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javeamigos.com | FOGUERES DE SANT JOAN DE XņBIA

BULL-RUNNING - the marmite of fiesta events
If there was ever any event determined to split opinion, it is the bull-running. Its origins have long been debated but it is thought that the practice of running in front of charging bulls developed during the 14th century when ranchers transporting their cattle to market used to try and speed up the process by hurrying their livestock along using fear and excitement. This simple practice evolved when young men would attempt to race in front of the cattle to show off their bravado. Perhaps the most famous bull-running event happens in Pamplona during the festivities honouring San Fermin in early July but the event is not limited to Spain with bull-running in Portugal, southern France, Mexico and, for 700 years, in the town of Stamford in Lincolnshire which had an annual bull-running event each November until 1837.

JŠveaís bull-running is not quite on par with the huge televised spectacle of San Fermin but it is still enjoyed by many people not just from the town but from the surrounding towns and villages. And it is not strictly bull-running in the sense that a few hundred people run alongside the animals as they charge through the streets of the town. However itís just as dangerous as the 'encierro' and remains a popular test of oneís bravado. Many people question its place in modern society, despite being a valid part of Iberian culture and tradition, seeing it as barbaric and cruel; its supporters counter with talk of upholding tradition against the anonymous tide of cultural globalisation, defending an identity and a culture. It's the marmite of fiesta events and bull-running will forever split opinion. In February 2016, after an incident at the San Sebastian fiestas, mayor Josť Chulvi announced that the 'bou embolat' and 'bou encaixonat' would be prohibited from being staged in JŠvea. In May of the same year, more than 250 people protested against the ban, despite the mayor confirming that he would not make any U-turn on his decision.

The bull event of the Fogueres Sant Joan celebrations will be the third of the year after San SebastiŠn in January and Jesķs Nazareno in April; there will be one more in late summer as part of the port festivities. The San SebastiŠn event was held around the church square in the very heart of the historic centre whilst the bulls and heifers are released in the Placeta del Convent for the Jesķs Nazareno celebrations. After the construction of the new bus station, there was much talk about the bulls remaining within the boundaries of the old town for the June celebrations but ultimately it was decided that the event would remain on the car-park in Avenida Palmela, a decision of some economic bearing as the Fogueres Commission bar takes a vast amount of money during the event, funds that help finance the Sant Joan celebrations.

The first indication of the start of the bull-running festival is the installation of the 'cadafales', the large metal cages that surround the arena. On top there is a platform to watch the action from safety whilst below there is usually room for about 20 people who squeeze between the vertical bars. Most, if not all, are privately-owned by families or groups and thus the platform above is usually private so donít be surprised if you think youíve secured an excellent position but end up being asked to leave when the owners arrive. On some occasions, you might be welcome to stay and it is quite usual for small kids to be invited up to get a better view as they are not allowed to enter the cage below. Anyone can squeeze through the bars to get a little closer to the action but you do so at your own risk and you must be very aware of 'toreros' barging through the bars to escape the oncoming horns. The cleverer cattle like to charge along the edge of the 'cadafales', sometimes running their horns along the bars like a kid with a stick along a metal fence. Most injuries occur through onlookers not concentrating, chatting with their mates or looking in the opposite direction so be very aware. Although you may see some people clutching bottles of beer, drinking is discouraged inside the arena and those who are obviously under the influence are gently led away by the stewards. The 'toreros' take the action very seriously indeed and most won't touch a drop of alcohol until after the event; after all, their very safety depends on them retaining the quick reactions. At the far end of the arena, there is a large grandstand with public seating for a few hundred people; there is normally no charge to sit there but it is strictly 'first-come, first-seated' and in the evenings it is quite usual to be filled to capacity long before the start of proceedings. During the lunch-time sessions, itís less likely to be full as it gets very hot so remember to take a hat or parasol.

