By Alexander Fiske-Harrison
First published in the New City Club Taurino magazine, summer issue 2018
Last year there were 17,920 “spectacles or popular celebrations, in which they play or run cattle according to the traditional uses of the locality”, in the Ministry of Culture’s ever elegant phrasing. These ranged from the grand encierros – which count as 8 events in this type of census – of Pamplona in honour of San Fermín, to the little sueltas – release of three year old vacas, one at a time one, down the high street into a fenced circle where the local young braves practice their cortes and recortes – in the village of Funes, population 2,000, in honour of San Isidro.
(I visited there last year at the invitation of Matt Doswett and I elected to join the three or four people sprinting the ‘straight’ in the after-dinner suelta, each time letting the vaca – and one torito – get closer and closer to my coat-tails before I dived behind a burladero at full tilt. This culminated in the only time I’ve ever been – or ever seen – a runner summoned into the street to receive a round of applause, rotating on joined feet, hand half-raised al matador, from a particularly excitable post-prandial populace.)
Unlike every other number in the world of the bulls, the number of these festejos populares is growing, up every year from 13,815 in 2013 – when reliable records begin – onwards. For comparison the number of bullfights – of all varieties – was 1,553 last year, down from 3,651 ten years before, with a mere 387 corridas, down from 953 during the same period (although at least there was one more in 2017 than in 2016!)
What is also interesting is the distribution: almost 80% of bullfights were held in a mere four of Spain’s nineteen regions – the Community of Madrid, the two Castiles and in Andalusia – over 80% of these popular festivals are also held in four, although these are – also in order – the Community of Valencia, the two Castiles and Navarre (interestingly on an internal political note, Navarre has ten times the number of such festejos as the Basque Country, and double the number of corridas.)
These numbers are extraordinary, with El Pais estimating in an article last year that 1 in 4 of Spain’s towns and cities hold an event with a res brava, an example of ‘fierce cattle’, of some description.
While it is easy to see the empirical evidence, what is far harder to understand is why. What change has occurred among the peoples of the Spanish Kingdom that getting up close and personal with a wild horned thing, or watching some other amateur do it, has become so much more popular while paying to watch trained professionals do something far more interesting with the largest and most fierce examplars of the breed has become less so?
I remember reading one taurine critic at the beginning of the decade suggesting that the excess of cheap cattle of the fighting breed may have had something to do with it, the rise of the so-called “red-brick fincas”, ganaderias founded in an attempt to gentrify new money earned during the most recent economic bubble. However, while that may explain the initial upsurge, the growth since 2013 has been during a period which the number ganaderias has decreased each year (admittedly only by 12 in total, still leaving a vast oversupply at 1,329.)
Is it the fact that these events are mainly bloodless? Has the modern mind turned away from injury and death in front of an audience – whatever else the corrida contains, it undeniably contains that – so much so that it can no longer bear to witness it? Well, in a way yes, but the real answer is subtler and more profound than this.
Each person in the Western world is responsible for dealing out far more suffering – in the form of fear in the slaughterhouse – and death through their consumption of meat than any of their far cruder and coarser ancestors. They just don’t want to see it happen.
That said, a great deal of the arguments that are used against bullfighting are also used against bull-running by animal rights groups (although many explicitly say that on the grounds of pragmatism they will happily start by getting the corrida banned, and only then go to work on the encierro that leads to it – the slippery slope of illiberalism is steeper and better greased than many realise.)
However, there is also a social and generational shift going on which in some ways is eternal, but in others is a child of the 1960s. A decade that marked the rest of Europe and the US, but took Spain a while to catch up to and which is a rebellion of youth against the deference-requiring triumvirate of tradition, ritual and status.
And what could embody that these than the world of matador, their cuadrillas – teams – and their bulls: a world of of gold, silver and leather. It was Orson Welles who first saw it when describing El Cordobés to Kenneth Tynan as the ‘Beatnik bullfighter’, and that has happened with various toreros since.
The present example of this is José Tomás’s rebellions on all fronts – not only against the normal canons of a taurine career (see Michael Wigram’s excellent and surprisingly balanced essay Tirar Del Caro, ‘Pulling The Cart’, to feel his anger on this), but also bowing to either king, God, or even the people’s modern religion, television. His combination of these defiances with his extraordinarily moving toreo, and an utter contempt for risk, mean that he makes other matadors look like mere journeymen and their choices like a form of complicity with the something old school, aka The Establishment. This heady cocktail of greater ability with his own sense of his superiority to this highly structured institution runs the risk of not only not saving the modern bullfight, as many short-sighted commentators thought, but overseeing and even hastening its demise – he comes, without Mark Antony’s sarcasm, not to praise Caesar but to bury him.
