Travel

Running with the bulls and the bullish in northern Spain. By Matthew Clayfield.

Bullfighting without matadors in northern Spain

An amateur bullfight during the Carnaval del Toro, in Ciudad Rodrigo, earlier this month.
Credit: AFP

Angus “The Scottish Rocket” Ritchie is giving me advice. “If I’m behind you when you look back, that’s good. If you see me ahead of you, that’s very bad.”

We are standing on Calle Madrid in Ciudad Rodrigo, looking down towards the town’s makeshift bullring, where a capea, or amateur bullfight, has just ended.

These are not the most refined affairs. But then people who come to Ciudad Rodrigo don’t exactly come for art. They don’t come to contemplate death, as García Lorca might have had it. They come to play with death, to tempt it.

This initially comes as a shock to those whose understanding of Spanish bullfighting is based solely on the modern corrida, with its emphasis on stillness and its sense of tragedy. But this is a relatively recent phenomenon and was born in Seville and Ronda in the heart of Andalusia, well to the south of here. The north is where one comes for a glimpse of a cruder, more primeval iteration of Spain’s relationship with the bulls.

One of its oldest elements is the encierro, which translates literally as the corralling of bulls, though we know it better as “the running” of them. My first desencierro – a bull run leading the animals away from the bullring at the conclusion of a capea – is about to begin.

I am trying not to look at the place on Angus’s neck where, two days ago, a bull’s horn grazed the skin along his jugular after he slipped while leading the bull through the ring. I am trying not to think about the 21-year-old Puerto Rican – dressed, I am sorry to say, in a cow costume – who received 25- and 40-centimetre horn wounds when he was gored by a bull moments later. The bell above the town hall begins to ring.

“When you get through the arch, get out as quickly as you can,” Angus says in his thick Glaswegian accent. He has run more than 75 encierros in towns and villages all over Spain and is the one who invited me here.

“I’m going to get out before the arch,” I say.

“I think you can get through it,” he says.

“I don’t think I can,” I say.

Before we have time to discuss it any further, the ringing of the bell speeds up and three steers appear at the bottom of the street. These enormous animals are used to help herd the fighting bulls and are not usually dangerous themselves, though they have already knocked someone unconscious during the course of this year’s festivities.

“It’s just the steers,” I say to no one. “It’s just the steers.”

But behind them – in fact, attempting to get around them on their right side – three smaller, faster and much angrier fighting bulls suddenly come into view.

We run.

Pamplona’s eight encierros during the yearly fiesta of San Fermín remain the most famous in the world. But they are only eight of many. There’s Cuéllar in Castilla y León, where hundreds of horsemen drive a herd of fighting bulls across the plain every morning before runners pick them up at the edge of town. There’s San Sebastian de los Reyes, Valdemorillo, Tafalla and countless other tiny pueblos that Hemingway never wrote about and that remain virtually unspoiled by tourism as a result. They don’t only occur in Spain, either. Saint-Sever in France holds its own yearly bull run as well.

And then there’s Ciudad Rodrigo, 89 kilometres south-west of Salamanca and 25 kilometres from the Portuguese border, where every year, at the end of winter, no fewer than 11 runs take place over the course of a mere four days.

We arrived in town on the first evening of the Carnaval del Toro and made our way up into the old city. The long rectangular bullring that the council sets up in Plaza Mayor, the town’s central square, was already a hive of activity in anticipation of the midnight capea that kicks off the festivities.

Harking back to the days when bullfights were held in such plazas, rather than in specially made venues, this bullring is a remarkable monstrosity. Constructed out of what appear to be random planks and wooden poles, like the nest of a giant stork, it looks as if it could come tumbling down were one to remove a single piece.

We joined the hundreds of people skirting about in the half-light beneath the bleachers, ducking in and out of bars and cafés with entry ways lit by fluorescent tubing rigged up hastily on the underside of the seats. Eventually we climbed up one of the various stepladders, several litres of cheap wine in tow. The carnaval’s schedule includes two corridas, two novilladas (bullfights for aspiring bullfighters who have not yet achieved the full rank of matador), one performance by professional recortadores (athletes who dodge and leap over bulls without using capes or swords) and seemingly countless capeas.

These latter events are free and, as such, are among the most popular at the carnaval. They are also free-for-alls: amateur bullfights in which locals, armed with jackets, coats, homemade capes, and occasionally even umbrellas, jump into the ring to try their luck.

While one occasionally sees flashes of brilliance in the capeas – a beautiful pass here, another one there – this brilliance is never sustained. Either the man runs away before attempting a second pass, or else one of the other hundred people in the ring distracts the bull and prevents the amateur from generating any sort of rhythm. For those who believe that only beauty can redeem the Spanish bullfight of its inherent cruelty, the sense that the bull is vastly outnumbered and is simply being teased quickly becomes tiring.

Which is not to say that respect for the bull was nowhere to be seen during the carnaval. The most moving experience of the week revealed true afición.

A bull was dead in the street. A group of men stood around it, shaking their heads. They said it had died of a heart attack during the morning’s encierro, which had lasted nearly two hours. They said the sound its head made when it hit the cobblestones was dull and terrible.

We looked down at its eyes, which were still open, and at its legs, which were black and stiff. A young man came up and grabbed one of the bull’s horns, using it to test the weight of its head. An older man slapped the young man’s hand away and chastised him. People with cameras and iPhones were similarly reprimanded.

We followed a tractor up along the street to the old walls of the city centre and watched as it lowered its hydraulic backhoe to pass beneath the too-low arch that led to Calle Madrid and the bull. Someone had covered the animal’s body with a tarp by the time the tractor arrived. Another young man, more respectful than the previous, made sure the bull’s tail was safely tucked into the tractor’s loader before everyone backed away.

The tractor made a three-point turn and began to return up the street. It raised its loader high above the cabin, as though making a kind of offering to some god, and we followed it out the way it came in, in a strange but reverential funeral procession.

Now I am running in that procession’s wake.

The first time I look back, Angus is between me and the bulls. The second time I look back, he’s still there, but much closer. I don’t look back again. Turning now would only slow me down.

Plaza Conde comes up alongside me on the left, people crowding the barriers but with enough room for me to squeeze through. I aim for a gap in the railings and begin to veer towards it.

I cannot hear the bell anymore. I cannot hear the crowd. I cannot hear my blood thumping in my ears like they say you’re supposed to in a moment like this. But I can hear Angus, seemingly right beside me now, which means the bulls – and, more important, their horns – are closer to me than they’ve ever been.

“Keep going!” he cries. “It’s very dangerous!”

The archway is coming up fast now.

We run.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 15, 2014 as "Taking life by the horns". Subscribe here.

Matthew Clayfield
is a freelance foreign correspondent.