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While in Barcelona I came across several  unique traditions that I should like to share with you. Castelling is the subject of this blog

 

Castellers in Barcelona

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I read about and then searched out the tradition of castelling. A castell is a human tower. Colles Castelleres are groups of people who do these towers. According to UNESCO castells are declared to be amongst the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Seriously!! You will soon see why.

Various Colles exist across Catalonia, several of them in the city of Barcelona. They build ‘human towers’ at  festivals across the province, competing against one another for the highest and most complex of towers.

The tradition originated in the Ball dels Valencians in Valls, and was first documented in 1712. It became the thing to do in the 18th century.

A Castell  is considered a success when stages of its assembling and disassembling can be done in complete succession. The Castell is said to be complete when all castellers have climbed to their designated places and the enxaneta climbs into place at the top and raises on hand with four fingers erect, symbolically the stripes of the Catalan flag ( yes you may be beginning to see this strong theme of independence and patriotism in so many of the things happening in Barcelona). The enxaneta then climbs down the other side of the castell, and the remaining castellers descend highest lowest to complete the disassembly.

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Complicated??? Yup. But once you see it, not only complex but truly fear inspiring. Regrettably I did not see a Castell created at a festival… missed my opportunity to see one on one of the festival days –most common timeframe for them to put a castell on for show—but within walking distance of my flat I was able to see a practice evening. Even though they were not wearing their traditional dress of white pants, red shirts and black belts, the practice show as amazing….and because we were able to view it from above, we got a real sense of how complicated the castell building is.

 

You will see that to our surprise the highest levels are created by castellers who are small children—very acrobatic children at that. They literally looked like little monkeys ascending and descending the castell. Aside from the children, girls, women, boys and men who create the upper parts of the tower, a bottom base, the pinya,  is needed to act as a safety net to catch or cushion the fall if the castell collapses.

 

I have inserted a couple of videos.. please excuse the audio and commentary…not exactly the most professional documentation, but felt it was worth inserting to give you a real feel for the art of castelling.

Seeing this created is incredible and clearly well orchestrated and managed. There were huge posters on a wall in the practice we saw that indicated for each individual where they needed to be for each castell. Yes they don’t just form one kind….amazingly we saw about 15 different towers built.  I think I counted the highest towere we saw created at seven levels.. the highest they can go is ten…imagine that. We saw towers built with 3,4 and 5 people per level known as pillars.

 

We soon discovered that the black belt of sash known as a faixa  is the most important part of the costume and they wore them that night over their regular dress. The faixa supports the lower back and is used by other castellers. It is a long piece of cloth that is wrapped around the waist. They range from 1.5 to 12 meters long. The longer ones are worn by the lower levels. Castellers go barefoot and they climb up each other by securing their toes into the sashes of the levels as a foot hold when climbing the tower.

The lowest level is made up of very strong, stocky men. Women and children form the highest levels we saw.

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The motto of Castellers is  Forca, equilibri, valor I seny, meaning Strength, Balance, Courage and Common Sense.

 I totally got the Forca, equilibri and valor…but there is no common sense in my mind in creating 10 level human towers.

 thumb_IMG_6856_1024A great day trip from Barcelona takes one by train to the Santa Maria Benedictine Abbey in the Montserrat, a multi peaked mountain, part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal Range. The mountain lies about 45 KM northwest of Barcelona.

 

 

Christopher Columbus, famous in Barcelona, named the Caribbean Island of Montserrat after this mountain.

 

thumb_IMG_6851_1024The Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey hosts the Virgin of Montserrat sanctuary, identified by some as the location of the Holy Grail well known in Arthurian myths. It was founded in 1025 by Oliba, Bishop of Vic and Abbot of the grand monastery of Ripoli. By the 12th century Pilgrims began to make the climb up to the monastery. Legend has it that in AD 880 the Virgin Mary appeared in a cave to school children, then their parents and eventually was also seen by priests. The sighting is now known as Santa Cova, Holy Cave or Holy Grotto and people still trek to the small chapels erected there in commemoration.

 

Montserrat means ‘serrated saw’. Looking at the photos of Montserrat and its multitude of rock formations, you can understand why the mountain has this name. Montserrat was Spain’s first National Park.

