In the middle of a Europe-wide heat wave, Mike and I set the alarm for 5am, and started walking by 5:30 to beat the afternoon heat of 100°F or higher. Our earliest start yet, we found our way out of the town of Los Arcos in full darkness, and covered almost 7km before sunrise.
By the time we reached Torres del Rio, we were jonesing for some tortilla and coffee. This was one of those stops where we could not find tortilla without bread to save our lives, so Mike worked some magic, and talked a bar owner into scrambling up some eggs special. I asked for four (two eggs each), but Mike raised me and ordered six.
With such an early start, we were doing great and reached out halfway point for the day at Viana by 11:00. We entered the ancient walled city through a gate topped with a warrior right out of Game of Thrones, and started to look for a good spot to take a break and rest our feet.
But less than 100 yards down the narrow, cobbled street we found ourselves in the middle of a party! Lots of little kids, all dressed identically in white with red neck kerchiefs, racing around a square, being chased by a costumed man with a huge paper maché head and a whip.
Well I’m not sure what that was all about, but it was certainly intriguing. We continued about a block further, and found ourselves in the middle of a parade! Absolutely everybody was wearing white and red, a band playing, and four giant king and queen puppets dancing and spinning in the middle of it all.
So we joined in! We followed the festivities right into the middle of town where the parade dissolved into the town square, and everyone pulled up seats at tables that filled the square and the surrounding streets from curb to curb, drinking wine and eating pinxtos. I saw a table of pilgrims we knew and Stefan from Switzerland said, “It’s the town’s feast day. And there will be a running of the bulls at 2:00!” What?!?!? Mike and I plopped down our bags, ordered a glass of wine of our own, and discussed the situation. The beauty of not booking anything in advance is that we really don’t have to stick to a schedule, right? And even though we got up early, and have only made it halfway, nothing says we HAVE to keep walking, right? And there’s going to be a running of the bulls… RIGHT DOWN THIS STREET, right? It was an easy decision. If we could find a place to spend the night, we’d stay.
All of the private hotels were full due to the fiesta, but not the pilgrims’ albergue! We were in line when they opened at noon, and had paid 8€ each for our bunks and taken showers and headed back out into the streets by 1:00. We joined the locals at a small table lining the main street through the old walled city and ordered a couple of pinxtos to sustain ourselves until the main event. My restaurant Spanish is getting better: Dos pulpo (octopus) por favor, and uno atún con cebolla (tuna and onions).
Suddenly, the excitement level kicked up a notch, and all of the tables and chairs were getting whisked away. It was pretty intimidating watching these big metal grills get dragged in to cover the doors and windows of the shops to protect them from angry bulls. We lurked at a cross street, waiting until city workers started pulling a big wooden gate closed across the intersection, then we climbed up on the gate for a front row seat!
I’ve learned a few things from my one and only running of the bulls. First, they don’t just run once, at least in a small town like Viana. They run back and forth through town several times. And…
The first time – the bull is fast! No one runs with a fresh bull. At most, the macho guys wait for the bull to run past, and then stick out a leg, or a water bottle to poke at him as he runs by.
As a spectator, you’re more at risk of getting clobbered by a man leaping the fence to escape the bull, than you are from the bull himself. Fair enough!Eventually the bull gets tired. Then men start to run with him. Only the youngest and fastest at this point…
Eventually the bull gets angry. After a few passes through town, he’s hot. And tired. And big plumes of snot are hanging from his nose. He’s not very fast anymore, but he’s willing to get distracted and ram into the crowd. Or a gate. Or a wall. Or pretty much anything.
- This is when it gets interesting. Young men run with the bull, and jump out of the way. Old men hold sheets of plywood and cardboard across the street and dare the bull to break them. Spectators leap out of the way when a distracted bull charges the fence for no good reason. (this actually happened, but I don’t have pictures. Self preservation) At this point, Mike was happy he decided not to run with the bulls.
- Finally, the clock strikes 2:30, and the poor tired bulls get to return to their pens. The town’s people grab another round of drinks to celebrate that they are still alive, and then… Siesta….