My Run with the Bulls

May 17, 2013

After 2 previous flashbacks about the Festival of San Fermin and The Running of the Bulls, I finally get to the meat of the matter.  Did I run with the bulls?  I wrote the following on Sunday, July 9th, 2012 as the adrenaline rushed through me…

Patrick in white pants and shirt with red scarf and red sash in fron tof the Pamplona town hall

My traditional Encierro clothes

I put on the white pants and shirt, red sash and scarf traditionally worn by Encierro runners and jogged over to the starting corral just before 7 AM.  It was filled mostly with men and a few women, many of whom had been drinking and some who hadn’t slept.  I was more worried about them than the bulls.  The runners were packed in so tightly that I was sweating, pressed up against a set of short, bearded identical twins, a dead ringer for Avril Lavigne, two bankers from London, and a drunk guy from New York.  They were all Australian.

Minutes before the start, they asked me if I was nervous, because they said I didn’t look it.  I wasn’t particularly worried, partly due to the false sense of security created by a festive crowd, but more likely a result of the focus that comes from the need for self-preservation.

I chose to start on a part of the course known as Telefonica, just past Dead Man’s Corner, to increase my chances of making it to the Plaza de Toros, the bull fighting arena where the run finishes.  At 10 minutes to 8, the gates holding us in were opened, and we could disperse along the route.  I waited on the right side of a straightaway with a lot of other nervous looking people. The cobbled street is narrow, about 5 meters wide (16 feet), with both sides lined with shops and nowhere to hide.The people around me were nervous.  They were stretching cold muscles, and hopping up and down, trying to see what was coming.  Several Spanish men were down on their knees praying.  Perhaps they knew something I didn’t.

At 8 AM the bulls were released.  I didn’t hear any rockets, so t wasn’t clear when to start running.  A first wave of people ran by and I was drawn along for a bit, but there were no bulls in sight so I stopped.  When the bulls got close it became obvious.  People were yelling and running towards me fast, with fear in their eyes.  I started running.  Hard.

The first animal went by me like I was barely moving.  I had started running on the right side but was now on the left.  There were bulls running to my right.  The runners ahead of me went down, and I vaulted over two piles of bodies.  Simultaneously looking behind to gauge the bulls and ahead to watch for hazards is impossible.  Forced to choose, I looked forward so I could stay on my feet.

As I approached the tunnel leading into the bull ring, I looked behind and to my right to see if there were any bulls on my heels.  I didn’t want to be trapped in the narrow concrete passageway with tonnes of angry, barbed muscle.  It seemed clear, but everything was happening so fast, it was hard to tell.  I sprinted forward, but was hit very hard on my left side and thrown towards the fence.  I barely stayed on my feet, didn’t dare look behind again, and raced through the tunnel into the bright light and thousands of cheering fans.

I was ecstatic.  I looked for the bulls, worried that they might still be loose.  They must all have just passed me, as they were exiting the arena on the far side.  I circled around euphorically and in shock.  Guys were hugging and high-fiving, glad to be alive.  Some fell to their knees on the sand, crossing themselves.

Suddenly a cry rang out and 3 steers burst into the arena.  I was standing near the center of the ring and they were heading straight for me at full speed.  I started to run to my left but was hit hard in the jaw and fell to the sand on my side.  I glanced up and the cattle were bearing down on me.  I was alone in the middle of the arena.  I pulled my feet under me and pushed off hard with my right leg, getting out of the way just before being trampled.

The bull fighting arena is circular, about 30 meters (95 feet) across.  It is surrounded by about 50 rows of tiered seats filled with spectators.  The ground is hand-packed, covered with a couple of inches of sand.  There were probably three hundred people in the ring, mostly young men, all high on adrenaline.  I felt the rush of emotion, but couldn’t rest for long.

Young bulls were released into the arena one-by-one, their horns covered in a thin layer of black tape which doesn’t look like it would make much difference. Each one charges into the ring trying to kill whoever is closest.  The runners try to avoid this, dodging the bull as best they can in the fracas.  This is a challenge because it is hard to see the bull until the people ahead of you split open like a school of moving fish.  Unfortunately, they don’t all shift in the same direction, making it a challenge to stay on your feet.  I moved with my arms out like a linebacker.  Twice I was almost caught by the bull, once running across its path and curling around its shoulder to avoid being skewered.

