Sunday 24 September 2017

Salou, Spain: Captivated by Catalonia’s Castells

Golden coast: Costa Daurada is a stunning corner of north east Spain and part of Catalonia
Golden coast: Costa Daurada is a stunning corner of north east Spain and part of Catalonia
Madeleine relaxes at Port Aventura
Madeleine Keane

Madeleine Keane

The old bullring, packed with thousands of tense spectators held its breath as two small children scrambled to the top of the human tower, like a pair of little limpets. Filming it on my mobile, I captured the collective gasp that swept through the arena as the nine-storey steeple of people collapsed and my shock, dropping my phone, as they all came falling down on top of each other, a tangle of tumbling human dominoes.

I was in Tarragona at its Castells competition. This important cultural custom dates from the end of the 18th century when, in nearby Valls, traditional Valencian dance took off in an upward direction and has literally soared ever since.

Each tower starts with a base of the strongest men, who will also serve as safety net, locking arms to create a foundation which is built on, level by level, with finally the lightest, nimblest and youngest of the crew, clambering on the shoulders of these giants (their bravery is huge), to reach the top of this tremendous tree of humanity.

UNESCO has designated Castells a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. While I’ve a strong aversion to crowds and like most mothers I don’t like witnessing small children going into potentially dangerous situations, I found it a compelling experience.

Madeleine relaxes at Port Aventura
Madeleine relaxes at Port Aventura

It was early October and I was with a friend on a weekend break, exploring a small section of the Costa Daurada, the golden coast — a stunning corner of north east Spain and part of the richly fascinating province that is Catalonia. Costa Daurada isn’t as well known as the Costa Brava which stretches northwards from Barcelona up to French Collioure and is home to Cadeques and Portliggat where Dali lived for many years, but it is just as beautiful and arguably even more beguiling.

Very popular with Irish families, its appeal is immediately obvious. For starters, Ryanair flies to Reus (birthplace of the great Gaudi whose singular masterpieces adorn Barcelona) which is only a 20 minute drive from Salou and its sister resort, nearby Cambrils. Staying in Salou we were perfectly placed for nearby Port Aventura — Spain’s answer to Disneyworld — and spent a pleasant Saturday evening there.

We got very splashed on the great rapids but I eschewed the rollercoaster: my escort was up for it but I was too much of a scaredy cat to try the terrifying sounding Furius Baco which prides itself as one of the fastest spins on the planet. And as for the sky-high scarlet edifice tantalising the tourists — this is the new Ferrari ride slated to open next year and sure to be a massive draw for thrill-seekers.

After our exertions we headed for the restaurant Raco del Mar, where, over gambas and vino blanco, we had ringside seats for a colourful Halloween parade.

We had a wonderful day in nearby Cambrils, spending the morning cycling around the old city, taking in the Roman remains and the Moors Tower before stopping for coffee in the old square. After a short tour on the tourist train we’d worked up quite an appetite for lunch. All the restaurants on the port with their sunshine-drenched outdoor terraces looked very inviting compared to the unassuming exterior of Acuamar where I was actually booked. The local with whom I was lunching assured me that this in fact was the sign of a far more sophisticated eaterie and the soignee Spanish clientele seemed to suggest, annoyingly, that he was right. Both of us adored the spinach with prawns in a bechamel sauce (sublime), and baked salmon followed by crema catalana — this region’s divine take on creme brulee.

Catalonia is renowned for its cuisine and at lunch in restaurant Goretti on Salou’s waterfront, I tasted — for the first time — fideua which is a local version of paella: served with vermicelli noodles it wasn’t as delicious as the rice-based one in my opinion but was tasty and it buoyed us both for our afternoon activity — jet skiing — another first for me and super fun. It seemed incredible in early autumn that the water was actually warm.

A fun seaside town, Salou was once a magnet for hordes of British students who used to descend on the place for their spring break, upsetting the locals with their rowdy antics. However in recent years authorities have clamped down on this and invested in public amenities. The beautiful beachside boulevard is testament to the money and taste that has gone into sprucing up Salou and the impeccably clean strand was packed with happy families enjoying the balmy Med and the many water-based activities on offer.

Later, my companion told me about another Catalan tradition. Legend has it that their patron Saint George (known as Sant Jordi) slayed a dragon to save his princess and from his blood grew a single rose. So on April 23 — St George’s Day — boys would give their girlfriends a rose and they in turn would give their men a book. Happily, things have evolved and Catalans of both genders have been exchanging books for blooms for around 90 years and ever since on April 23 (now known as World Book Day) sales of literature have soared in northern Spain.

But back to the Plaza de Toros in Tarragona. Dress is crucial to Castells and members of the different teams, which come from different outlying towns and villages, are dressed in the same bright colour — the arena is like a giant cake with slices of scarlet, lemon, rose, violet, cobalt and jade. A black sash (known as a faixa) holds the costume together while providing much-needed back support, and the length is equal to one’s position in the tower with shorter faixa for the smallest participants who also wear helmets.

Once again a village of living, breathing bodies interlock, the little one climbs barefoot to the top and raises four fingers to symbolise the Catalan flag. Although it’s heart-in-the-mouth stuff to watch, for a few precious seconds while a mass of humanity cleaves together as one, only the stone-hearted could fail to be both humbled and moved.

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