The magic of Spain lured me back again. Yup. After 10 exhausting days of touring the south of Spain with Ms. Elliott, Ms. Ovington, Mr. McNaughton, and 52 of you guys last February, I decided I needed more. But this time, I’d see this excellent country on my own terms. You see, I like to travel. A lot. I also like to eat really good food. It’s a wonder I don’t weigh 500 pounds given how much I love to cook. I also love to experience other cultures’ art forms, history, and lifestyles. Visiting Spain last winter just began to whet my appetite for all this place had to offer. So my summer vacation was spent taking in the riches, the surprises, and the excitement of the Northern Basque autonomous region.
The Basque people don’t really consider themselves a part of the rest of Spain. They are unique in their language and their ethnography. They have a rich culture that is not linked in any way to any other European peoples, and they have excellent food! Did you know that there are more internationally award winning chefs and restaurants in the north of Spain than anywhere else in the world? Neither did I, until this summer. My travels took me and my husband (who is also a big foodie like me) to San Sebastian, just so we could dine at a restaurant called Akelarre. What makes this restaurant so special is that they practice a style of cooking called molecular gastronomy. Pioneered in Spain by a man named Ferran Adrià at a restaurant in Roses called elBulli (where, by the way you have to enter a lottery on one day of the year only to get a chance to even request a reservation at his restaurant), the food of molecular gastronomy looks more like it was prepared in a science laboratory than in a kitchen. It is a meal where something that looks like a candy wrapped in Cello Paper, was really made out of pork and tastes like bacon, and a soup is solid and sits on a plate in the shape of an egg. Where something that smells, tastes, and looks like a hamburger was really fashioned out of distilling the essence of beef and infusing it into a fish, then reshaping it back into something that looks like meat but wasn’t really meat to begin with! It’s crazy. But it’s awesome. Every bite is a surprise. Every dish is a beautiful presentation of art. Every texture is deceiving. And it was worth crossing an ocean for.
But there was way more to my summer vacation than food. There was soccer! My husband is also a huge soccer fan. We couldn’t have planned our trip any better, circumstantially, than to have been in Spain when the Spanish national team won the World Cup of Soccer in South Africa. But wait, it gets better. Not only were we there in Spain (in the city of Pamplona) on the eve of the big win, but we were also in Pamplona to coincide with the festival of San Fermin—known around the world as the Running of the Bulls. Every morning during the festival, 12 bulls are released to run the medieval streets that lead to the bull ring where, that evening, they will be the star attractions in the nightly bull fight. No, I did not run. You kidding me? Nor did my husband. You can call us chicken, but have you seen those bulls? They are big and they do some big damage if the gore you. Instead we watched the other brave souls (or, should I say, lunatics) from the safety of a rented balcony overlooking the bulls’ route through the town to the Plaza de los Toros. It was wild. The 500-meter route started to fill up with people as early as 2 a.m., people who camped out to get a spot on the fence to catch a glimpse of an event that only lasts three minutes long! The route is cleared of people and litter, and just before 8 a.m. the runners are allowed to position themselves along the narrow, cobblestoned, and, I should add, slippery road. A cannon went off signalling the release of the bulls and people began to run. Looking back is a death-defying mistake that could lead to tripping and being trampled by other runners and the bulls alike. But they deliberately try to line themselves up with the huge bovines to knock them with rolled up newspapers or grab their horns. Are they nuts?! The route ends with a number of people in the bull ring with smaller young bulls as they dodge and taunt and play cat and mouse to get the bulls’ attention for a good run at them. They actually want the bull to charge them. And then they all jump into the stands and the crowd cheers approvingly. Local media commentate as if it were a hockey game. In the end a doctor is interviewed to give summaries of the injuries and gorings. The local newspaper runs full sections on the day’s run, detailing the bulls’ stats, their names, weaknesses in the crowds’ strategies, and predictions concerning where falls may occur.
Culturally, I don’t get it at all. To me the centuries old spectacle of San Fermin, where all the people there dress up in pure white with red sashes and scarves and throw sangria at each other to symbolize the blood of the animals was really the bulls’ chance to get back at the humans for years of being killed by matadors. You know who I was cheering for. The Spanish tell me it is in their blood. That the bull fight is graceful, exciting and skilful, a cultural expression and right unique to the Spanish people. Hemingway’s machismo! I see it more as an unfair ganging up on a disadvantaged creature who, after being speared, blooded, and weakened at the beginning of a fight, never gets a chance to win. I saw bulls so weakened during a fight that they fell to their knees in front of the matador, forget trying to charge and gore them. Which did not happen except during the morning runs of the San Fermin festival. Then they can seek their revenge. Get one for the team! By nightfall, those very same bulls will be killed anyway in the evening bullfight. There is no animal justice.
But that night after the morning’s run, instead of watching the bullfight, half of Pamplona was in the plaza cheering their soccer team on to victory. It was a crazy party that, like the other 14 nights of the festival, lasted all night long. (I won’t go into graphic detail about the smell of urine and beer and their by-products in the streets, and people crashed out under cardboard on benches, or taking showers in the car wash.) Instead my husband and I cut the festivities short so we could hit the road early to drive to wine country, Rioja, and then to Bilbao to visit the Guggenheim (any art teacher’s dream come true) and then on to France before returning home by way of Barcelona. But not before attempting to consume my weight in fresh seafood, foie gras, and jamòn! Viva España!