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Travel & Holiday

The other face of Spain

Catalonia may be a part of Spain, but it cannot be more different, from its language to its political views.
The Sunday Times - November 25, 2012
By: Corrie Tan
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The other face of Spain Teams building gravity-defying human towers in the Tarraco Arena Plaza at the 24th Tarragona Castells competition. -- ST PHOTO: CORRIE TAN

The streets of the Spanish coastal city of Sitges are eerily empty. Every human being is indoors or in a bar, glued to television screens, tracking the arc of a soccer ball passing between the FC Barcelona and Real Madrid football teams.

This is not just any football match. FC Barcelona is the home team of these avid TV watchers. We are in the region of Catalonia, perched on the north-east corner of Spain, and its capital is Barcelona.

For centuries, Catalonia has enjoyed a culture very distinct from the rest of Spain. People speak Catalan instead of Spain's main language, Castilian.

FC Barcelona's rivals are from Spain's capital, Madrid - which wealthy Catalonia resents for what it sees as unfairly high taxes imposed by a central government trying to deal with national recession, where one in four is unemployed.

Emotions in Sitges' bars and living rooms are running high, amid deeper issues beyond which team is victor in this match.

And here I am, a Singaporean on a six-day cultural and gastronomical tour of Catalonia organised by the Catalan Tourist Board. Tonight - Oct 7 - everything else is off the agenda. Human towers, vineyard visiting, sangria-slurping - all those must-dos can wait another day.

We are packed into a sports bar, where every patron clutches mugs of beer in a white-knuckled grip of anxiety and hope.

This El Clasico, as the football clash is called, comes at an especially fraught time.Recently, on Catalonia's National Day, Sept 11, hundreds of thousands of protestors marched through Barcelona demanding independence.

By the time you read this, on Nov 25, tensions will have ratcheted as the 7.5 million people in the region vote in parliamentary elections.

Some politicians have promised to hold a referendum on independence and demand the right for Catalonia to collect its own taxes like the breakaway Basques.

Catalan was independent until 1714. And 17 minutes, 14 seconds into the match I am watching, cries of "Independencia! Independencia!" reverberate across the pitch. Regardless of that, the game itself ends in a 2-all draw. People disperse quietly into the streets, disappointed.

The result could be read as an omen - an unbreakable impasse ahead. But, personally, a different metaphor comes to mind - it could also mean that both sides could approach each other, diplomatically and civilly, on an equal footing.

This trip was sponsored by the Catalan Tourist Board and


A tiny wisp of a girl, not more than eight years old, is climbing a tower with dogged determination.

Except that this is no ordinary tower. We are in Tarragona, about 100km south-west of Barcelona, and this little girl is the finishing touch atop a wobbly eight-level human tower.

My heart convulses as she somehow finds foot- and hand-holds in the crooks of shoulders, necks and arms, while her parents wait patiently (and perhaps nervously) below. Her helmet seems barely enough protection for what could be a 12m-drop onto the dusty floor of the bullring.

I am at the Tarraco Arena Plaza (Mallorca, 18, 43001 Tarragona), where thousands of locals and tourists have gathered to witness a tradition that is more than 300 years old. Its exact origins are uncertain, but some believe they come from the 16th-century folk dances of the neighbouring city of Valls.

Dozens of collas (pronounced "ko-yas"), or groups that build these human towers (castells), erect complex permutations of human towers at the 24th Tarragona Castells competition ( This competition is held every other October.

The little girl punches her hand in the air exultantly when she reaches the top, then quite confidently slithers down the vertical column of people, into the arms of her waiting mother. This all takes less than five minutes. The crowd, packed shoulder to shoulder both in the bleachers and in the arena, erupts into cheers over the blare of the gralla (a traditional Catalan reed instrument).

The spectacle is spread out over two days, with towers rising unsteadily from the ground - and sometimes crumbling into the human safety net below.

Castellers de Vilafranca, the reigning champion, eventually wins the top prize of €14,850 (S$23,300).

But Tarragona is not just home to the human tower, which has been acknowledged as an "intangible heritage of humanity" by the Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). It also boasts sturdy towers of scattered Roman ruins that have weathered empire after empire.

We go on a walking tour of the city, a World Heritage Site, which is nestled along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This region was already populated by 500 BC, and its Roman architecture ranges from a circus for horse-drawn chariot races to an amphitheatre for bloody gladiator fights.

Most of the ruins are well maintained, and many have been seamlessly integrated into modern Tarragona's architecture.

While walking through one of the city's squares, our guide from the Tarragona Tourism Board ( leads us into what seems like any other inconspicuous store selling apparel. But beneath our feet, the transparent false floor - made of what appears to be very thick glass - reveals roughly hewn stone foundations of Roman times. A peek through the glass doors of a closed bank reveals soaring arches within.

Some of Tarragona's Old Quarter is still bordered by an about 1.1km-long imperial wall - huge slabs of rock pieced together intricately by stone masons.

But while this fortress might have kept enemies at bay centuries ago, it is now a welcome spot for a stroll. En route, we bump into about 50 dogs and their owners congregating for the start of a massive dog-walk. From yappy terriers to sleek greyhounds straining at their leashes, they traipse off through the city's jumble of old and new.

Where to stay: The Hotel Ciutat de Tarragona (Placa Imperial Tarraco, 5, 43005 Tarragona, has clean, no-frills rooms. The main draw is its location. It is situated along Tarragona's main avenue, Rambla Nova - an easy 15-minute walk to the ruins of the old Roman city of Tarraco, and five minutes from the city's shopping district. Room rates start at €70 a night.


Adults-only resort on Koh Samui