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We arrived by train and took the cable car to the monastery. You can also travel by funicular railway. The trick is to decide which option you prefer before leaving Barcelona, as you purchase a combined ticket and you exit the train at different stations.

Barb my friend, wanted to really push her comfort zone so we took the cable car. The views as we climbed up the mountain were spectacular.  The mountain is about 1200 meters high and the views from the monastery and surrounding hills are beautiful.

Having arrived we made our way to the monastery, which hosts the Virgin of Montserrat and a publishing house with the oldest press in the world. The first book was published in 1499. Apparently it is still running.  Regrettably, I was not aware of this before, and I don’t know if one could visit. Nevertheless, we had some amazing experiences while there—but more on that shortly.

Prior to entering the basilica we passed through a broad esplanade, Placa de Santa Maria. There are several beautiful buildings along the esplanade, still used to house and feed pilgrims and visitors. Statues of the founders are also on display.

 

The interior of the basilica is dazzling. Restored in 1990, it dates back from the 16th century and is a mix of gothic and renaissance architecture.

The Virgin of Montserrat is a statue of the Virgin Mary and the infant Chris. They are a black virgin and child. It is one of the black madonnas of Europe, its Catalan name “la Moreneta, –the little dark skinned one”. I found depictions of this Madonna in other churches in Barcelona as well. Apparently, in 1844 Pope Leo XIII declared the Virgin of Montserrat, the patroness of Catalonia. Given the patriotic nature of Catalonians you can understand her popularity.

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In the monastery her statue is at the rear of the chapel, but we regrettably did not get to view it there. We were simply overwhelmed by other happenings. We entered the monastery at the close of the morning mass. It was a sung mass (Gregorian I think but I am not an expert in this field—but I can attest that it was beautiful). As the mass ended we decided to mover further into the basilica, to secure better seats and wait for the ‘L’Escolania choir which performs here every day at 1 pm. As we moved up, people in the pews began to simply sing. Slowly we began to realize that a large group was spontaneously singing a beautiful hymn in German. Looking around we realized they were all dressed in Tyrolean costume, the traditional dress of Austria. We had just come across our first pilgrims, a large group of Austrian Christians.

No sooner had their voices died down and we found ourselves surrounded again by music. This time we were standing beside a group of 12-15 men all singing Ave Maria a cappella. We were side by side with a group of men on a pilgrimage from northern Italy.

We were moved to tears.

Awed by the experience, we seated ourselves. We were treated to yet another musical experience—a short concert of a catalan songstress singing and playing perhaps a bandurria and two Japanese musicians with shamisens. This was a planned concert to reinforce hope and peace in the world. It seemed we were exposed to a truly global musical experience.

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L’Esconalia, the Montserrat Boys Choir, then entered and lifted us with their beautiful voices singing the midday Salve. The basilica was packed, the aisles filled with people standing and listening to the boys’ choir of sopranos and altos. The choir, composed of 50 young boys , is one of the oldest in Europe and has recorded over 100 albums.

 

It was simply an amazing and unforgettable blessed experience.

 

 

 

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Leaving the basilica, we were lucky to secure a picture of the Austrian pilgrims in their Tyrollean costumes.

We decided to take one of the trails up above the monastery. The hike was a bit more of a climb than we anticipated, but we were rewarded by spectacular views of the valley as well as climbers scaling the Cavali Bernat, an interesting rock feature popular with serious climbers. Apparently young people from all over Catalonia make overnight hikes at least once in their lives to watch the sunrise from the heights of Montserrat.

 

We did not hike to the top. We simply found a lovely rock, enjoyed a late lunch and a nap in the sun, ending our great visit to Montserrat.

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It is perhaps very fitting  that my first blog on Barcelona should be about its beaches.

Not three hours after my arrival in Barcelona, I found myself taking a short walk to the shore( 4 minutes from my flat in Poblenou). Within another 2 minutes I was sitting at a “chiringuitos” pronounced chee-ring-geet-toes enjoying my first glass of white wine, the lovely April sun and a breeze off the sea. Life is great in early April on a Barcelona beach!!!

