Catalonia’s Human Towers

by Aysha Griffin on May 17, 2015

Lessons in teamwork, pride and self-confidence

human tower building, castellers

Castellers de Vilafranca, many-time champions of human tower building competitions in Catalonia.

Imagine tightly wrapping a length of thick black cloth around your middle and then, firmly grounded, entwining arms-to-shoulders with the people next to you so others can scamper up your back. This is how you start to create a human tower or castell. It seems crazy, and yet this is the complex sport, the idea of fun, and the source of personal and civic pride for the castellers of Catalonia.

Of course no one could do it alone, which is the point. It is a team sport that takes skill, cooperation, focus and commitment. A 10-story tower, which I believe is a record height, requires a 1,000 castellers, each holding a specific position. Competitions between teams pack the town plazas of northeast Spain.

Although the tradition began more than 400 years ago near the city of Tarragona, it was not until about 50 years ago its popularity exploded in other parts of Catalonia, and in 2010 castells received UNESCO designation as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

You’ve probably seen photos or videos of them – those crazy guys (and gals and children) who climb up each other. But there’s far more to their madness than meets the eye, as I recently learned in a demonstration and workshop for a group of travel bloggers attending the Travel Bloggers Exchange Conference (TBEX) in the popular seaside town of Lloret de Mar.

Understanding castells

castellers, human tower

Members of Castellers de Vilafranca demonstrate their sport.

We gather on the rooftop patio of restaurant/club Atica, with the glittering sapphire of the Mediterranean Ocean defining the beach cove below. On the rocky cliffs of this bit of Costa Brava (the “wild coast”), a stone tower from the 11th century rises from a precipice in the distance, reminding us of the long history of Catalonia. Before us stand two obviously-fit men, a slender young woman and a 10-year-old girl, the daughter of one of the men. The young woman named Neus, who looks like a teenager, tells me she is a 26-year-old architect, has been a casteller since age 10, and loves the “engineering aspects” of human-tower building.

Each is dressed in white pants and a teal shirt, the colors of the prestigious Castellers de Vilafranca, the large and well-respected association of 400+ members committed to preserving and promoting popular Catalan culture. Being a casteller is, for most, a sport in which to participate on weekends, competing against teams from other towns. But for Tony Bach i Lleal of Vilafranca, it is a full-time job.

Casteller wrapping a faixa

Tony Bach i Lleal of Vilafranca, a fulltime casteller and facilitator for teaching human towerbuilding


Affable and clearly expert at explaining and facilitating the casteller experience, Toni has us begin by partnering to wrap the rolled black sash tightly around our waist and tuck in the end. Called faixa (pronounced “fascia”), sashes vary in length from 6 to 36 feet, depending on the casteller’s position inside the tower, and protects the back while giving climbers something to hold on to.

Next, Toni explains the goal: to successfully build and disassemble a castell without toppling. The assembly is complete once all castellers have climbed into their designated places, and the enxaneta (“enchaneta”, or the child who tops the tower) reaches the top and raises one hand with four fingers erect; a gesture said to symbolize the stripes of the Catalan flag. The enxaneta then climbs down the other side of the castell, after which the remaining levels of castellers descend in highest-to-lowest order until all have reached safety.

When I ask Toni’s colleague if he has any fear about his daughter being an enxaneta, he smiles – no doubt a common question – and  says, “No. It is very safe, and an honor.”

Being part of a human tower

Having baffled this writer with complicated Catalan names for each position on the tower and the tower structures themselves, Toni calls the steps, like in a square dance, for his group of to begin demonstrating the actual methodology of shoulder mounting and dismounting. It is common for castellers to go barefoot to minimize injuring each other as they climb to their position, and for sensitivity when balancing.

castell, human tower

TBEXers learn to be part of a castell

Toni then invites members of the TBEX group to join in. While several are eager to climb, those, like myself, who opt not to give it a go, are positioned to form the pinya, or bottom base of the castell, to sustain its weight and act as a ‘safety net’ if the tower structure collapses, cushioning the fall of people from above. Fortunately, the climbers are agile and the pinva strong.

