Fogueres de Sant Joan Fiesta in Xabia, Spain

Zagan the motorhome is still baking hot, even after a blast 255 km north along the Spanish coast to Camping Los Pinos (N40.37851, E0.38884), another ACSI discount card site just outside Peniscola. There’s a chap going around the site hosing down pitches and footpaths in an attempt to make it cooler, but they are dry within a minute and the mercury rises again. Thermometers at pharmacies along the route here ranged from 32°C (ones in the shade) to 42°C. Other than thermometer watching the drive, mainly on free motorway, gave us views of paddy fields, orange trees and ladies of the night.

los pinos camping in Peniscola

We spent a couple of days in Xabia keeping as cool as possible under the canopy shade while temperatures in the sun were enough to make you think you’d dipped your foot into a scalding hot bath. Charlie is taking it all in his stride now, after having had his fur trimmed. That said we are constantly keeping him cool with showers, wet towels and cool cucumber, water melon and bits of ice to munch on. It is actually lovely to hear him snoring loudly, because we know he’s cool enough and catching up on his 20 hours of sleep a day.

We paid for the campsite wifi for a day and got a few bits of admin done – uploading some new videos onto our youtube channel, sorting out our motorhome insurance which is due for renewal at the end of the month, signing up for a half marathon (Ju only!), and booking the ferry home. What?! Yes, we’re heading home for a while. Apart from 20 days last November, we’ve been away January 2016. My hair has now grown back to a suitable length after having it shaved for charity, and we fancy a summer in the UK seeing family and friends.

Xabia old town

After chatting with James and Sue the other night when James mentioned that there would be a fiesta in town over the next few days, which included fireworks and bull running, I braved the heat and walked to the tourist information to find out more. Regular readers of this blog will know that despite being on the road for around eighteen months, we rarely time things right when it comes to festivals. All too often we arrive somewhere to see the aftermath of what looked like it was a great party the night before. We really should plan better and arrange to be in places at the right time, but I doubt we’ll ever learn. On the plus side though it did make the Champagne festival in Epernay and the Father Christmas world record attempt all the more special, because we had stumbled upon them.

At the tourist office I looked for information, a poster, any sort of clue as to what would be taking place, but among all the glossy brochures and leaflets there was nothing. As we discovered over Easter, when we were house sitting in Valle de Abdalajis, you may find a poster letting you know that a parade or festival will take place between certain dates, but there’s no more detail. Back then I asked why this was, and the chap at the tourist office said they didn’t need to publish any more information as everyone knew what would take place, where and when. I think it was the same here in Xabia, and in many other towns and villages across Spain, the event is for the locals and they don’t need to know where to go or when it is as it’s the same every year. I think back to the local annual Bonfire night celebrations that we have in the UK, I doubt that our town would want a coachload of strangers wandering around our get together either.

The lovely little market in Xabia

Back at the tourist office I used my best Spanish and ask at the counter for information. A photocopied piece of A5 paper is handed over with details of the Fogueres de Sant Joan – the fiesta of the bonfires. The fiesta enjoys the maximum participation from the town’s inhabitants as they belong to neighbourhood associations called “peñas” and all fill the streets to participate in the traditional parades with carriages, flower offerings, firework displays, bonfire jumping and “bous al carrer” bullrunning.

I’ve never wanted to see a bull fight, I know it’s a huge Spanish tradition which has divided the country, with some areas like Catalonia banning it (only to have the ban overturned by the Spanish constitutional court!). I’m the first to admit that I don’t know all the details of what happens, but I can’t stand the thought of the bull being tortured and killed. To me bull running was a different thing, but all I knew about it was what I had seen on Top Gear when Richard Hammond ran with the bulls in Pamplona. I figured that as the BBC had shown it on an entertainment show, and Catalonia hadn’t included it in their ban, it couldn’t be all that bad. I guess expected to see bulls let loose to run down the road chasing the fools who wanted to run in front of them, then the bulls would be popped back into a pen before being carted off back to where they live. Sadly I was wrong.

Throughout yesterday Jay would peddle off on his bike to see what was happening in the town. An arena surrounded by two-storey cages was being built just off the main ring-road and huge wooden barriers were being secured into the ground – barriers that looked strong enough to stop a raging bull. Churros stalls, a huge beer tent, a stage and a few other stalls were all being set up, the streets in the town had been decorated and it looked set to be a great evening.

I could tell Jay was getting excited as he kept looking at the clock, he has a thing for dangerous activities and adrenaline rushes (when we met he’d throw his motorbike around a race track). Not that he wanted to take part, which is a good job as I reminded him that our travel insurance probably didn’t cover bull running. I was a bit more apprehensive, but still intrigued to see this tradition that goes back to Roman times here in Spain, and has millions of Spanish taking part in it every year.

At 6pm local children took over the arena with their “Carretones”, carts armed with horns, to train themselves up for when they are old enough to face down the real thing. Just before 7pm, Charlie was soaked with cool water and popped into Zagan. We’d talked at length about taking him with us, but he hates noisy crowds and we couldn’t be sure we’d be able to get him into some shade. Fortunately with the van in the shade, windows and roof vents wide open it was cooler in Zagan than outside, so we knew he’d be OK for an hour or so.

The band and beer tent added to the carnival atmosphere

Arriving at the arena most of the cages were still empty. Several of the upper level ones had families with small children looking down on everyone, no doubt grabbing the best and safest seats after their Carretones session. We wandered around and could sense the excitement buzzing in the crowd, it felt like we were all waiting for the start of a concert by our favourite band. There was a band, and they drummed and played clarinet type instruments while same sex groups of teenagers, in matching shorts or t-shirts marking out which peñas they were from, wandered around with cold drinks and snacks. Slightly older men strutted their stuff shirtless, carrying cold beers. They climbed through the wooden barriers and positioned themselves in the road trying to look nonchalant, but always with an eye up the street.

