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Monday, July 14, 2008

Bous al Carrer

(Valenciano for “Bulls in the street.”)

After watching the encierro every morning for almost a week on television, and unsuccessful in my attempts to talk anyone into going to Pamplona for the final days of the San Fermín Festival, I opted for the next best and closest thing. There is another week-long festival in the small town of Picassent just a few kilometers south of Valencia. Every day during the Picassent festival there are bulls running around in the streets in one section of the town, religious processions, and lots of food and drink—this is Spain, after all. It wouldn't be quite the same thing as San Fermín, something of a much lesser magnitude, but Picassent is only a twenty minutes from Valencia. Instead of buying a plane ticket for Pamplona I just needed to pull my metro card out of my wallet.

There are dozens and dozens of these bull festivals in villages throughout Spain during the months of summer. Most are not really geared to stimulate tourism, something we noticed immediately in the almost-empty Saturday night train to Picassent. Once we stepped off the train the festival seemed to be in full swing with bar patron spilling out into the street. Most of the festival revelers were soaking wet from being hosed down in the square a few minutes before we had arrived and no one seemed to notice a few tourists who seemed to have got off the train in Picassent by accident. As far as I could tell, we were the only out-of-towners at the festival on this evening. In Valencia I feel that although I may not exactly fit in, I also don't stand out like a sore thumb. Here in Picassent I felt as if I had lost all of my camouflage.

It only took us two beers in two bars to find our way to the section of town where they let the bulls loose. One quadrangle of the town is enclosed in heavy iron gates to keep the bulls in and allow people to escape. The festival had not begun because there were very young children walking around inside the closed area, as well as old folks sitting out on lawn chairs. Still, I was a bit hesitant to climb through the bars and walk around. I kept an eye on all of my escape routes should I happen upon a mad bull or any other sort of threatening livestock.

There are bars and restaurants inside the enclosed area with iron gates and wooden barriers protecting the customers. It's like this entire part of the village is one big shark cage. If I remember correctly, in the movie Jaws the shark bit through the cage like an impatient kid unwrapping a Christmas gift. Not only did I want heavy bars between me and any crazy bull, I also wanted to be on the second floor looking down. There are elevated grandstand areas where people can sit and watch the events which fell right in line with my safety demands. Unfortunately, I didn't see any place to buy a high-powered rifle so I felt like my security was still a bit incomplete.

They let the bulls out into the street one at a time. The bull would run around the square while a few of the braver (or more foolish) of the participants dodged the animal as it galloped past. After a while they would bring a steer out into the street to calm down the bull and then lead it back into the corral. I had brought a cigar along with me, and like at the corrida, this seemed like an ideal place to light up. I am always self-conscious about blowing smoke around so I left the safety of the second story bleachers and climbed down to street-level to light up. At first I stayed inside the barriers but the bull only came by once in a while so I stepped outside into the street. I know that smoking the occasional cigar has its risks but I would have never thought that two of those risks might be the horns attached to a 1,000 pound bull. There were lots of people outside the gates after the bull passed but then I could see the crowd splitting in two as the bull made its way back toward this area. I tried to make may way back inside the bars with as much dignity as possible but that is a bit difficult when you are screeching like a teenage girl in a slasher movie. Smoking can be hazardous to your health.

Back in Valencia later in the evening, I was talking with some Spanish friends about the festival. I stole a joke from Caddy Shack when someone asked me if I had run out in the streets with the bulls. I said that I had wanted to run with the bulls, as I pointed to my knee and winced as if in pain from an injury, but that I couldn't because I was a big coward. I don't think these people had seen the movie so this got a good laugh.

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