The runners attempt to touch the bull, preferably on the blunt end, in an intense free-for-all.  The people in the stands egg them on.  One brave young guy vaulted over the haunches of the bull, much to their delight.  They roar louder when someone is trampled or thrown by the bull.  After a few minutes the bull begins to tire, and a giant ox is lead into the ring by handlers for the bull to follow back to its pen.  This massive creature scared the hell out of more than one unsuspecting runner.  It would have been virtually impossible to avoid two bulls in the commotion.  After a stressful 20 minutes, the melee was finished, and we filed out of the arena.  As I write this hours later, I can still feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins.

Patrick in Encierro Costume with a dog dresseds similarly

Me with a fellow San Fermin participant

My friend Julia asked me why I wanted to run with the bulls, and I didn’t have what I consider to be a good answer at the time.  One runner I read said that people risk death here to more fully experience life.  I did it for at least two reasons…  I had set this as a goal, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I achieve an objective, more so if it is something difficult.  Another dream fulfilled.  Dream Big.  Also, it scared the crap out of me, and I find that I grow a lot when I face my fears.  Live Boldly.  Even more so when I face them knowingly, so I ran with the bulls again the next day.

Flashback Friday — this is another in a series of posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.

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Encierro — The Running of the Bulls

May 3, 2013

Last Friday I wrote about the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain.  I said that it’s famous for The Running of the Bulls (‘Encierro’ in Spanish), but left you hanging for the details.  Well here goes.

Each morning during the Festival of San Fermin, hundreds of people run with bulls along a narrow course through the streets of Pamplona.  Each morning, thousands of people line the route to watch and cheer.  Many rent an expensive spot on a balcony to get a good view.  Thousands fill the Plaza de Toros (bull fight arena) at the end of the route to cheer the successful runners.  Each morning, people are injured and ambulances cart them away.  Each morning, the event is broadcast live on Spanish television.

The fronts of 5 coloured buildings each with many balconies on the various floors, each filled with spectators

Spectators lining the balconies along the Encierro route

Every year 200 to 300 people are injured during The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.  Most of the injuries are contusions due to falls.  Since 1910, when record keeping began, 15 people have been killed, usually a result of goring when a bull’s horn pierces a runner’s lungs.  Despite a high concentration of adrenaline-high drunken tourists, only one foreigner has been killed, an American from Illinois who was gored by a bull in 1995.  There is also a high likelihood of being trampled by other runners, which can result in serious injuries if runners pile up. The worst bottleneck is the entrance to the Plaza de Toros, a narrow concrete tunnel with no cover and no escape except out the other end.  A Spanish man suffocated here in a pile of runners in 1977.

2 fences narrowing to a runnetl with red doors on the side of the arena

Narrowing entrance to the small Plaza de Toros tunnel

Bull running has a long history in Spain.  It evolved with the tradition of bull fighting, something many animal rights activists protest.  Early each morning cattle drovers would herd fresh bulls from a corral on the outskirts of town through the city streets to the bull fighting arena.  Young men started running in front of the bulls, even though it was not allowed.

Why do they do it?  Perhaps for the thrill of it?  To outdo their friends?  To prove their worth, to themselves or others?  All of the above?

“There are only three sports:  bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” – Ernest Hemingway

Runners dress in the traditional clothing of the festival which consists of a white shirt and trousers with a long red sash around the waist and a red neckerchief,   Many have been up all night.  Runners congregate in a starting corral in the town hall plaza.  Police guard the entrances and patrol on foot through the corral, removing anyone who is too drunk or disorderly, not wearing proper footwear, or is carrying a backpack or camera equipment.  Anyone over the age of 18 is eligible to run.  There are no tickets sold, and no controls of the number of runners who crowd the route.

The course runs right through the narrow downtown streets of Pamplona, the same streets where people were, until a couple of hours before, partying all night.  It is half a mile in length (826 meters) starting near the bull corral and finishing in the Plaza de Toros (bull fight arena).  It goes through four streets of the old part of the city (Santo Domingo, Town Hall Square, Mercaderes and Estafeta) and a newer section called Telefónica before entering into the bull arena.  The course is slightly uphill for most of its length and the footing is uneven, a mix of pavement and cobblestones with hazards like curbs and drain covers.  The route is cleared of people, the garbage removed, and the streets washed just before the run gets underway at 8 AM.  Unfortunately, that means that the footing is also wet and can be slippery.