Watching up the street, we stayed the safe side of the barriers

Jay got the shock of his life as a rocket firework was set off right next to him, and at this signal all heads turned up the street, the bulls were coming. The first thing I saw was about twenty men, no longer holding their beers, running around the corner, closely followed by a herd of around eight bulls. The outside bull lost his footing on the corner and slid onto its side, I took a sharp intake of breath hoping it hadn’t hurt itself, as the crowd cheered the runners on. In the blink of an eye the bull was back on its feet and chasing down the runners into the arena.

Once the gates of the arena were closed, the herd gathered by the entrance to their pen, but were then ushered around the arena by a man waving a stick. He didn’t touch them with it, but I strongly suspect he didn’t need to, brandishing it was enough to get their attention. The runners waved their arms as the bulls ran around looking bewildered, the crowd slotted in and out of the cages to get the best view. The cage we were in was full of old timers, probably bull runners themselves in their day. They stood around the edge of the arena passing comment on the bulls, the runners and no doubt comparing them with their days.

After a couple of minutes the bulls went into the pens at the bottom of the arena. Everyone stayed around, but now the runners sat on the battered wooden obstacles dotted around the arena. All around me the voices were speaking Spanish, then from a couple of cages away I caught some English being spoken so I walked over and asked if they knew what was happening. They said it was only just starting, these were the young bulls and they would be brought out one by one into the arena. Later more mature bulls would be run through the streets to the arena and the crowds would get bigger. By midnight when the fully mature bull arrives the place will be packed.

For once the right animals are in the cages

Once the runners and audience had been given time to grab another beer, a single bull was let into the arena. Wild-eyed and drooling it ran around the edge of the arena causing a wave of people to slip in and out of the cages. The runners waved red t-shirts at it and the crows goaded it. The young bull chased around after them, but the runners used the obstacles and cages for protection.

When the runners managed to narrowly avoid being caught by the bull, the crowd would applaud. After a couple of minutes I knew I had seen enough. This poor animal wasn’t being harmed physically, none of them would be (once again, this was bull running, not bull fighting), but I could tell it was suffering and it just felt wrong. As I left I walked against the tide of families with pushchairs and small children excitedly babbling about Torros (bulls).

Back at Zagan Charlie was fast asleep, but I still gave him a big hug. I know he’s not a bull, but he’s still an animal who can’t speak for himself and needs looking after and protecting. Do I regret going? No, I don’t. If I hadn’t gone I would have naively carried on thinking it was more acceptable than bull fighting. Before going to see this I had on my bucket list to see the bull running in Pamplona, but I certainly won’t be doing that now, or watching any other bull related events, they are not for us.

Ju x

5 Comments

  1. Agree about the Bull-Running. I’m a meat-eater, and therefore on shaky moral ground, but I don’t like animals being used/abused for human pleasure. I saw some similar event (Toro Piscine) in Southern France and the young bulls get so overheated that you fear for their lives. Don’t get me onto Fox-Hunting (basically tearing small Dogs apart in the name of fun, by people who frown on Badger-baiting and Dogfighting..go figure).

    Anyhoo, I’ll be watching for your plans as you travel back to the UK.

    My plan on July 7th is to find a cafe in Nuits St George, just before lunch, and stay there with a bottle of chilled White (or several) waiting for the Tour de France to roll in.
    I’ve considered finding a spot on one of the iconic mountain climbs but the timing is wrong for us and I’ve come to realise that, rather than getting hot and bothered, doing touristy things, I much prefer sitting at a Cafe with a view of the Touristy thing in the near distance.

    Lee at Go Humberto

    • I’m of a very similar opinion Lee. I eat meat, fish and eggs. I used to enjoy firework displays, which in British culture are generally deemed entirely acceptable, despite the weeks of suffering they cause to our dog, and no doubt millions of other domestic and wild animals. I watch the Grand National on telly, despite knowing the horses are being run to exhaustion and risk harm or even death on the jumps. So, I personally cannot stand on a soapbox and decry the kind of event we saw (which didn’t involve the bull being stabbed, hit, dragged or killed) as it would clearly be an action of two-faced ethics, even if I thought that was somehow my place. I’m a tourist, this isn’t my country, it’s not my culture, it’s not my history, I’m just trying to understand this place and the people here, and in return that helps me gain a better understanding of who I am, and where I come from. Cheers, Jay

  2. Well done for going and also writing so honestly about it – now you two, at least know all about it first hand. I have never been but will take your word for it.Grim :-(

  3. hi jason and julia.
    just to say only came across your blog today . and have spent most of my day looking at the places you have been too :)
    i am planning on buying a motorhome next year. my idea is a bit like yours , to buy property and rent out to provide me an income while travel. i am from scotland but live in spain. i see you just passed not long ago where i live :) i am about 20 min from villa real de san antonio. i would like to travel in morroco, but not sure about if its safe ? did you find it ok ? also want to travel all of europe, but not sure what problems brxit may bring, hopefully nothing will change. anyway will keep following your blog. have fun :)

    pete.

    • Morocco felt safe to us Peter. We’ve been twice, in 2012 and 2017, and have even written two books about going there. It would be sensible to keep an eye on Morocco’s political situation via the UK Foreign Office website to check if the current stability has remained (especially if you plan to visit Western Sahara). Cheers, Jay

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