big run cursa de la Sindria(…
The big run 'cursa de la Sindria'…
The end of the race
The end of the race
Barcelona appartment
Barcelona appartment
Alice and the Cheshire Cat
Alice and the Cheshire Cat
22,140 km (13,757 miles) traveled
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photo by: fivepointpalm