Where the course is not lined by buildings, a wooden fence is erected to close off the side streets and keep the bulls and the runners on route.  The 7 foot (2.13 meter) high, railed fence allows the spectators to see the action, and allows injured runners to be dragged from the course under the bottom rail.  In theory, a runner can also climb the fence to escape a bull, but the rails are usually overrun by spectators, making this much more difficult than it sounds.

A wooden fence with heavy posts and 3 rails

The railed fence

In some sections, there is no escape.

A solid wooden fence with deep scrathes running horizontally

What do suppose made these deep gouges?

In total, 12 animals stampede through the streets of Pamplona (not including homo sapiens). There are 6 bulls which can be recognized by their darker coloring, giant testicles, air of authority, and strong desire to kill anybody who gets in their way.  In addition tothe bulls, 6 steers also run to try to keep the herd moving together in the right direction, with varying degrees of success.  The steers run every day and know the course well.  The bulls only run once.

A stuffed black bull with horns behind glass

An ex-bull

Along the course are gates that are closed after the bulls pass.  This prevents the bulls from running back along the route, which would be disastrous if people weren’t expecting it.  The gates require that runners keep up with the bulls or be barred from proceeding.

A long metal gate attached to a heavy wooden post in the open position up against the fence

Long, heavy gates along the route

The bulls are closely followed by drovers carrying long sticks.  It is there job to keep the bulls moving in the right direction.  A bull is most dangerous when it becomes separated from the herd and doesn’t know which way to run.  While it tries to figure this out, it passes the time by crushing and goring people.  Runners are forbidden from touching the bulls on their hind quarters.  This has the unfortunate side-effect of causing them to stop running and turn around.  The long sticks are not for the bulls — they are for the runners.  Anyone who touches a bull’s backside receives a slash across the chest.

A black bull standing and staring at 2 people, one trying to balance on his hands on the top of a post, and the other laying on the ground trying to hide behind the post

Lone Bull

The bulls take from 2.5 to 6 minutes to complete the half mile distance, depending on whether they stay together or not.  The average speed of the herd is 24 km/h (15 mph).  With the large number of runners participating, the uphill grade, the bad footing, and the speed of the animals, it is virtually impossible for anyone to keep up with the bulls for the entire distance.  The bulls pass or trample those who start along the early sections of the route, most of whom don’t make it to the end.  About 10 minutes before the bulls were released, the gates holding the runners are opened, allowing them to distribute themselves along the course.  If you want to make it to the end, you should take up a position along the last half of the course, preferably after Dead Man’s Corner.

The Encierro begins with the runners closest to the bull pen singing a benediction in front of the statue of Saint Fermin. It is sung twice, once in Spanish and once in Basque, “We ask Saint Fermín, as our Patron, to guide us through the encierro and give us his blessing”).The singers finish by shouting “Viva San Fermín!, Gora San Fermín!” (“Long live San Fermin” in Spanish and Basque).  A rocket is fired at 8 AM when the corral gates are opened.  A second rocket signals that all 6 bulls have been released  The rockets cannot be seen or heard along most of the route.  A human chain of police officers bars the street near the corral until just before the bulls are released.

A huge crowd on a narrow street being held back by a line of police offiers

Police line holding runners back

This ensure that the bulls get a running start in the right direction (like they really need an advantage!).  Two final rockets signal that all of the herd has entered the bull ring.  The average duration between the first rocket and the end of the Encierro is 4 minutes.

People walking in a narrow street with stone walls on both sides

The first section of the route (not during the run)

Runners try to run close to the bulls.  Although it is much safer, it is considered very bad form to run too far ahead of the bulls.  If you do this, the spectators will throw their drinks and other garbage at you.  It is called ‘running with the bulls’ after all, not ‘running where the bulls will be later.’  It is considered the best form to run directly in front of the bulls for as long as you can.  When you tire, you try to dive for the sidelines or you pay the price for your foolishness.  A wiser move is to run right beside a bull, perhaps touching it on the shoulder or back, all the time willing it to keep running, anything other than stopping to chat with you.

3 bulls stampeding down a street with runners all around them

Running of the Bulls

Encierro runners face many challenges.  Getting up early enough to get into the starting corrals before 7:30 AM.  Holding their bladders through the entire event.  Running very fast on uneven ground.  Getting close to a herd of bulls at a full sprint without getting trampled, or crushed, or skewered.  But the biggest risk of all is not the bulls, it’s the other runners who push or trip you, who fall in front of you.  The bulls just finish the job.

