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Human tower-building: Phil Keoghan joins the Castells of Catalonia for Nat Geo Explorer

Phil Keoghan and the human towers of Catalunya
Phil Keoghan and the human towers of Catalunya, which he is documenting for Nat Geo’s Explorer series

Heading over to Spain? You can easily detour via Barcelona to the autonomous community of Catalonia (Catalunya), which is made up of four provinces: Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona.

Monsters and Critics is currently joining the production of National Geographic Explorer as they film their new season in the area. Over the past day, new host Phil Keoghan (Amazing Race) has been immersing himself in the centuries-old tradition of human tower making.

It sees competitors known as Castellers build “Castells” as they take each other on at major festivals in the region.

But why do they do it and what is the subtext behind their derring-do?

Keoghan took Monsters and Critics to the outer reaches of the province in Terrassa to watch one group, the Minyons, practice.

The first thing an American will notice is how the entire community, from babies to the elderly, work together to hone the art of making an interlocked human tower that defies physics and gravity.

Catalan social life is all about family, food, and celebrations that honor these various traditions, often held a lot later than most Americans would be used to — with dinners and all-ages of the community socializing well after 9pm.

The knowledge for creating castells is traditionally passed down from each generation within a local group, and can only be perfected by relentless practice.

There’s complete joy and pride in accomplishment in the completed towers, done in a variance of patterns and geometric constructs.

Photo in Vilafranca of the Castellers of the region
Photo in Vilafranca of the Castellers of the region

But the true nature of these towers is not for stunt purposes.

The towers represent regional pride and are laced with political subtext that rings strongly all throughout the provinces in Catalunya.

These castells are the most famous symbols representing Catalonia, a region that wants greater autonomy. It is an event that shows the community spirit, the desire for liberty, freedom from Spanish interference and the release of the Catalan political prisoners currently held in Spanish jails.

Emmy-winner Keoghan is now bringing his experienced eye to reporting on this incredible event. As The Minyons train for the grand event in Terrassa, Keoghan literally became an integral part of the Minyon castell tower during their practice.

Phil Keoghan holds up a human tower
Phil Keoghan, circled, helps hold up one of the towers during a practice session, as shown in the video below

The production heads to Vilafranca de Penedès (about 30 min outside Barcelona) on the day of the festival, where Phil will have an intimate traditional home cooked Castilian meal as the local people explain the history of this event and what it means to them as a culture.

The experience exemplifies the incredible human stories that Explorer is known for and which has made the news and entertainment series the ultimate in docuseries television. No one does this cultural inside reporting better.

The towers and Festa Major for Sant Felix, happening August 30th in Vilafranca del Penedes, is the big day — one which was recognized by UNESCO in 2010 as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.

This Catalan tradition of building Castells — human towers reaching up to 10 stories —takes place every year. Teams, or colles, all compete from various villages inside the province to build the tallest and most complex tower made only of human beings standing atop one another.

The task is to build and deconstruct their towers without a fall. The overarching values these towers instill are of strength (to sustain), balance (to prevent from collapsing), sense (to plan it wisely) and daring (to achieve greater feats).

This is literally and metaphorically what the castells or human towers are devised to be, a lightning rod of community coherence and Catalan nationalism, unity, and sense of purpose amidst a backdrop of social and political unrest and anger as well as a celebration of life.

Castells were also woven into the history of the region’s winemaking, through the gangs who competed with each other for bragging rights. Catholic saints and Christian iconography are also prominent, and the evolution of the event today sees both townships and groups competing for accolades.

It was recently reported that over 15,000 people in more than 100 groups practice the event across Catalonia. The interest, preservation and continued participation reveal a durable Catalan culture that will not bow down and subsume itself anytime soon.

More to come as the Festa progresses!

National Geographic Explorer with new host Phil Keoghan will begin November 12, 2018, on Nat Geo Channel.

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April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment... read more
April Neale
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