javeamigos.com | FOGUERES DE SANT JOAN DE XņBIA

The Fogueres Commission will have created their own bar area from which they will serve drinks and tapas food throughout the bull event as well as the other events that take place in the same area, such as the open-air discos. Some claim that this bar could take anything up to 10,000 euros a day and, if thatís true, then itís a great boost for the dwindling fiesta funds. Service at the bar can often appear chaotic. The volunteers behind the bar are members of the organising committee and also those of the quintŗs celebrating their special anniversaries and are obliged to assist where necessary. The trick to being served is not to be patient and wait for acknowledgement from the server but to be brash, demand service straight away and wave your money in clear view of everyone. In other words, donít be English! Drinks can be taken into the cages but shouldn't be taken into the arena, although this isn't strictly enforced.

The bull event itself might be seen as an unorganised affair but there is some pattern to the perceived chaos. A rocket is usually released into the air about 30 minutes before the event, releasing a thunderous report that echoes around the town and beyond. This is the first warning that the event is about to begin; another rocket is released with ten minutes to go. Forget the programme for a moment; the rockets are a better indication that the bull-running is about to start.

Every evening, the event begins with the entrance of the animals which is more akin to a bull-running event. Several wooden barriers will have been secured along Calle Josť Ortega y Gasset; small metal rings have already been cemented firmly into the road surface to which chains or ropes are used to attach the barriers to prevent them from moving. At the far end, close to the Vicente Tena school, half a dozen or so cattle are released and they charge down the road, usually with a few braver and younger people running as fast as they can in front of them whilst many more follow on from a safe distance. The animals run into the arena, usually welcomed with a cheer from those who have already taken position, complete a circuit to determine an exit point (which is the same way they entered) and then charge back up the road to their release point. This is done perhaps three or four times before they enter the arena for the last time and the gates are slammed shut behind them; some of the wooden barriers are slid up against these gates not only for extra security but to allow spectators to clamber to the top and watch the action unfold.

Inside the arena are a number of obstacles, low platforms and wooden steps which the 'toreros' can use to escape the horns if they canít reach the cages. At one end, at the back of the grandstand, are the corrals where the animals are kept during the event. A loud bang on the door signals that a bull, heifer or cow is about to be released. At first it might seem that it's just a matter of youngsters milling about the arena, waving at the animal and then diving to safety inside the cages when it charges. However, in most cases, if you look closely at the hands of some of the 'toreros', youíll notice that they will be holding small metal rings, usually with a small length of coloured ribbon attached. Their objective is to get as close to the animal as possible to slide this ring over one of the horns. To do so attracts great applause and further enhances their credibility. Others like to get as close as possible to try and place their palm onto the head of the animal between the horns.

Perhaps one of the weirdest occasions is the 'gran cagada'. Part of the arena is marked out in a grid fashion and then a single cow is let loose. One assumes that it has been fed well for the whole concept revolves around the exact point on the ground on which the animal "evacuates" itself. There is a large sheet attached to one of the cages on which there is a grid which reflects that which has been marked out the sand. To buy a square (i.e. place a bet on which square the animal will leave a deposit) is expensive but the reward is particularly good. A modest amount of people gather in the cages around the grid; the animal is quite docile, apparently quite bored by the whole thing. As it moves slowly around the arena, an audible and excitable buzz drifts across it as the animal nears certain squares. When it does finally decide to make itself more comfortable, there is some applause, the animal is led away and a crowd gathers around the deposit to determine the correct square for the payout. All very bizarre and needs to be seen to be believed.

Safety concerns mean that youngsters are not allowed to enter the arena or even enter the cages surrounding it but they donít need to miss out on the action. The concept of the 'toros bravos' is becoming more popular, an exciting version of the bulls event in which half-a-dozen very fit lads push around a number of two-wheeled trolleys on the front of which are attached life-sized paper-machť bulls heads complete with dangerous-looking horns. Some might argue that it desensitizes youngsters against the perceived cruelty of these bull events; other counter that itís just a bit of fun. What everyone can agree on is that bull-running will long remain an event that will continue to divide opinion for many years to come.

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