The Festivals of Valls
The Festivals of Valls: Humans Castles and CalçotsBy: © Genevieve Shaw 2014
One of the loveliest aspects of Catalonia, or certainly one of the most striking, is its capacity for local celebration. The Catalans are good at blowing their trumpets or more correctly stated the "gralle", an oboe like traditional Catalan instrument used in all the local festivities including Sardanas, Human Castles (Castellers) and the town parades of giants and puppets. Yet, it is this festive quality, and the constant celebration of Catalan culture and tradition, that can turn a small and otherwise uneventful town into one of the most interesting places in the region.
At a distance of one hundred kilometres from Barcelona, Valls is easily forgotten in preference for Tarragona. Set inland, Valls is a town of over 20.000 inhabitants whose history dates back to Roman times. Even then Valls was really only a stop off point for travellers heading south from Barcelona. Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries Valls suffered continual ambushes from warring factors that, once again, used the city as a strategic stop off point on the territory map. Due to the invention of the motor, people no longer have the necessity to stay the night in Valls while travelling south. For different reasons, though, Valls still attracts an impressive number of visitors.
Similar to other towns in the region, Valls has a quaint historic centre reached via a series of attractive little streets that eventually wind up on the doorstep of a big church in the main square. What is different about this centre, however, is a 30 foot high monument in the shape of a human castle (castell), which stands at the entrance to the old quarter. For the unsuspecting visitor this is the first hint that Valls is more than just a pretty face. Each side of the monument shows a different configuration of a human castle, while another sculpture to the left depicts the musicians playing an oboe like instrument called the gralle that accompany the human castles. Valls, also known as the "Cradle of Castles," is the originating town of the human castle tradition.
This tradition began in the 17th century and was originally a dance called the Valencian Dance. At the end of this dance a small group of people stood on one another's shoulders to create a tower of people. The people that participated in this dance at town festivals belonged to the ploughmen's trade guild, and the characteristic that most represented these men was their physical strength. According to a Catalan cultural organization called "Carrutxa," this dance was called the Valencian Dance because the word "Valentium" in Latin means strength. Gradually, groups of people began to form who specialized in the Human Tower aspect of the dance. Today the Human Tower/Castle tradition is massively popular in Catalonia and has come to be synonymous with Catalan identity.
Valls has two rival groups of human Castle performers, the La Colla Jove Xiquets and the more established team La Colla Vella dels Xiquets. On a series of fiesta days throughout the year, the two teams compete in the attempt to make bigger and better castles than the time before. On these days thousands of people flock to the centre in order to get a good view of the castle formations. The people with good connections stand at the balconies of the nearby flats and council buildings. The atmosphere is electric, almost like a football match as people cheer on the teams and boo if they show any sign of toppling. In this moment Valls undergoes a metamorphosis and blooms into the unique town it really is, whose special identity hinges upon its own well established traditions. The main celebration of Human Castles is held on the first Sunday after the 21st of October in celebration of Saint Ursula. At 12.45 Giants walk through the main streets in a folkloric procession before the Human castle competition begins at 13.00.
Following this is the second festival of the year that takes a leading role in defining the renowned identity of Valls. On the final Sunday of the month the streets are converted into a thoroughfare of vine wood, open fires amidst rows of tables. The unmistakable aroma of cooking Calçots hangs over the buildings, attracting thousands of people who want to participate in the culinary tradition that marks the start of Catalonia's Calçot season.
Discovered by a local farmer called Xat de Benaiges at the end of the 19th century, the cultivation of Calçots is a complicated process that starts at the end of the year when onion seeds are planted. Once the onion has germinated and begun to grow, it is pulled out of the ground and stored for a time before being replanted. It is only buried half way into the earth and as it grows higher, it is necessary to repack earth around the newly grown part of the vegetable. When harvested it has the long leek like appearance that most people living here know and love.
The Calçotada became a family feast celebration in the first few decades of the twentieth century. However, it wasn't until 1983 that Valls undertook the first communal Calçotada to which anyone can go. Other areas in Catalonia produce Calçots but Valls proudly lays claim to its role as founder of the Calçot tradition. On the streets of Valls you can stand at a long table and dip calçots in a sauce made from pepper, almonds, garlic and oil while taking swigs of red wine from a glass container with a long spout called a purró. Traditionally, sausages or lamb are served up after the calçots followed by Crema Catalana.
The Calçot season lasts from the end of January until the end of April or beginning of May. It is a great Catalan tradition to go to a rustic restaurant and eat calçots in the open air.