I Ran with the Bulls

Umbrete Travel Blog

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Last weekend was a puente - a long weekend which ended up being 5 days long for me. I was looking forward to a couple of days at the beach followed by two days in Umbrete with my friend. The beach trip was cancelled so I faffed around in Sevilla soaking up the Christmas fervor. The decorations are up, lights are lit and the chestnuts are roasting on every corner.

As much as newspapers continue to report the ‘crisis’, I have yet to see more evidence than a few shuttered shop fronts. The entire city comes out to shop in the evenings, returning home absolutely laden with bags, boxes and cotton sacks holding the precious Jamon Iberica (high quality cured ham leg) for the Christmas table.

Traditionally in Spain the 25th Dec is only for the Catholic celebration, not gift giving. The Spanish celebrate the 6th January as ‘Tres Reyes’. This is the day that gifts are given to friends and family. Unfortunately the ugliness of consumerism has finally reached Spain and the 25th is now another opportunity to give ‘stuff’. Enough said (getting off my soap box now).

Regardless, I am enjoying the new experience of a ‘cold’ Christmas. It is so different from the usual concern of how to stay cool. Although it is not very cold here according to the thermometer, it is a wet cold and feels like being in the snow. My bones are freezing. I run to my letterbox every day in the hope that the merino wool shirts mum had posted are there. Not yet, but ever hopeful.

I had another experience of life in Spain during the weekend when the hot water cylinder carked it (broke down). I did not have the landlady’s number, my housemate was away and I exhausted every combination and permutation on the control panel. It was colder than the bat cave and a cold shower was out of the question for my delicate constitution. Thank heavens for my local friends who obliged with hot showers and temporary warmth until I departed on Monday.
Oh, and yes, I also had no internet. It is off more than it is on and there seems to be no rhyme nor reason. I finally thought it was sorted out later this week as I huddled in the mezzanine floor of my landlady’s flat (next door) with her while she spoke to the provider over the phone and updated the settings on my laptop. You can imagine how excited I was to have internet in my office and even my bedroom. Unfortunately it only lasted 3 days and I am now back at square one - nada!

So back to the puente. I met Amparo at the bus on Monday evening and we boarded the local bus to her village. It was a cool crisp evening and dark when we arrived. Her home is a traditional Andalusian 2-storey, 5 bed-room dwelling abutting the street. I believe it was built in the 17th Century and has the typical high wooden ceilings and beautiful Moorish colored floor tiles throughout.

We got the heating sorted out and went down the road to pick up her elderly Aunty and take her to dinner. What a treat. I was taken to Casa Rufino, a well-known restaurant, housed in a home not dissimilar to Amparo’s. The dining rooms are in the bedrooms and the original central patio is now the bar.

It is a little difficult to convey the atmosphere without explaining another curious phenomenon in Andalusia. There is an annual pilgrimage that takes place from Sevilla (and surrounding pueblos) to the aldea (hamlet) of Rocio, about 80km away. It is an ancient tradition and each May entire family groups walk and travel in intricately decorated wagons pulled by bulls. They are covered in frilled fabric, often the traditional red and white spots of the region and flower garlands. I have seen many pictures - there are now over 1 million people making the annual pilgrimage to the Church in Rocio. It looks incredible with the traditional Flamenco style dresses, immaculate horsemen and each village heralding along their own Virgin de Rocio float.

Inside the restaurant, the walls were adorned with enormous sepia photos of the pilgrimage - many from the 40s and 50s. It is certainly a sight I would like to see and now have next May marked in my calendar. Now, I just have to find someone with space in their cart or on a horse!

So dinner was great! Bountiful food and a delicious plate of local desert favourites to finish the meal.

By the time we got home it was around 10pm but too early (Spanish time) to contemplate going to bed so we did what most people do (if you are not in a local bar). We sat up at the table chatting.

The table is a special wooden one with a raised bottom shelf just off the floor. There is a circular hole in the centre of to house the brazero (electric heater looking like a kind of flying saucer). Then a heavy cloth covers the entire table down to the floor. You pull your chair close and lift up the cloth placing your feet underneath on the ledge to get all toasty. Brazeros are very traditional in the South and in former times were coal fired. Apparently there are a few fires due to the cloths catching alight. I can’t say I would recommend it bit they are incredibly energy efficient as all the heat is trapped underneath and your head stays refreshingly cool. It is a very quick way to warm up.

They next day I rose early, did my yoga and prepared for the day ahead. We started with a coffee and pastries, followed by a wander to the Church for a special mass (Dia de Immaculada). Aunt Cristina was one of the choristers. They stood up high on the second floor of the Church and the sound of hymns echoing throughout the ancient stone church was angelic. It was such a treat.

After mass we went for a little drive to the country (actually only a few kilometres out of town). Here I was shown a typical farmlet belonging to Amparo’s family. They used to grow oranges and olives but now only olives. They are the highest quality and used for table olives, not oil. As an extra treat I was given a half dozen fresh chicken eggs to take home with me! Now I will have to make a tortilla!

Lunch was at bar/restaurant Casa Ruiz, with friends from Sevilla. Plenty of seafood, jamon and a wonderful rice dish that was like a soupy paella, very traditional in winter. In this bar, there is an aging chalky blackboard behind the bar proudly displaying the number of months and days left until Rocio. It is dutifully updated daily. There must be such a sense of community with strong traditions uniting everyone year round.

Well, after lunch (6.00pm) the procession began with the brass band bringing up the rear. It took 2 hours to parade the Virgin de Immaculada around the pueblo with the entire town in tow. I have now got the gist of the processions and know how to avoid being caught in a crush in the narrow streets. By the time Semana Santa arrives in April, I will be ready to deal with the millions who descend on Sevilla for the elaborate daily processions (that last for an entire week).

After a salve in the church it was time to take our places in the plaza for the fuegos artificiales (fireworks display). Umbrete is the home to two companies supplying most of the South with displays. There is always a healthy competition to put on a good show and I was not disappointed.

Throughout the day I had heard mention of the ‘toros’ and wondered how bulls figured in this celebration. I was soon to find out as Amparo led us to the safety of a cafe as soon as the fireworks had ended. What are the toros? I asked innocently. They are toros de fuegos, was the response. Not real toros but dangerous nonetheless!

So why are we hiding in the bar when there are loads of children gathering outside? Amparo tried to hold me back inside with the wall-to-wall crush of adults but I was having none of it. I crept out into the square with the kids and a few other brave adults to see what all the fuss was about.

In the distance I could see what appeared to be a pair black legs running toward me but the torso was balancing an enormous bull-shaped contraption made of metal and sporting hundreds of fireworks set to go off and take flight at intervals. The head sported deathly horns. More deathly were the spinning fireworks flying off in all directions and bouncing off the road and buildings like tiddly winks. It was still too far away to be dangerous and I reeled off a couple of pictures as it roared toward me in the darkness. Then I noticed all the screaming kids running past me and joined in to avoid the bull!

The adrenalin was firing and I was laughing at the top of my lungs. I have not had so much fun for years. Fear and fun - a potent combination. I found a couple of nearby hiding places but unfortunately when I took off behind the church, the bull followed me! Luckily it was diverted by a bunch of teenagers and I was saved. The first run lasted fifteen minutes and by the end of it I was out of breath and having the time of my life.

I made my way back to the cafe and convinced Amparo to come out for the second bull. By now a few more adults had also decided to re-live their youth and awaited the second bull. It was just as much fun as the first and I will never forget my days in Umbrete and my run with the bulls.
I was still grinning from ear to ear on the bus home an hour later.

PS - Can you imagine this taking in your home town?
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