Driving down the road, I noticed a large number of young, black bulls grazing in a field. These animals are bred here for both their meat and the curious and incredibly popular ‘sport’ of bullfighting. Not every bull ends up in the arena, however. Every little town has its summer ‘feriá‘ or Feast – usually overlapping or close to the festival of the Assumption. Whereas in England, such events are characterised by grown men rolling large cheeses down hills, here it’s a little more red-blooded. This is mining country – I was reminded irresistibly of Wales, not only because of the geography, but also the stocky brawniness of the locals – including the women – and the brass bands. Everywhere. With almost no concept of noise pollution. Standing almost in the middle of a nine-piece outfit in a café in Quissac – they set up wherever a space exists, it seems – left me feeling (and probably looking) like Quasimodo.
I was directed up the hill to the arena, which was a space about sixty metres in diameter with an ominous barred lorry at one end and bars, seven feet high and two inches thick circumscribing the space. Young men, perhaps with something to prove to appraising female eyes in the crowd, stepped into the ring and waved their shirts as the bull was released. The aim of the game, it seemed was to bait the animal until you were chased by it, leaping nimbly over the barrier or climbing the scattered bales of hay out of reach of the eighteen inch horns. These were padded, but a number of the contestants retired ‘hors de combat’ with alarming bruises, keeping the Croix Rouge busy. If the beast, which could accelerate rapidly and corner astonishingly fast, actually caught someone they were tossed in the air like a rag doll. I was told that if anybody has to be hospitalised, they might stop the show. Thus, young men returned grimly to the arena, sporting antiseptic-coated welts and bruises. The bull had a disquieting habit of charging the barrier randomly, so, for the most part, I maintained a discreet presence behind it. The finale of the evening was a bull run. Camarguien cowboys armed with long, steel-tipped staves and riding their small white horses, wearing trademark leather hats and flowered shirts, corral a bull and drive it through the narrow streets, barricaded in the same way as the arena. Meanwhile, the local youth run in between the horses and the bull to try to wrestle it to the ground. A five hundred kilogram bull which is disinclined to be so treated can lose its temper very fast. The stench of fear, adrenalin, testosterone and, well, bullshit was quite unforgettable.
With thanks to the anonymous Flickr poster whose daylight image was so much better than I could get at night.