For a moment, the huge bull stops to weigh its options. Around its neck is a thick rope, held many metres back by several villagers dressed in white. Young men step forward, waving jackets and blankets or hypnotically twirling red umbrellas. The bull springs forward, horns primed, an unstoppable tank. One man sidesteps, deftly turning just inches from the bull’s head, causing the animal to spin in circles. They play this dangerous game until the man skips away safely to the applause of the crowd. The bull pauses. Should it charge into the crowd to send everyone scattering? Should it turn back down the street toward the pen from which it came? Should it trample the guy in the blue shirt a few steps away? The bull turns its thick neck toward me, and I am frozen stiff, reflected in the black orbs of its eyes.
Terceira is one of nine Portuguese islands that make up the Azores, an archipelago in the middle of the North Atlantic. An important trading post as early as the 1400s, this archipelago is blessed with fertile land, diverse scenery and unusual traditions. This includes bullfighting on a rope, dating to the 16th century, and held across the island each summer.
The annual festivities are in full swing. Glittering coloured streamers hang over the streets of Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira’s capital. Bullfights – in the ring, on the streets and even on the beach – take several forms, differing from those found in Spain or Mexico. For one, it is illegal to kill bulls in a Portuguese bullfight. Local organizers insist that festival bulls are well treated, prepared, rested and fed before and after the occasion. Still, under an overcast sky, I find teenagers toying with a baby bull, held back by two men with a long rope around its neck. Teenage boys run up and taunt the bull, which chases them into the sea. Even kids under 10 are on the sand, with plenty of distance to run to safety should the tormented creature move in their direction.
I feel sorry for the animals. It appears the men of Terceira ridicule bulls as a means of exerting human control over the powerful and mysterious forces of nature. Across different cultures, bulls are a symbol of strength, virility and raw power. Face up to a bull – as a kid on a beach, a matador in a ring or a travel writer on a street – and maybe a little bit of bullish energy will rub off on you.
Hopefully, it won’t trample you to death. About 250 fights take place from May 1 to Sept. 30, and every year, there are several casualties. Just a few days before my arrival, a local slipped in front of a bull and was fatally injured.
Visitors may prefer the parade for the Festival of St. John, the patron saint of Portuguese nobility, involving thousands of costumed dancers along the main street in Angra do Heroísmo. A huge section of this UNESCO World Heritage old town is set aside for kids, including fairs and markets.
Angra’s storied history is rich with buccaneers, imperial warfare, trade and relocated royalty. Everything seems to have a fresh coat, to have been cleaned up for the festival. But the earthquakes are also a constant cause of renewal – the last major quake, on New Year’s Day in 1980, damaged up to 80 per cent of the city. As a result, Angra’s churches look almost new, fully restored and painted in bright blue and orange.
The next day’s bullfight on a rope takes place on a wide residential street, lined with shipping containers for spectators to sit on. This time, four adult bulls will be released. As 6:30 p.m. approaches, the street fills up with men. (The women are on the containers, or ensconced on a patio.) A firecracker explodes, announcing that a bull has been released farther down the street. I am 100 metres away, but feel an immediate pulse, as if the entire street just stuck its fingers in an electric socket.
People start running, causing a ripple up the street. Eventually I see a huge bull, at eye level, charging toward me. Attached to its neck is a long rope, but the bull moves freely, turning to attack the men who would dare get too close. As the bull approaches, adrenalin surges, and I sprint farther up the street to safety. At the top of the street are two white lines, and it is the job of the men holding the rope to ensure that the beast does not cross it. With confidence in their ability, half a dozen caravans sell beer just metres from the line, and hundreds of people have congregated there to watch the action. As long as you can run, you can get to safety. Locals tell me that people might get hurt, but rarely the bull. It won’t satisfy People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but it’s a long way from the gore you’ll find in traditional bullfights in Spain and Latin America.
After 20 minutes, the bull is slowly pulled back, with the crowd forming a human wall to usher it in. Two firecrackers signal that the bull is safely in its pen and off the street. The streets fill up with families and revellers, until another firecracker explodes and everyone moves to watch or run from the bulls. Stands have been set up close to the bull pen, and it is here that most of the crazy stuff happens. Young men touch the bull’s horns, twirl umbrellas and run in circles, all to the applause of the crowd.
Suddenly, the evening’s second bull launches over a low wall that dozens of spectators have mistaken for a safety barrier. They scatter in seconds to the delight of the onlooking crowd. Bull No. 3 trashes glass bottles accumulated in a badly positioned garbage bin.
For the final bull, I join the young guys up front. Organizers save the meanest, fastest, biggest bull of all for last. Several times I must sprint or risk getting trapped between the bull and the containers. Suddenly, I find myself a little close, hedged in by barriers, with the bull staring at me from just a few metres away. If it chooses to charge, any indecision on my part could prove fatal. The bull reconsiders, and chases some men farther up the street. I have come out on top at this annual face-off with nature. Now I need a beer to calm my nerves.
Watch a clip of Robin running with the bulls in Terceira here.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is moderngonzo.com .