[This is an excerpt from my travel memoir, In Bed with the Atlantic…]
I’d been excited about seeing the famous tourada à corda (literally bull on rope) because, unlike Portuguese bullfighting, which ends in the injury and often later death of the bull, the animal isn’t harmed at all. In fact, the bull on the rope is the Portuguese equivalent of setting off a firework in a small room.
While tourada à corda events often take place in the streets, the first one I watched was actually on the commercial quayside in Velas, Sao Jorge.
A large portion of the dock had been completely hemmed in on three sides by shipping containers, Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd sprawled across the sides. The fourth side was the quay edge leading to chilly water with the odd Portuguese Man-of-War jellyfish sunning itself on the surface.
A curious anticipation
Four bulls were already huffing in their boxes within the space as two hundred people clambered up rusting metal and sat on stacked containers, legs swinging over the edge. As many times as I’ve driven past the huge container farms of Southampton dockyard wanting to get a closer look, not once did I ever think I’d be casually sat on top of one eating an ice cream.
Milling around the central space were around twenty local men complete with jeans, t-shirts and potbellies. A few more spritely twenty-something men were kicking a football around as a long rope was laid out from the bull box across the concrete.
Four men in billowy white shirts and black hats picked up a section of rope and a firework was set off to show, as I would come to learn, that there was a bull on the loose.
Dancing with death
The door to the box was lifted by a man on top and a bull cantered out, looking around to get its bearings. Already many of the men had positioned themselves on the quay edge, ready to jump into the water at a moment’s notice but one clearly had his eye on starting the action.
With a pale rag, he sprang in front of the sceptical bull and in a series of sudden, jerky movements, had its full attention. As he danced and jogged around it, it too began to move, running at anyone in its eye-line with a half-hearted spurt of movement.
This wasn’t so bad, I thought. It was sort of silly; a safe-ish dance where anyone could jump around and still flee the bull quickly. But it didn’t take long for the confusing and erratic movements of the amped up men to irritate it into charging.
Nose to the ground, the scrape of the feet
The men on the rope whipped and twitched the rope to further anger the animal and it pawed the ground as a man squatted low on the ground and waved at it. Bulls do paw the ground. Head low, nose skimming the concrete, the bull lined the man up as it looked out from under its horns.
It charged within seconds at incredible speed and the man took off, searching for an escape. He ran around the bull in a large enough circle for it to no longer see him as a threat and it jogged to a halt, whipping its head around to assess the other people nearby.
A young man in jeans and a grey t-shirt unravelled a sheaf of carpet and approached the bull. It eyed him, huffing and pushing the rope out of its way. He started running in a tight circle around it, challenging a creature with a larger turning circle and he was close enough to draw the cheers of the audience. Having looped around the animal, he slowed his pace, but the bull wasn’t giving up. It shot into a burst of energy and he skidded to the ground as he tried to double back behind it.
Horns to the ground, it scooped him up and threw him backwards over its head as though he weighed nothing at all. He landed hard on the concrete but was up in a second, sprinting off for a gap between the containers, blood oozing from a gash on his elbow.
The rope isn’t safety, it’s convenience
The crowed cheered more but the four men on the rope had done nothing to prevent his injuries and, in fact, couldn’t have anyway given the sheer length of the rope and the position of the bull. The rope, I eventually gathered, wasn’t for crowd safety, but to enable them to irritate the bull more easily and to aid in its eventual reigning in.
After fifteen minutes of this daring game, the bull was brought in by the men on top of the box pulling in sections at a time, ever-shortening the rope until the bull was half-pulled, half-walked into its box. The firework shot up again and the crowd went to refill their beers.
The second bull was bigger and the third bigger still and seemingly more irate each time. Many men went swallow diving, fully clothed into the water to escape the charge of the bull, which managed to halt centimetres before going into the water itself. On several occasions it was the bulls horns that threw the men in.
Daring, tempting, crossing lines
While there were moments of panic, for the most part it was all good-humoured, with even slightly injured men brushing themselves off with a smile of pride. The point was to touch the bull on the forehead, right between the horns, and flee without getting hurt.
One of the containers at ground level was open at the end and had a resident population of five beer drinking men who stuck their heads out and banged on the sides to bring the bull their way.
Using large sheets of cardboard they’d found in the container, they flapped them at the bull and shrieked with delight as the bull charged towards them, halting in confusion as they disappeared before its eyes. It took multiple jeers for it to finally learn where they had gone.
Boardshorted and baseball capped, a man in his mid-twenties danced around the entrance to the container, waving his arms and throwing packing materials in the direction of the bull. It sniffed and pawed the ground with its monstrous hooves. As it charged, the man darted inside the container, his companions’ heads all disappearing with him. But while the bull slowed its pace, it didn’t stop.
It sniffed the door and then, almost at a jaunt, trotted inside the container. I clamped my hand over my mouth in horror as bangs and shouts erupted from the huge metal box. The men on the rope barely even lifted the slack off the ground. The crowd was half cheering, half waiting. But all I could think was, there is no way past the bull for those men.