A bull trampling 2 men

Are we having fun yet?

Flashback Friday — this is another in a series of posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.


Climbing in Montserrat

May 30, 2012

We took a short break from our travels to meet up with our friend Lee who was in Barcelona, Spain on business.  We left the S&M Motel safe and secure in a campground in Budapest, Hungary and arranged for a taxi to pick us up there at 3 AM in order to make our 6 AM flight.  Diane and I had arranged to meet Lee at the Barcelona Airport at 9 AM where we were picking up a rental car.  Unfortunately, Lee was waiting at the Budget car rental desk at Terminal 1 while we were waiting at the Budget car rental desk at Terminal 2, but this misstep was quickly resolved with a phone call and a shuttle bus ride.

We spent our first day and night in Barcelona.  After some wine in our hotel room and a mohito at the hotel’s 360 degree rooftop bar, we headed to the tapas bar Quimet y Quimet highly rated by locals and traveling ‘foodies’.  It is small and crowded, standing room only, which is OK because there are no chairs.  The walls are stacked high with wine and other delicacies.  They specialize in tantalizing seafood, many of which have been preserved in tins.  Exceptional food.  Some of the best we’ve had in Europe.  Particularly memorable were the olives wrapped in anchovies.  A taste explosion.  My mouth is watering as I write this.

Crowded taps bar with bottle lining the walls

Quimet y Quimet

Completed food orders are passed through the crowd from the small bar area where the food is prepared. Like most tapas bars in Spain, the many small paper napkins used are discarded and accumulate crumpled on the floor throughout the evening.  We drank the house dark beer and then switched to some terrific red wine.  Afterwards we found our way to a nearby bar recommended by the woman serving us at Quimet, where we ate spicy olives and continued drinking.

Two tapas on white plate with sun-dried tomatoes, shrimp, and caviar

Amazing Tapas

Patrick and Diane standing in tapas bar with Patrick preparing to drop a white napkin on the floor

Enjoying ourselves at Quimet y Quimet

The next morning, nursing our hangovers, Lee and I ate at the hotel breakfast buffet.  Diane wasn’t ready to face a buffet, and stayed in bed until we returned.  We got packed, loaded the car, and drove about an hour to the village of Monistrol.  It is located at the base of Montserrat, a multi-peaked mountain formation that is well known as the home of Santa Maria de Montserrat, a Benedictine Abbey.  The sanctuary there is home to the Virgin of Montserrat, a statue of Madonna and child, one of the many Black Madonnas of Europe.  Diane and I had visited on a dark day last November, and were glad to see it again in better weather.

Black madonna in with gold clothing, seated with child on her lap

The Virgin of Montserrat

After a stop at the local climbing store where virtually no English was spoken, and at some local shops to get food for lunch, we drove up the winding road to the parking area, then caught the Funicular de Sant Joan (a funicular railway) up to the top of the mountain.  From here it was only a short walk to the base of the Gorros, a series of small peaks made of the pink conglomerate rock found throughout Montserrat.  We started to climb the 5-star route Bandalona on Gorro Frigi, but soon lost the line and ended up finishing on Opera Prima.

Lee wearing shorts, t-shirt, and white helmet balancing on side of Gorro Frigi

Lee climbing on Gorro Frigi (photo credit: Diane)

The climbing in Montserrat is predominantly face climbing, where purchase is gained on the many small rocks that appear to be stuck into the rough surface of the peaks.  The other climbers nearby were a group of young people from, of all places, Newfoundland.  They complained bitterly about the runouts between protective bolts, despite the fact that the routes on the Gorros are considered to be the most well-protected of Montserrat’s notoriously run-out climbs.

Small climber in the middle of a large grey wall

Patrick Climbing on Gorro Frigi  (Photo credit: Diane)

After 5 pitches we reached the top then climbed down the back side to join Diane who was waiting for us near the base.  After a celebratory beer, we walked down to the Monastery the long way, via the climber’s refuge at Saint Benet (another climbing area here).  There we met the refuge guardian Angel (not the kind with wings, but a real man named ‘Angel’ whose job is ‘guardian’ of this climber’s hut), who tried to be very helpful despite his limited English.  He told us that there are over 6000 climbing routes on the peaks of Montserrat, with only about 5000 published in one guide book or another.  A lifetime of climbing within a few square kilometers.