The Beaches in Barcelona, and there are many of them, 9 in all, are magnificent!! On the Mediterranean border they stretch for almost 5 kilometres. Each beach has a name and all have the EU blue flag of excellence for water quality and services. It seems even the National Geographic gave its approval naming Barcelona as the best beach city in the world. I would agree.

 

Every morning I get up and have a long morning walk along the beaches and then enjoy a cup of coffee in my favourite  chiringuito. These small beach bars are dotted along the beaches providing libations as well as lounges to bask in the sun. I can imagine in the height of the summer they would be very full.

 

When I return in the afternoon for a little sun time, the sailboats, pleasure yachts, windsurfers, swimmers, sunbathers are out. Volleyball courts dot the beaches and impromptu soccer games take place. Entertainment along the boardwalk on weekends.

 

At Mar Bella the kite surfers come out late afternoon when the wind picks up. It is incredible to see them fly across the sea and perform their tricks. There is no end of people watching available from early morning till late evening.

 

I understand that  millions of people visit the city beaches every year. I expect in the height of the summer season the beaches are incredibly crowded—not my thing. But at this time of year they are really enjoyable. I have read that the city makes a big effort to keep the sand clean and the seawater clear and already I see signs of the cleaning routines that attest to this. Every morning city people are out washing down the boulevards and all day long beach cleaners walk up and down the beach removing trash.

 

Garbage bins are prominent for all to use.  They even have divers in the winter do an annual cleanup of the seabed.

 

In Spanish the beach is called ‘Playa’, but here in Catalunya they go by ‘Platja”. Mar Bella Platja is the beach I frequent. It has a dedicated nudist beach which I came across one afternoon by accident on one of my strolls along the beach…. But not too many visitors yet at this time of year yet.

I was curious about the beaches and was surprised to discover that up until the 1990s, the seafront had no resemblance to what I am experiencing here. The shores of Barcelona were dotted with factories( textiles  here in Poblenou) , fishing ports and even shanty town slums. All this changed with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The 5 kilometers of beach front, boardwalk, cycling and walking paths, and green space was constructed along with the Port Olympic  and Olympic villages. Sculptures, including Frank Gehry’s Peix and modern architecture make the beach walk engaging for full 5 miles. Remarkable!!! Today the Barcelona beachfront remains as an exemplary of Olympic infrastructure spending at its best!! Providing to the city beauty and economic wellbeing.

 

However, now more than 20 years later, some cracks emerge.  Being a popular tourist destination has its downsides. Residents struggle in the height of the season to get to work, do their daily shopping and the number of flats rented ( like mine) to visitors  impacts the real estate prices making local housing less affordable for the locals.

The recently elected Barcelona mayor Ms Colau, is talking about setting a limit on the number of annual visitors by freezing hotel construction or tightening up the rental of flats. Looking at pictures of the beach or the pedestrian La Rambla in summer, I can understand her concern. Apparently Barcelona has 1.7 million inhabitants. It sees over 7.5 million tourists a year… that’s quite an imbalance. Apparently the tourist numbers doubled in just 13 years.

 

The city has already taken some measures.

To ease mobility for residents the popular pickup bike that you find in almost all European cities ( and now even in Toronto in the summer), are generally available to tourists as well as residents. In Barcelona the system operationally supports residential use.  Fees are only provided on an annual (47 euros) basis, no shorter term fares available and one needs a Spanish credit or bank card and a local address to sign up for the system. The system has in fact been put in place to work alongside the local bus and metro system to enable people to get to work in the busy tourist season. I guess if there are 4 tourist to every local, weighting in favour of locals makes some sense.

In the height of the season large tour groups are barred from the famous La Boqueria market enabling local residents to shop for their daily food…. Getting your meat or fish and veg and fruit on a daily basis is still common here. Within the first week I have adopted this pattern.. shopping for my fresh fish, bread fruits every day… its great!!

When we visited Park Guell you have to book on line for a ticket and are assigned a time to enter.  I was quite happy that visitors were restricted to 400 per hour and understand the requirement for a fee.  I don’t think I would have enjoyed my ramble through Gaudi’s park if there were no restrictions on the numbers in the park.

Bottom Line April is a great time to visit Barcelona beaches.. sunny, warm, not too crowded and clean