Clearly, success in completing a castell feels exhilarating, even as an on-the-ground part of the pinva. Understanding and experiencing a castell presents a fine lesson in personal confidence and team building, which Toni’s organization teaches to businesses and groups worldwide. If you ever get a chance to see them in action, do it. You will be amazed. You can contact him via


10 Tips for Independent Travel in Europe

by Aysha Griffin on April 22, 2015

if you come to a fork in the trail, take it 10 Tips for Traveling in Europe

If travel is on your  mind, may these tips for saving, safety and deeper experiences encourage you to get going! They are based on my experiences of 5 months of solo travel in Europe last summer – Spain, France and the UK. Although without a human companion, I had the company of my 30-year-old “mascot,” IggyMo, a classic Gund monkey who saved me from “selfies” and helped make many friends along the way. He chronicles his own adventures with sweet innocence of which I am happy to be reminded.

The linked pages are full of specific tips and details which apply to most travel – not just western Europe. Please share with friends via social media and elsewise.

Your feedback, questions and stories are welcome in the comments section. 

1. Stay where you feel good
When it comes to discomfort, no matter the reason – claustrophobic, dirty, bad bed, noisy, negative energy, in a “dodgy” neighborhood – anytime you feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or ill at ease, find a better situation.

On the other hand, sometimes first impressions – positive or negative – are not accurate. When I arrive tired or feel vulnerable, small things like a light not working or the hot and cold faucets being reversed can send me over the edge of despair. Or, I’ve be so grateful to arrive at a destination that I overlooked the pervasive smell of blood and guts (no one mentioned the pig slaughtering plant next door) or the restaurant downstairs that turns into a rave club after midnight.

Point is, after a good look around, you decide the place isn’t for you, plot the quickest exit strategy and find a situation to relocate. For ideas on inexpensive and alternative stays, click here.

2. Know the laws and customs
Paris traffic signThe most important law you need to know if you plan to spend more than 3 months in the European Union – as a non-EU passport holder – is the Schengen Agreement Agreement. Upon arrival in the EU you get a 3-month tourist visa, good for all the 26 EU countries, and then must leave the EU for 3 months. If you overstay, it can mean big trouble. There are no known legal ways to extend your tourist without apply from within your country of origin or residence. Stay tuned (subscribe now) for an upcoming blog I’ll post about how I received a one-year “long-stay visa” from the French Consulate.

As for local customs, your time in any foreign country will be a lot more fun if you make an effort to learn about greetings and goodbyes, handshakes, kisses, pre-meal salutations, and at least a few words and phrases. Be aware of standard hours and days of shop and office closures, as they vary widely country-to-country and even area-to-area within a country. Local and national holidays not only affect business closings but transportation and movements of whole populations (like July and August when every popular destination is packed). To read about my adventure driving around France, click here.

3. Try to appreciate everything – It’s a journey. You chose to embark on it. There will be challenges, and how you handle them will teach you a lot about your self… and may even lead to grand adventures you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

4. Travel light – I know, everyone says this and it’s true. travel lightIf you’re going on vacation, you should be able to travel with one carry-on (rolling bag or backpack) and a second small carry-on for computer/ipad, camera and daily walk-around things.

Read this important article on “How and Why To Travel Light”: click here. I also wrote “Two weeks, one carry-on” in 2008. The principles are the same but some details need updating, like you can now bring your smartphone and buy a local Sim card for pay-as-you-go calls; and with the proliferation of wifi zones it’s easy to keep in touch worldwide for free via Skype, FaceTime, Google chat, ad nauseum.

5. Save money on accommodations – The biggest single expense (at home and especially while traveling) is accommodation. To learn about money-saving possibilities, click here.

6. Save money on food – Besides saving money, there’s the pleasure of the hunt, local interactions and learning about the culture through the food itself. Click here to read about great ways to save money, eat well and have more authentic dining experiences.
Basque food feast

7. Save on Transportation: Know your budget, plan, and be very flexible – Do your research so you have a good sense of what your expenses will likely be, and add more for contingencies. For many more tips on getting to, from and around, click here.

make friends with locals8. Meet Locals – Try to establish in advance at least one contact in each place you’ll be staying – someone who will meet with you – even for just a cup of coffee or glass of wine – if not host you for a night or more. Insider information will save you time, money, and likely introduce you to places, events and people you’d not know otherwise. Best of all – especially if you’re traveling alone – you won’t feel so alone. Attitude is Everything – along with integrity, respect, self-love. A pleasant attitude and smile will go much further than language skills. Want deas and resources for finding and cultivating these friendly local connections? Click here.

