Vilafranca del Penedés is a Catalan town located 40 minutes from Barcelona where Barça fans abound. During Barça Matches, the town’s bars fill with expectant viewers. Yet the most multitudinous event in Vilafranca is not football. It is the human towers, Els Castells, a structure made entirely of human bodies.
Toni Bach is the leader of the Castellers de Vilafranca, an organization of Human Tower participants that has been alive for more than 200 years thanks to the commitment and dedication of its almost 900 volunteers. The human towers, or Castells, are more than a sport. The Castells are a deep stamp on the Catalan identity.
The members of the Castell train three times a week and have an active calendar of competitions against groups from other regions of Catalonia. In many cases, these competitions fill a whole stadium.
The Festival Mayor of Vilafranca del Penedés is the most important traditional festival of the region, and the climax of the party is the building of the human towers in the main village square. This great event is broadcast on national television, so its images have been seen around the world.
During this event, the huge town square fills with people. The excitement can be felt in its streets. As the music plays and the event begins, the audience contains its breath and nervousness permeates the atmosphere. The tower trembles as audience members clench their fists in anticipation. When the tower finally reaches its highest point, small children swiftly climb to the top and crown the cusp by raising the palm of their hands up in the air, as if touching the sky. They have succeeded. A sigh of relief spreads through the square and the celebration reaches its summit. Smiles, shouts, and applause follow.
The structure of the human towers has three parts: La Pinya, El Torreón and Pont de D'alt. The Pinya is the group of people that form the base of the tower; many volunteers are needed to build a large enough base to support the massive Human Tower. The Tower or Torreon, is the center part of the Human Tower where human columns uphold the central part of the structure. And the Pont d'Alt is the highest part, the point to where the youngest children climb.
In front of the spectators and during the event, the castellers are very focused on preventing the tower from falling. If the tower is not stable, the Castell is dismantled and redone. This exercise of assembling the tower is repeated until stability is achieved and the small children can finally climb to crown the cusp. Music instruments keep track of time and notify participants when it is time to move to the next level. Some human towers have a thousand participants and exceed twelve meters in height.
Keeping the Castell, with its large dimensions, standing, is the result of great discipline, requiring balance, precision, mental, and physical strength.
"It is a tradition of our country, where it is important to highlight the teamwork that culminates in the performance in the square, to get the biggest castell at the time of execution in the square and obviously all the work that comes before this. It is joint work, without distinction of sex or age. The Castell itself is important. The Castell embodies values of commitment, attitude, and the challenge of gravity. Strength, balance and courage."
Toni talks about the castellers with passion and enthusiasm. For him it is a way of life: "For me, to do Castells is to express my way of understanding life: friendship, teamwork, challenge, respect, commitment, attitude, strength, balance. It is a way to not lose our roots, to repeat a ritual that has taken place for more than 250 years and the values that identify it."
Toni’s passion for the castellers began when he was very small and has a strong family seal: "My grandfather became very close to a man from Vilafranca during the Civil War, and when the war was over his friend invited him every year to the Fiesta Mayor of Vilafranca. My grandfather brought me here when I was 5 years old to see the Fiesta Mayor and the Castells captivated me."
When you are in front of a Castell, an immense emotion rushes through your body. It thrills you deeply. It's as if, for a moment, you understand commitment, culture, and team work. Only when the base of the adult tower is solid and strong can young children can make it to the top. It's a metaphor for the ideal society.
For Toni, the group of castellers is "like a microsociety that has a way of working and values that, if transmitted to society in general, would make everything better."