The next day we decided to climb El Cavall Bernat, a huge free-standing needle that is the symbol of the area.  This monolith, standing over 700 feet tall, is a test piece, a right of passage for local climbers.  All those who climb it are considered members of Grup Cavall Bernat, an honorific climbers club founded in 1978 whose sole requirement for membership is having climbed the peak.  We chose to climb the most stunning profile of the mountain known as Punsola Reniu.

Large grey tower with orange line showing our route

El Cavall Bernat with Punsola Reniu route marked.

We got a late start since breakfast at our Hostel Guillemes, per the Spanish schedule, was not available until 9 AM and afterwards we needed to buy some food for lunch.  By the time we drove up the mountain to the parking area, racked our gear, and completed the steep hike to the base (about 45 minutes), it was late and it was hot.  We were baking in the sun as we started to climb around 1 PM.  I backed off the first pitch, not confident in my psych having not climbed outdoors in almost 2 years.

Climber part way up tower with rope running, up as viewed from base of tower

Patrick on the first pitch. Notice how steep the upper pitches are!

Lee was a rock star.  He led and we made short work of the first 3 pitches, gaining on the party of 2 who were high up on the face above us, the only other people visible.

Climber in sunshine approaching the top as viewed from the summit

Patrick on the last pitch of Punsola Reniu

By pitch 3 we made it into the shade, a welcome relief from the heat of the afternoon.  The difficulty of the climbing and the steepness of the route both increase steadily.  The final pitch leaves the belay station, turns a corner, and requires mandatory free climbing to the summit which is adorned with a statue of the Madonna and Child.

Metal status of Madonna with child on concrete base on the summit

Madonna and Child on the summit

Patrick on left in blue jacket with orange helmet. Lee on right with red jacket and white helmet.

Patrick and Lee on the summit!

Diane spent her day wandering the small town and enjoying lunch out.  After rappelling off the summit and completed the long down climb and hike out, we showered and then joined her for dinner at the same bar in the town square that we’d eaten at the night before.  Spanish beer with calamari, cockles, meatballs, potatoes, and bread.

On the morning of Day 3 we changed to a different hotel as our room was no longer available.  The next hotel wasn’t nearly as nice, but it was cheaper.  Lee and I rode the funicular up and climbed Magdalena Superior, another one of the Gorros peaks.  Another spectacular line of increasing difficultly and a great top out.  We rappelled the route and were back to the hotel before Diane, who we learned afterwards was getting her hair done at a local salon by a young woman who spoke almost no English.  Diane said she used a lot of hand gestures and pointing to communicate, which seemed to work well because her hair looked great.

That night we ate at the hotel’s restaurant.  Diane chose it after hearing from several local sources that it was good.  We shared a fine dining verison of patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy tomato sauce that translates as ‘wild potatoes’) and a succulent appetizer platter followed by an amazing pan of lobster paella.

On our last day of climbing, Lee and I still had the energy to climb a via ferrata (translates from Italian as ‘the iron way’), a style of climbing where the route is augmented with cables or rungs to make the climbing faster and safer.  The first such routes were established to allow troops to move through the Alps more quickly and safely.  Teresina ascends Sant Jeroni, the highest peak of Montserrat.  It was great to climb so quickly and freely and to finish by pulling over the railing of the viewing platform that hikers can only walk to.

The next morning we caught an early flight back to Budapest.  A very enjoyable 5 days.  It was great to be climbing again, especially in such a spectacularly beautiful location.  The warmer weather was fabulous; we haven’t had much so far this trip.  It was terrific to climbing with my friend Lee and to complete some outstanding routes, each of which topped out on a different peak.  A wonderful getaway during our extended travels.


A Room with a View (Guest Post)

January 20, 2012

The following is a guest post from Martin of the S&M Motel.  Thank-you Martin!  This is Martin’s second guest post on DreamBigLiveBoldly.com.  If you’d like to be a guest contributor, please contact me.

——————–

There’s a niche in the corner of King Charles’ palace in Alhambra, Spain, where you can look across an 800 year old building void, through some Moorish lattice work, into another world.

Alhambra, (Arabic meaning ‘The Red’) sits on a hilltop overlooking modern Granada in south-eastern Spain. This famous city fortress palace has a thought provoking history.

In 312 AD Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity throughout the Roman Empire (i.e. most of present day Europe). By 390 AD Christianity was the only religion permitted in the empire. However, the 1000 year old empire could no longer sustain itself against external attack and internal decay.  In 476 the last Roman emperor sold his title and moved to his retirement home in what is now Split in Croatia.

