- Bull Running
Stretching our stiff leg muscles, we climbed the steep steps to the top of the marina wall and followed the map the Harbour Master had given us.
We’d arrived in the Azorean island of Terceira barely an hour earlier after sailing twenty four hours from Sao Miguel. The harbour master said we were just in time for the town’s bull run.
I dressed hurriedly in my only clean t-shirt, a tomato red scoop neck and the shorts I’d worn all night, slipped on my flip flops and grabbed the camera.
“Fancy a beer?” Dan asked as soon as he caught his breath.
“Absolutely.” I answered as Dan joined the queue at a trailer selling beer.
I looked around me, soaking up the capital’s festive atmosphere when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bull charging down the road. It was coming straight for me, a hulk of beef, saliva dripping like jellyfish tentacles from its mouth. I took off at break neck speed and leapt over over a wall leaving Dan clutching two mini Sagres and a look of astonishment. I stubbed my toe and almost lost my flip flop. The bull was closing in when two men near a big steel shipping container helped me to climb onto the roof to safety. Dan was one of my saviours and heaved himself and the two beers onto the roof to join me.
I gulped the ice cold beer, barely stopping for breath. My heart thumped. Adrenalin coarsed through my veins. My breathing slowly returned to normal as I sat on the edge of the rusty container roof with a dozen others. The containers were there to protect homes and shops. Doors and windows were boarded up in readiness. Spectators stood on container roofs, leaned from windows and perched on balconies whilst others took their chances on the street running and ducking for cover when necessary. A photographer stood in a digger bucket raised aloft taking snaps. The bull was nowhere in sight.
Two loud firecrackers were set off. All faces turned to the street.
A bull, his horns covered by blunt ended metal covers, steam rising from his flanks was let loose on the road. Five men dressed in traditional costume of white shirts, grey pants and a black hat held a long rope. This was supposed to control the animal from a distance and keep it from straying past the painted white lines at the end of the street. It’s an island tradition that’s been going since the sixteenth century.
A young man, barely out of his teens pointed an open golfing umbrella at the bull to provoke the beast into charging. His plan was to get as close as possible without being gored. No attempt was made to injure the bull or even touch him. He danced in circles, twirling the red and white brolly. He stepped towards the bull, jumped to the left and then to the right. The bull charged. People scattered, clambered over walls and climbed on top of anything they could find. The beast tried to get through the hoardings by butting and bucking. He kicked the steel container I sat on. The applause and cheering increased in crescendo.
Tension increased on the rope and the rope holders were dragged after the bull. They did their best to bring the creature under control or at least slow him down. Their job is a balancing act of slowing the bull but allowing enough slack to keep the show lively.
Another firework exploded, a single crack signalling the bull’s retirement. The throng of mostly men closed around the bull and led him gently back to the pen.
I sent Dan for another beer before the double firecracker announced the release of a fresh bull. Each new bull bigger than the previous. By the end of the second beer and much umbrella antics, I was was feeling giddy. A combination of beer, lack of food and unexpected excitement took its toll. Finally, a frenzy of fireworks declared the end of the performance, but only for the day. It would all begin again the next evening, in another town or village.
Bull running can be found somewhere on the island every day from the beginning of May until the end of September. No bulls are ever harmed, but sometimes the bull gets into a house or charges into a china shop and the result is chaos. Occasionally people are injured, but rarely seriously. The bulls are strong animals and very heavy and can jump the walls you may think will protect you. Don’t rely on the rope pullers. It’s a false sense of security, They cannot pull a bull away from you, so think carefully if you want to take part in the madness and mayhem. Do NOT under any circumstances wear flip flops.