Whenever I visit Spain, top of my ‘to do’ list is going to a festival. The Spanish love festivals: it’s a wonderful reason to come together and celebrate everything from a religious event to the change of the season to the harvest.
Dancing, music, revelry – these are always on the agenda, as are all kinds of delicious foods and drinks. (In some festivals food is not merely an accompaniment but an essential element of the fiesta; for example, at La Tomatina festival, held each August in Buñol in Valencia, thousands gather to throw tomatoes at each other.)
The other essential aspect of a Spanish festival is the parade, and in many fiestas you will see traditional gigantes and cabezudos – essentially, ‘giants’ and ‘big heads’.
A giant is three to four metres tall, with a huge head made of a mix of papier maché and plaster of Paris. Here are some colourful examples:
Often, giants come in pairs: a gigante (male) and a giganta (female). The giants are modelled on archetypes that represent the history and culture of the town or village, such as peasants and noblemen and -women.
The giants are hollowed out for the costume wearer (the geganter), who wears a harness that controls the giant’s movement, making it twirl and dance to the music of the nearby band.
The tradition of the gigantes and cabezudos dates all the way back to the 15th century. At that time, the Church faced the challenge of educating people who could not read or write about the Bible. The Corpus Christi festival, they decided, was an excellent vehicle for this, because all the townspeople and villagers would come to the festival. The notion of a play acted out by costumed actors was conceived as a way to tell stories from the Bible. They had a dragon to represent evil, an angel, four evangelists in the form of a lion, an eagle, a bull and a man, and King David and Goliath – the first giant.
Over the years, the costumes evolved and became more sophisticated – and taller! The higher the costume, of course, the more people in the crowd could see it. In some places, organisations were formed to manage the giants, their creation and use. To this day the Coordinadora de Geganters de Barcelona is dedicated to the giants of Barcelona. Their website (pictured below) is a treasure trove of information on the gigantes and cabezudos: https://gegantsbcn.cat/.
The Spanish, then, are proud to stand tall, especially, it would seem, when you consider another festival tradition, this one particular to the Catalonia region. Take a look at this spectacle:
This is a castell, a castle, made not of stone but of humans! The castell-building tradition at Catalonian festivals dates back to the 18th century, but it is only in the past half a century that it has really taken off, thanks to women being permitted to join the castellers – being lighter, they have allowed for more ambitious designs reaching as high as nine and ten stories!
At the bottom of the tower is the pinya, which carries the weight, and this is formed first under the direction of the cap de colla (leader). Slowly, people forming the next levels climb into position. Then, once those in position are happy that the castell feels sufficiently stable, a traditional ‘Toc de Castells’ song is played as those in the upper levels move into position – quickly now, so as to minimise the strain on those bearing the weight. The upper levels are usually populated by children (my heart is in my mouth just writing the words!) Finally, the enxaneta – the person at the very top – climbs up. He or she raises a hand, the crowd cheers, and the castell is quickly disassembled.
As you can see in the photograph, the castellars have a uniform: white trousers, a shirt in their group’s colour, a bandana and – crucially – a black sash known as a faixa. This last item isn’t decorative but functional: it provides support to the lower back and is used by other castellers for traction as they climb (barefooted, usually).
Being a castellar means adhering to the castellar motto: Força, equilibri, valor i seny (Strength, balance, courage and common sense). They must have a great deal of faith in their fellow castellars, for one wrong move by just one member of the group could spell disaster – serious injury and even death, in some tragic cases – for others.
A castell is certainly a sight to behold at a Catalonian festival, but unlike the gigantes and cabezudos, this isn’t a source of great fun and amusement; it is the kind of spectacle that makes the heart pound until after everyone is safely down from the tower. It may seem like madness to the uninitiated, but in fact castellars are incredibly well practised and each construction has been carefully planned. This is an art form, and as such it was recently declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. What a heritage!