The collapse of the Roman Empire left much of Western Europe without education, civil construction projects, employment, economic activity, law enforcement and, crucially, defence against attack.

One hundred years later, the tide of Islam that had been sweeping through northern Africa crossed the straits of Gibraltar into a vulnerable Spain. The invaders were ‘Moors’, relatively recently converted Muslim tribes from north Africa . They quickly occupied virtually all of Spain and stayed in charge for 700 years.

Alhambra architecture reflected in rectangular pool

In about 1250 the Moors began to build the fabulous fortified palace, Alhambra. For 200 years the palace grew in splendour; every inch of the staterooms, private apartments and bathing complexes was decorated with intricate carving, ceramics or gold leaf. Water features were installed everywhere. The latest technology was utilized to provide stunning pools, decorative fountains and cascades woven into stairs and walkways.

Mosaic of coloured tiles separated by white bands with small starsAn important aspect of Islamic art is its abstract nature. Muslims avoid images of people in order to avoid creating ‘graven images’ which are forbidden by their religion. As a result, abstract patterns using bold colours and shapes decorate the walls, ceilings and floors of Alhambra. These striking and original ceramics have inspired artists down through the centuries.

The period of Muslim rule in Spain is known for tolerance and cooperation between the three religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity). However, outside of Spain, the Christian world was not terribly happy with this state of affairs, and began to re-take Spain for their own faith.  Alhambra fell to Christian forces in 1492, ending Islamic rule over Spain.

The Catholics were now in charge at Alhambra.  The first thing the Catholic King (Charles the 5th) did was to build himself a palace within the existing complex.

Did Charles have his palace sympathetically placed among the Moorish architecture? Was he magnanimous in victory? Did he want to leave the previous palace complete for future generations to admire and learn from? Not really. He built his new palace right across the old one cutting off an entire wing, leaving just the façade of the south wing standing beside the central pool of the old Moorish palace.

In 1922 the artist M C Esher visited Alhambra and, like others before him, was inspired by the Moorish abstract ceramics. Escher’s art explores the space between objects. Characteristically he would fill a space between repeated images to form another series of repeated images, challenging the viewer with a choice of which series of objects to focus on.

Escher abstract with grey, white, and black repeated images

A sample of Escher's work

The viewer has to decide what to look at, the primary objects or the space in between which holds a significance of its own.

Today there is an exhibition of Esher’s work installed in King Charles’ palace. In the corner of the exhibition is a niche for those inquisitive enough to duck through its darkened entrance. In the far end of the niche is a window with a view into the building void between King Charles’ palace and the rear of the surviving south façade of the old palace. Through the lattice work in the façade can be seen the sunlit grandeur of the surviving Moorish architecture.

Looking across the void prompts thoughts of the time and space between the Christian and Muslim worlds, between medieval and modern Europe — thoughts of history, power and politics. It’s an interesting place to sit.  I’d recommend it.

Happy New Year!

S&M


El Gato Con Botas

January 14, 2012

We arrived in Madrid in mid-afternoon and booked into the only open campsite near the city. Although it was later in the day, it was only a short walk and metro ride to the center of the city. We arrived at the Plaza del Callao station after dark and ascended into a crowd. There were lots of people and bright lights. As our eyes adjusted, we saw a crowd barrier cordoning off a movie theatre that opened on to the square. Curious, we responded to that intrinsic human instinct to see what all the fuss is about, and made our way forward through the crowd. We were able to get within a few feet of the barrier with only a couple of people in front of us. Only then did we piece together what was happening.

Large screen above Cines Callao showing advertising for Madrid Premiere WeekWe had arrived in the midst of a movie premiere, part of the Madrid Premiere week. The crowd was gathering in anticipation of the stars walking the red carpet, which was right in front of us, just on the other side of the barrier. Television crews were forming up on the other side of the carpet.

Male & female flamenco dancers poised to begin a number on the red carpet

Flamenco dancers warming up the crowd

To keep the crowd entertained and the energy up, a large screen high on the front of the theatre showed clips from the movie. Music played on loudspeakers. Costumed characters from the movie walked the red carpet. Two flamenco dancers performed periodically. It was lively, but we really had no idea what to expect. As we waited we were able to sidle closer, within arm’s reach of the barrier, but still not at the front.