9. Get Travel / Medical Insurance – Why? Peace of mind. And some countries, like the UK, may require proof of it to enter. Besides the obvious negative possibilities of accident, medical emergency, dismemberment, death or lost baggage, I chose the upgraded policy from World Nomads because it offered $30,000 comprehensive and collision coverage on any rental car. When I rented a Europcar for 8 days in France, I waived the $15 a day car rental insurance, saving more than the equivalent of a month’s policy with WorldNomads. Check into it and get a free quote here. ferry La Havre to Portsmith

10. Be Fearless – Before you leave home, create a support network. With phones, text, email, social networks and free online communications, it’s easy to stay in touch. Also, be sure to leave copies of all your important information, including contacts and passwords with a trusted person. I’ve compiled a list of ways to feel and be safer on the road and at home… Click here to read it.

Now, do you feel ready to for a trip to Europe? Be in touch if you – or a friend – is headed this way!

All photos at © 2014 Aysha Griffin



Writers’ Workshop in Santa Fe

September 17, 2014

Marketing Your Book With Love – Sell Your Book While Nurturing Your Soul Wed. Oct. 22, 10am-1pm Click here to Register! Learn about the Workshop Read past participants’ comments Overwhelmed by “the business” of marketing your books? I’ll show you how to replace the fear and drudgery of marketing with a new paradigm that ignites your [...]

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I found my voice in Girona…

June 28, 2014

Or Why Taking Responsibility – That Isn’t Yours – Can Be Detrimental To Your Health! On the red metal bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, over the River Onyar in Girona at sunset, walking with my friend Anna, a man, thirty-something, with a jaunty walk, approached from the opposite direction. Recognizing Ana, he slowed and exchanged [...]

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68 Thoughts A Baby-Boomer Woman Traveler Has When Traveling Alone in Europe

June 22, 2014

After walking the ancient wall that encloses the original city of Girona, Catalonia,  I returned to my computer to find an article, “68 Thoughts Every Traveler Has On Their Trip Around The World” by Nomadic Matt, one of the many travel writers to whom I happily subscribe. He does a great job at encouraging his [...]

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The Travel Writer Returns (or How To Restart Your Blog)

June 22, 2014

Hello, I’m back. The passing of this summer Solstice, which finds me in Girona, Catalunya (northeast Spain), seems a perfect time for committing or recommitting to what is important. There is so much I want to write about, to share, in the European adventures I’m having, in the new life I am creating at 59 [...]

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Thoughts of Spring and Transformation

April 5, 2014

I have wondered how to start up again to craft blog posts when my days are full of work commitments and my own projects and preparing for travels and traveling and engaging with the people and tasks before me and trying to stay in direct touch with the many incredible friends who grace my life. [...]

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Visit Cuba Resources

August 15, 2013

Nearly 3 million visitors went to Cuba in 2012 – from Canada, U.S., South America, Europe, Asia, Australia… well, just about everywhere. It’s a beautiful, diverse, dynamic and complex country that welcomes tourists with increasing services and amenities. And beyond tourism, Cuba is a fascinating society in transition. Citizens around the world know they can [...]

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Visiting Havana

May 20, 2013

Cuba had been calling to me for a long time. Perhaps it was my memory of being a six-year-old in Miami and going to the beach with my dad to watch giant navy warships glide southward to engage in what became known as the Bay of Pigs, a disatrous attempt to overthrow Castro and his [...]

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In Loving Memory of Simone Griffling

February 24, 2013

Simone Griffling (December 21, 2003 – February 23, 2013) On New Year’s eve, 2003, I asked a group gathered at our Santa Fe, NM home, “What would you like in the new year?” David answered, “A dog.” Little did he know he was soon to have not just “a dog,” but the most extradordinary Standard [...]

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