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Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Neighborhood Bar Taurino

Call it ambitious, even Quixotic, but one of my goals while living here in Valencia is to have a drink in every bar in town. I think I have another thousand to go even after all of the hard work I have put in these past three and a half years.

While never being an enthusiastic supporter I have also never condemned the corrida, or bullfighting as it is dreadfully translated in English. I have been to a fare share of these over the years and was never quite able to make up my mind on the matter, at least not definitively. I would never defend the corrida, at least not in discussions with my Spanish friends who are almost unanimously opposed to the tradition. I do, however, think that people who dismiss it without knowing the first thing about it are ridiculous. Once I was at a corrida and a young girl behind me was voicing her disdain for the event in English. I think she was German but she was with a group of international friends. I couldn’t help but interrupt her idiotic tirade by asking her why she had come. Did she expect a different result than the bull being killed? Did she think it would be miraculously saved by a deus ex machina like in a Greek drama?

Why do a lot of tourists feel that they absolutely must attend a corrida when visiting Spain? It surely isn’t essential in understanding the modern culture. Most of my Spanish friends, hell, almost all of them have never been and never plan on going. If you are visiting Spain and you even think that you may find this event to your disliking then don’t fucking go! It’s that simple. If you think it is cruel, or inhumane, or whatever, then you owe it to yourself to avoid the plaza de toros. It’s not as if you will be short of things to do and see here.

Whatever feelings I may hold for the los toros, I certainly don’t want it to end or fade away. The last thing that I want is to see Spain become a carbon copy of every other European country. I think what a lot of people find fascinating and attractive about this country is its contrasts, both within Spain itself but especially when compared to any other country on the planet.

A couple of Spanish people have recommended a bar in my neighborhood. Usually I don’t wait around for a recommendation to visit a neighborhood watering hole but this is a bit different. I had walked by Saxo countless times since moving to Ruzafa almost three years ago but it always looked like a private club. The blinds are always drawn so that you can’t see inside giving it a sort of speakeasy feel to it. The people who recommended I go there both said the food is really good but I didn’t know what sort of place it was until someone told me it was a bar taurino or a bar for corrida aficionados. There aren’t too many of these places around except in the vicinity of the Plaza de Toros.

A couple I met recently are huge fans of the bulls and we often talk about it. I have been by their house on several occasions and they seem to always be watching a corrida somewhere in the world on one of the pay channels. They invited me to their house to watch the corridas of San Isidro, an almost month-long yearly festival in Madrid. My schedule doesn’t normally allow me the luxury of having this part of the evening free (19:30-21:00) so I haven’t been able to take them up on their generous offer. Last week, however, I had an unexpected opening in my schedule and decided to try Saxo for the first time.

On this night there was a Corrida de Rejones which is a corrida on horseback. I still get chills watching this amazing spectacle. I sat at the bar among the handful of other patrons, all of whom were aficionados. A bottle of beer goes for 2.50€ at Saxo, a bit above the going price but it comes with something to nibble on: chips, or nuts, or olives, or something. It was ice cold and came with a frozen glass as well; 2.50€ well-spent in my book.

I have always had a fondness for bars with dead animals mounted on the walls and true to its reputation as a bar taurino Saxo has a bull’s head above one of the booths. There are also photos of corridas past and a poster for José Tomás, Spain’s living legend in the bullring (He was seriously gored recently in Mexico but is expected back to work in July). It reminded me of bars in rural Washington State, at least everything except the references to the corrida. The customers on this night all seemed to know each other and all attention was focused on the television. He has a hell of a good TV in the joint and the high definition coverage of San Isidro was spectacular. I settled in to watch.

I have never seen a Corrida de Rejones live before. The first time I saw one was on TV back when I first moved to Spain and they showed the corrida on regular television—now it can only be seen on a pay channel. The demonstration of equestrian skills at these events is nothing less than miraculous as the horse and rider move around the bull like a fly buzzing around a picnicker. The rider will even lean over and lay his elbow on the bull’s head—I suppose this is just showing off but I’m always impressed. In the end the bull meets a similar fate as in the regular corridas with matadors. The riders use a sort of lance to kill the bull instead of a sword.

The next time I dropped I was texting a friend to tell him I was watching San Isidro again at Saxo and I asked the owner if the proper verb for watching the corrida is San Isidriendo or San Isidriando. Usually my attempts at humor with people I don’t know here in Spain are met with dead stares but instead of looking at me for the idiot that I am he bit at my joke and went with it. He conjugated the made-up verb through various permutations. If you are looking to get on my good side you just need to laugh at my jokes.

After my third visit in about four days I was feeling like a regular. I think the only thing to do when you are checking out a place like Saxo, especially during San Isidro, is to just sit down, order your drink, and shut the fuck up and watch.

P.S. I came back a couple weeks later for a full-blown night of food and bulls with a Spanish friend who is a regular here. WE had a great dinner of tomatoes, followed by a plate of jamóm serrano, and then a sandwich. We shared a decent bottle of red wine. Saxo is now one of my local favorites.

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