The film was in Spanish so we figured the actors were probably not ones that we knew. Beautiful and interesting people in fine clothes started to arrive to the great interest of the media and excitement of the crowd, which began jostling about and pushing forward for a closer look. I didn’t feel comfortable mounting the person ahead of me, so I tightened my core and held my ground, holding back the people behind me. After a while, my calves began to burn as they resisted the leverage caused by the steady pressure from behind. By the time the main stars arrived, I was almost cramping. Who knew that star gazing would be such a workout!

It turns out we were wrong about not knowing the actors. Walking down the aisle, flirting with the flamenco dancer, came Antonio Banderas. He was taking his time, talking to the crowd and signing autographs.

Antonio Banderas with flamenco dancer on red carpet

Antonio Banderas flirting with flamenco dancer

Despite his short hair, which isn’t his best look, Diane was ecstatic.

Close up of Diane in crowd looking at Antonio

Diane did NOT approve this less than flattering picture!


She was close enough to touch him. A woman passed her camera forward to Diane, asking her to take a picture of Antonio..

Antonio Banderas on red carpet

Following closely behind Antonio was another star that I almost overlooked in the excitement. Salma Hayek waltzed down the carpet gracefully. Though not as flamboyant and crowd pleasing as Antonio, she looked beautiful.

Salma Hayek walking the red carpet with her handlers

Salma was harder to get a good picture of because she is vertically challenged!]

Head shot of Salma Hayek bing interviewed by young reporter

If you haven’t guessed it by now, the movie being premiered was El Gato con Botas 3D. This literally translates from Spanish as ‘The Cat with Boots’, but is known in English as Puss in Boots.

El Gato Con Boas advertisement showing on screen above the theatre

This unexpected little adventure was complete in less than 2 hours. As soon as the stars entered the theatre, the crowd dispersed and we moved on to enjoy an evening promenade through the town squares followed by tapas and wine for dinner. When traveling, one never knows when something interesting is going to happen. It’s great to be open to the opportunities that present themselves and to enjoy what life brings my way.

Mascot of El Gato Con Botas on the red carpet having his picture taken

El Gato con Botas himself!


Flamenco

January 3, 2012

Flamenco and bull-fighting are perhaps the two biggest symbols of Spain, the things that come to mind when people think of this country.  We knew that we wanted to experience flamenco, as most tourists do, and saved this event until the city of Seville in the south of Spain, the Andalusian region where flamenco originated.

After purchasing our tickets the night before, we arrived at the small Los Gallos theatre early to get good seats.  The maximum capacity is 120 people but this being a night in early December with the 2011 Davis Cup tennis tournament on television (happening right here in Seville), the audience was small, only about 20 people.  Our waitress told us that if it wasn’t for the tennis, there would be almost no tourists in town at this time of year.

The room was simple.  A small stage, about 5 meters wide by 3 meters deep.  On it, 3 wooden chairs with wicker and an anvil standing in the rear corner for decoration.  On the back wall of the stage was a course painting of a cock fight in red and black.  At the left rear of the stage, a tiny twisting staircase disappeared upwards.

We ordered Sangria, sweet and fruity, the first we’ve had in Spain, which sat on the little table in front of our small and closely packed seats.  They were lightly padded and comfortable enough given that there was nobody on either side of us due to the small crowd.

The lights dimmed.  A guitarist and two male singers dressed all in black took the stage.  It began with just guitar, only rhythm, with the strings muted.  Soon the men started to clap a tightly controlled rhythm, like a syncopated metronome.  Every clap was sharp, clear, and precise.  They emphasized certain beats by tapping or stomping their heels on the wooden floor. The guitar began to ring, alternating between pulsing strums and fast picking, always keeping to the cadence of the hands and the feet.

A beautiful young woman descended the stairs.  She was dressed in a long, green dress, tight down to the hips, then extending in a cascade to a ruffled train of over a meter.  She raised her hands in the air, assumed a striking posture, and began to move.  She was very controlled at first, with the smallest of arm movements and tiny pulses of feet barely visible beneath her dress.

Flamenco dancer in green dress on stage with singers in background

Her hands were posed, her fingers long and painted.  They transitioned meticulously from one beautiful position to the next, moving about her wrists independently.  Occasionally, her fingers would snap in rapid succession, as if she had more fingers and more snap than normal.