With a couple of half-hearted tugs of the rope and a bystander banging the neighbouring container, the bull emerged into the sunlight and jogged out into the space. The men appeared once more at the container’s doorway, cheering, filled with adrenaline from their narrow escape. The bull turned and ran at them again and they screamed and ran back inside the container as the bull once more went straight in behind them.
I could not believe what I was seeing, were they insane? If the bull managed to reach them at the end of the 40ft container there would be no stopping it. The banging from inside was hideous, like the caged T-Rex in the opening of Jurassic Park: The Lost World.
The bull emerged again and charged directly for a man waving at it on the quayside. Surprised by its swift response, he tripped over a huge ship’s cleat behind him and fell into the water.
The fourth and last bull was enormous. A shuddering mass of muscle, horns, hooves and irritation at the heat, the crowd and rope around its neck. It charged at a group of men the moment it was out of its box, forcing some into the water and some to climb lightning fast up the side of a container, hands hanging down to pull them up. The danger of it was absurd, but it seemed as though the narrower your escape, the more glory you felt.
Each container lining the makeshift arena had a gap between it and the next just wide enough for a human. Little groups of men huddled in each gap, four or five at most and would lurch out into the space to distract the bull and make it charge at them, before they ran yelling with excitement back into the gap. But these weren’t all the bouncy young man at the beginning, who was tossed violently into the air and escaped with a graze and a grin. These were 50, 60 year old men with white hair and shirts tucked into their belted jeans.
This isn’t a show, it’s a game for locals
Playing with bulls was most definitely not just a game for the trained and the fit. In fact, no one except the men on the rope were there in any formal capacity. The men waving at the bull and opening umbrellas in its face were just locals from the town.
The gap between two of the containers was uneven where one container had been placed at an angle to extend the arena. This meant that as the men ran in, they couldn’t keep going to the other side; the gap had a finite capacity.
But people were milling about everywhere, confident of their ability to find an opening somewhere in a hurry or the sea if they could reach it. A group of men spread out from the gap and waved erratically at the huge bull. Some shouting, some waving towels.
The bull looked at them and then looked back to a few men jeering in the opposite direction. Even boys as young as fourteen were crouched on the quayside, ready to jump into the water if the bull came their way. The bull looked back and forth, deciding where the greatest danger lay and the men on the rope flicked and slapped the rope against it, riling it into making a decision.
It turned on its heels and threw itself into motion towards the men from the uneven gap. They yelled and ran back to the space between the containers. It was part of it, the chase, the momentary adrenaline rush, the possibility of the bull catching up. But it was the risk that was enjoyable; they didn’t expect to be hit.
With a jeering crowd, injury hardly seems possible
The gap filled up in a microsecond, perhaps there was an extra person or two who had used it instead of the next one. Who knows. But as the last two men tried desperately to push their way in, the bull caught up with them and hurled itself into them with extreme force.
It lifted them both up and threw them like ragdolls over its head. Two grown men, one in his thirties, the other pushing sixty. They bounced across the bull’s back but it was cornered by their bodies, the strange, almost right-angled positioning of the containers and the rope that was catching around its rear hooves.
The younger man was dragged into the gap by clawing hands but the bull shunted its horns along the ground as the older man was getting to his feet. It threw its entire, monumental weight into his back, slamming him face first into the side of the shipping container, one of its blunted horns directly on his spine. It bucked its head, lifting him off the ground and I looked away, shoving my head over Alex’s shoulder and jamming my lips together.
Whatever I thought I could watch, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t turn around. I looked at the crowd on the ramp below me and wondered what they thought was happening. The bull was well out of their line of sight, all they would be able to hear was the shouting.
‘It’s okay, the bull’s run off,’ said Alex. I looked back, reeling from shock. I had never, ever felt like that before. I’d seen plenty of stupid stunts on TV or online, I’d grown up in the era of Jackass, but I’d never seen anything that horrendous in person. So close.
The man was thirty metres away, lying unmoving on the concrete. His arms and legs were all in line, his head to one side, as though he’d just lain down for a quick nap. But he was utterly still.
The bull had cantered off to the centre of the concrete and, without anyone waving at it or jeering, it seemed quite sedate. It simply stood, wondering was the ceasefire was all about.
The man lay on the ground in full view for several seconds before it was clear that the bull was not going to return, despite its presence nearby. Then a rush of men from the gaps between the containers came and crowded around.
Still the men on the rope did not pull it in.
An ambulance had been parked behind the container nearest the beaten man for the duration, but because the arena was secured to prevent the bull escaping, a huge telehandler had to be driven in to lift the massive container off the ground. When it was hovering above them, the paramedics ran in with a spinal board to reach the man.
I kept looking from the paramedics to the bull and back. The bull was calm and gazing over the sea to the cliffs, no longer interested in the people around it so long as they weren’t interested in it.
The paramedics lifted the man onto the spinal board and carried him back to the ambulance without him showing any signs of consciousness that I could see.
The telehandler replaced the container…and the game continued.