However, even these sociological musings do not exhaustively explain the increase in bull-running. One wonders in more metaphysical moments if it was Spain’s reaction to modern thinking itself. The French and Germans answered the problems of a universe in which Death exists but God does not with Existentialism, with Sartre and Heidegger. Perhaps the Spanish answer is turn their backs on all temples, even the plaza, and invite Death directly into the streets in order to play with him themselves…
Whatever the reasons, a comprehensive afición, and thus a complete aficionado, should know something of the smaller runs, just as a true lover of horses will know not just the English Grand National and the American Kentucky Derby, but all races down to village point-to-points (as well as polo, dressage and show-jumping as well.)
And where better to start than Cuéllar, the oldest of them all – suitably set in Old Castile – whose Feria of Nuestra Señora del Rosario begins on the last Saturday of every August.
Now, there is a long-standing tradition that Cuéllar’s encierro existed before the letter from Pope Innocent III, dated 1215 A.D., banning priests from running. However, this was unlikely to be an encierro as we know them today, and the particular phrasing actually refers to something more like a capea, an informal bullfight, than an encierro.
That said, they do definitely predate those of Pamplona and may well have led to them, since the Dukes of Alberquerque – 3rd to 5th – whose castle and court were in Cuéllar, were made Viceroys of Navarre in the mid-16th century, and the first records of encierros in Pamplona were at the end of the 16th, which would indicate at least circumstantially that the Duke or his men brought the tradition with them.
I first arrived in Cuéllar in 2012 and have run every year since, usually taking part in – subject to the vagaries of mood, wine and broken ribs – between one and all of five of the encierros (three with three-year-old novillos, two with full toros of four to six.)
From a runner’s perspective, it is, in the words of Texan rodeo champion and 40-year veteran of the encierros of Pamplona, Larry Belcher, “a PhD in bull-running”, one with a thesis titled, ‘Surviving The Suelto’. [Note: A suelto is a loose bull outside the herd that reacts aggressively, charging everything, as in the ring, rather than calmly trying to stay with the herd – Ed.]
It is a rare enough thing that the bulls all enter the town – guided by the 300 horses, this run includes an encierro del campo – at the embudo as a herd, and even rarer that they make it round the various corners and slopes that comprise the encierro de la calle as one. On the Avenida Toros, the straight leading to the plaza, it is not at all rare to find oneself running one suelto up the street only to find another coming back in the opposite direction.
Of course, the most impressive spectacle of all is to run the embudo itself, facing not only whatever segment of the herd of toros and cabestros is coming first, but also the escorting brigade of lancers thundering alongside them. Many is the time I’ve stood there with Jordan Tipples, Angus Ritchie and Bill Hillmann, which has been fun given the vagaries of friendship among our group of elite egos (ahem.)
It is not hard to see why the bulls so often come out of this broken down (if not outright lost, as has happened more than once.) However, when they get it right, it can produce serviceable bulls in the ring.
In 2016 I sat with Jim Hollander in that plaza and saw his – and note not only are Jim’s 50 sanfermines being celebrated in Pamplona this year, but that he grew up in Spain – first indulto, ‘pardoned’ bull.
There is no denying the matador responsible, David Mora, performed excellently – as did Curro Diáz – but also the bulls were good. So good in fact, the head of the House of Domecq – in seniority if not profit margins – the former rejoneador Álvaro came and said hello. It turns out that the bulls were descended from his own ganadería of Torrestrella, a favourite of Pamplona. Such bulls took the encierro well within their stride, did not separate and thus could not be lured to exhaust themselves on the barriers, and so came back in to the ring that evening with sufficient spirit to dance and die well, albeit with fewer tandas, ‘series’, of passes than you would find in their home town of Jerez de la Frontera.
The finest corridas to be found after encierros are – from the point of view of bullfighting – in San Sebastián de los Reyes, ‘Sanse’, whose Feria de Cristo de los Remedios often partially overlaps with Cuéllar.
On the outskirts of Madrid, Sanse has long been a post-Pamplona favourite among the Anglo-American crowd. It even has its own Foreigner of the Year celebrations – last year it was our American friend Stephen Ibarra, this year our British friend Gareth Cooper – hosted by the ‘pastor’, herdsman, Paco Sanz, who is himself Personality of the Year this year, and whose bars and restaurants are the centre of the fiesta there, Taberna El Foro and El Foro Real 52. (The other great pastor there, and a great recortador is Miguel Ángel Castander, who went one further by actually putting on my jacket first. One day, he said, the jacket will run the encierros on its own.)
