Happy giants, unhappy bulls - How to avoid a mother-in-law - CycleBlaze

Happy giants, unhappy bulls

Into another country now
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The guide book had said the descent would be pretty, and it was. Sweeping curves, the occasional bend, gentler than the French side and noticeably more smoothly paved. And pleasant mountain firs on both sides. But cold in the rushing morning air.

The signposts now took on the subtly different look of Spain, and the road numbers too had changed. The gradient lessened and for a while I rolled smoothly down a wooded valley, the occasional hamlet or house looking as though it belonged to another century. A river appeared to the left and bubbled along beside me, leaving the road for a while to make room for an area of trees, grass, benches and stern warnings not to camp. Spanish families had already gathered there, which was a mystery because unless they had spent the night in their cars or vans, there was no obvious reason to be there that early. I exchanged my first "Ola!" of the journey, filled my bottles with water from a drinking fountain and rolled on to Ochagavia.

The Rough Guide had called it a showcase Pyrenean village, which given that there had been nothing better until then I suppose it was. "Showcase" was overstating the case, perhaps, but it was worth a stop. A wide stream, the one I had been following but more widespread now, followed the left of the road and shallow white bridges stretched to the old houses on the other side. Narrow roadways ran off at right angles to the river on both banks and the tightness and height of the houses cast a permanent shadow which in midsummer must have been welcome.

The most striking feature, though, wasn't the architecture. It was the way a dozen or more women and almost as many men were sweeping the streets and cobbles clear of straw. Straw bales still stood on some corners and odd areas of road remained where strewn straw had still to be properly cleared. I didn't have the language to ask and there were no signs to explain but I had the impression of some sort of horse festival the previous day.

For me, the previous day had been one of not eating enough, though, so the first job was to find food. A first walk through the village, on both sides of the river, proved disappointing and worrying. It was a problem to be solved only by attempting to speak Spanish. For the first of many times, I started a conversation with "Desculpé, no hablo mucho espagñol". It worked perfectly. As I was to find repeatedly, it brought the sympathy and wish to help that foreigners, if humble enough, encounter everywhere.

No, said the woman, there was no supermarket. But was there, I asked, anywhere for pan. She said that not only there was but that she was going that way.

"You're travelling by bike?", she asked in Spanish. I don't know why but I find this sort of question somehow less obvious outside my own country. Part of being fascinated by foreigners, I suppose.

"Si, a Madrid."

The usual raised eyebrows at the idea of cycling any further than the end of the village.

The two cycling Belgians from Larrau passed me an hour later, skipping along with just their light rucksack apiece. And they were in the hotel restaurant at Lumbier, too, which is where I discovered they'd come from Kortrijk by bike. The return, they said, would be by train.

Much more remarkable about Lumbier, though, was the way a place of such little promise turned out so astonishing. The day had been hot and I wasn't yet convinced that I was going to enjoy Spain. The effort of the previous day was also telling. So, merely because it came at the right time, I turned left off the road and pushed up through a scruffy suburban street in search of a restaurant and some shade. Instead, I found myself in the middle of a party.

It's Spain... let's dance in the streets and be happy!
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The streets were full of people, many dressed in red trousers or skirts and wearing white shirts with red neckerchiefs - the red and white of the Basque country. Music came from everywhere, traders sold ice cream and drinks on the street, and giants danced in the square.

Giants? Well, yes, because they were two or three metres high. They'd been created from wickerwork and then dressed in fancy costumes before being given over-expressive heads and faces. They danced because, by lifting the costume from the back, it was possible to climb underneath and lift the whole lot on to shoulders. There were four of these wickerwork monsters and they danced out a sort of square dance as the crowd watched and cheered.

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More attempts at Spanish revealed a hotel and restaurant at the foot of the hill. I would have passed it had I not turned into the village; but then equally I would never have known the village was in fiesta. The happiness in the square and the grubbiness and heat that I felt from two days of going unwashed convinced me that a night in a good bed and a chance to wash my clothes shouldn't be overlooked.

I walked back into the village that evening. Heavy wooden fences were being bolted into place along the streets and across access points. I thought I could guess why but the idea that there'd be a bull-running on my first night in Spain seemed too improbable. I'd read about the festival of San Firmin in Pamplona and knew, therefore, that two sky crackers warned of the closure of the course and the release of the bulls.

Waiting for the bulls, from a safe distance. More macho characters prepared to meet them in the streets
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What I didn't know was that, unlike my perception of Pamplona's bigger event, the bulls - two of them - didn't run just one way through the streets with the crowd sprinting in front of them but were put into what amounted to a long narrow pen formed by the closed roads. And having been put there, they were chased from one end to the other and then tormented by the crowd - most behind the barriers but a few in the street - to run back again.

It was dramatic to see but it didn't take long to feel sorry for the bulls. The younger, darker one seemed to regard it as entertaining fun. But the honey-coloured, larger bull appeared frustrated and terrified. It repeatedly lost its footing on the cobbles; its mouth foamed with dribble; its head dropped and its horns projected as it looked first one way and then the other at what must have seemed the shapeless but jeering mass of its tormentors.

I watched for a while and then felt too uncomfortable to look any longer. It wasn't that I felt strongly against it in the way that people have strong emotions about bull fighting; it was more that there was no need to watch a frustrated and humiliated animal pass you more than half a dozen times.

Not everyone felt the same way, though. There were a lot of people not watching, sitting outside bars or in the shade instead. But there was never a space at the barriers, there was never a time when daredevils didn't run into the path of the bulls before jumping into safety, and there were regular cheers for the young man who showed - to my inexpert eyes - the bullfighter's skill at bending out of the way of the bull's horns at just the last moment.

And why no photo of the event? Because the film ran out just as the bulls arrived. Life, eh?

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