As the music grew, she moved across the stage, twisting and turning, always maintaining a strong stance.  Her posture was exaggerated and dramatic yet continously appealing, like an athlete transitioning powerfully from one elaborate model’s pose to the next.  With curved back, extended leg, and raised arms she seemed like lion about to pounce.  Her dress swung about her, not haphazardly, but carefully managed through a series of kicks and spins.  Sometimes the full train wrapped around her feet tightly yet she always extricated herself gracefully.  Her face changed expression to match her movements.  Sometimes so strong as to appear angry and intimidating, the next playful or warm or contented.  Her carriage, poise, and attitude exuded passion.

Flamenco dancer in green dress twirling (blurry image)

The singers grew louder.  Their voices were strong, sometimes surprisingly so, and they pushed the pitch higher, straining each breath to the end in a plaintive wail, an aching cry tinged with longing and desire.

The rhythms were complicated in structure, mesmerizing in effect.  The performance was elegant and controlled yet shocked by periodic explosions in the dance, or the rhythm, or the voice.  It gradually built towards a crescendo.  The result was powerful, exotic, and passionate.

The other guitar players, singers, and dancers were equally impressive and enticing.  We were entranced and would highly recommend this experience.

Flamenco dancer in red dress with two singers and two guitar players in background


Christmas Festivities – Spanish Style (guest post)

December 23, 2011

The following is a guest post from Martin of the S&M Motel.  Thank-you Martin!  This is also the first guest post on DreamBigLiveBoldly.com.  If you’d like to be a guest contributor, please contact me.

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We are temporary inhabitants of the S&M Motel and I have so enjoyed the blogs from Patrick that I thought I would let you know what’s going on in Spain as the festive season approaches.

Like most places in the world with a Christian tradition, the towns and cities of Spain are becoming illuminated with decorations. Abstract swirly things suspended from lampposts, LED animals tethered to the roadside verges, along with traditional Christian and secular symbols (e.g. stockings, Santas and sleigh bells).  Nothing unusual there.

However. there is a tradition in Spain of building and displaying Beléns (Belén is Spanish for Bethlehem).  They look like an expanded version of a nativity scene. Their central focus is a tableau of the stable and its inhabitants, but from there the scene expands in time and space. Scenes depicting Gabriel telling Mary she was expecting, Herod’s edict to slaughter the innocents, the flight to Egypt, and Jesus at the temple are all somehow woven into a kitsch cardboard and plastic, seemingly fairly inflammable, toy town construction.

Municipalities compete for the grandest Belén.  In Malaga the city hall is open to the public.  Their 10 metre long Belén, guarded by the police, is admired by streams of people filing in to admire the display. This is not just for kids.  The crowds include courting couples, businessmen, and elderly people, photographing and discussing the arrangement of the little town (literally) of Bethlehem.

The 10 metre Belén in Malaga City Hall

The 10 metre Belén in Malaga City Hall

Beléns are big business.  Every home should have one. Stalls sell figurines, prefabricated stables, watermills, bushes, trees, and anything else you can imagine (and some you can’t) to build a mega model nativity. The most bizarre figure we saw for sale was a Boxcar Willy lookalike on a rocking chair peeling an orange. There are grown men out at night hunting through hundreds of shepherds, Marys, baby Jesuses, camels, wise men, and carpentry shops for the perfect addition to their own private Beléns.

Close up of Belén Figurines

Belén figurines, individually priced and ready to go!

The other odd thing about continental European festivals — I make the distinction because we are from a bit of Europe that happens not to be on the continent — is the liberal detonation by children of street fireworks. I don’t know what happens in Canada, but in the old country one has to hold a special licence, have a safe piece of ground separated from the public, and have a damn good reason to let off any pyrotechnic device, let alone the cheap Chinese ones thrown around by the children of the continent.

These things (the fireworks not the children) are for sale from street market stalls that also sell other festive novelties, for example, father Christmas costumes for dogs, fake dog poo (always a crowd pleaser), and the ever popular self-inflating whoopee cushion.

Although some of these novelties are taken home and presumably treasured by generations to come, many of the fireworks are for instant use. The kids are bought bags of sweetie-looking whizzers, rockets, bangers, and buzzers (along with a novelty cigarette lighter) by doting parents and immediately set to the task of lighting and throwing them as quickly as possible. The streets are littered with discarded wrappers and spent casing. Some older people object, particularly in the case of shock or injury, but it doesn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm for the sport among the young.

One can only wonder at the number of times that a wayward firework has resulted in the devastation of a lovingly created Belen…… still they all seem to be having a merry time, bless.

Have a safe Christmas,

S&M