Sanse is a good fast encierro around the 800 yard mark, which, although crowded by other encierro’s standards, never reaches the crowds of Pamplona, and has two other great advantages: almost everyone knows how to run, and the bulls are not required to be Pamplona size. These two facts tend produce uninjured bulls of manageable size and charge for toreros like José Maria Manzanares to turn at command and die on request with something approaching the artistic merit and beauty of the Andalusian rings.
(Speaking of toreros de arte and Andalusia, the great matador José Antonio Morante de la Puebla’s town, La Puebla del Río – a satellite of Seville – has for four years now had an encierro of novillos on the feast of San Sebastían –January 20th – with a rocket lit by the Maestro himself, ending in a portatíl – temporary bull-ring – where later a novillada is held. Next year I shall be found there without fail.)
However, for those who think the encierro is synonymous with Navarran red and white and piping and drumming, there are the encierros of Tafalla a couple of weeks earlier. A peaceful little town 25 minutes by train down the line from Pamplona, I was first brought there – with Deirdre Carney – by Victor Lombardi and Erik Whiteway on their great trip around the smaller runs of 2013. (There’s a story involving the three of us, some cattle and a phone booth in a village called Santacara which I will recount another time – needless to say the advice is don’t hide from bulls in phone booths. They have no problem with ripping them out of the ground.)
Again, Tafalla is a simple tarmac affair comparable to Pamplona but with smaller toros, there are also far fewer people than in Sanse, and all know what they are doing. However, this dearth of people and Navarran location result in crowds turning up to see recortadores but not matadores, and the smaller box-office thus pulls smaller names, and I’ve never seen a corrida there worth a damn or a dime. (This year David Mora dropped out due to injury, and his replacement, Miguel Abellán and the other matador of some note, Daniel Luque, were described by one local taurine critic as looking as though they were on a visit to the dentist when they entered the ring.)
However, what it does have right next door is a second encierro which must have the highest ratio of spectators to runners I have ever witnessed. Falces is famous for having the “run of runs”, El Pilón, a mountain goat-path down which they stampede up to a dozen full grown vacas of the now relict Navarran encaste with their long twisting horns – including those of famed Pamplona pastor Miguel Reta – accompanied by a few dozen hardy runners.
This is a run which no one in the car in which I first travelled to it – at speed, directly following the encierro in Tafalla – was willing to run, neither were any of the noted runners whose hands I shook on my way up the goat-path. The very top is where a group of older runners – a dozen maybe – who have the marks of generations in this place written upon them run the flat, escaping up-slope.
The lower section is vertiginously steep and run mainly by men far younger than my own forty years when I last joined them, trusting to their ankles not their eyes on the steep slope, no more than fifty in total, with a sheer, broken glass-sharp stonewall on their right, a hundred foot drop down the gorge on their left, and hell-in-leather running hell-for-leather behind them. It remains the only encierro that makes me feel like I did on July 12th, 2009, on my first ever encierro (with my friends the Miuras, as it happens.)
There are many other runs: I could personally speak of Estella, the encierro I ran whilst not officially even being there (a story for another time), or Medina del Campo, which also has a horseback cross-country element, and is shaped like a horseshoe so you can cut across and run twice, where I ran with the great taurine journalist, Chapu Apalaoza, the voice of the Fundacíon Toro de Lidia, ‘Fighting Bull Foundation’, with whom I am currently working in an attempt to roll back the tide of anti-taurine propaganda which one day will not just take the corridas from us, but the encierros and eventually the toros themselves as well.
Soon, I hope, I will be able to invite people to join Foundation as a friend or members in support of the bulls, but in the meantime, I can only point you to buy a copy of The Bulls Of Pamplona the book I co-wrote and edited. My co-authors include the Mayor of Pamplona, John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest, Beatrice Welles, daughter of Orson – great aficionados of both the bulls and the city – along with the great American runner Joe Distler who has run there since 1968, the Texan rodeo champion Larry Belcher who also ran there for forty years, a tactical and strategic breakdown of the run today by Captain Dennis Clancey of the 101st Airborne Division, as well as tips and pointers by the great Basque and Spanish runners like Julen Madina, Miguel Ángel Eguiluz and Jokin Zuasti, and photos by the European Pressphoto Agency – and before that Reuters – senior photographer Jim Hollander, who when not embedded in half the wars around the world ran the bulls in the ’60s and ’70s until he was put in hospital by two Miura bulls in 1977 and returned to photograph every Fiesta since.