The Serengeti of Salamanca
Love bulls, hate bull-fights? There is another way. Des bravely takes a safari in Salamanca, driving deep into the heart of the Spanish psyche.
A version of this article first appeared in “Viva España” magazine in 2005. Information in it relates to that time.
Eat your heart out, Jurassic Park. That dinosaurian cine-fantasy may rule the faux-fear world of sci-fi and theme park, but, right here, in the Reality Zone (in Spain, no less), there are whole herds of ferocious creatures which exist solely for us to look at, creatures which would be extinct without our preserving care. And coming face to face with them, point-blank, in their preserve gives a frisson of awe and fear not often felt in the cinema, or during a screaming one minute ride.
“They should not exist,” says Diego Caneba. He is talking not about theme parks (although some weary parents might agree with him if he were), but about the toro bravo, the toro de lidia, the fighting bull. “They would be useless as beef cattle, because they are about a third of the weight, and much more trouble to rear. They exist only because of bull-fighting.”
Diego and his wife, Ana Hernandez Zaballos, run a 1,500 hectare bull stock-breeding farm near Salamanca, an area long renowned for producing some of the best bulls in Spain. They also cater in a variety of ways – including rural rooms, excursions and country activities – to the booming tourist trade.
One of the couple’s services is to offer visitors the chance to be driven in jeeps, safari-style, amongst the herds of bulls, to see them up close and personal in their natural habitat (insofar as an animal that should not exist can be said to have such a thing). You may not want to take in a bull-fight while you are in Spain. If so, do not miss this chance to see these magnificent creatures without any bloodshed (you hope!).
The jeeps slew through a deep slough in a gateway, rear ends waltzing, sending up bow-waves and wakes of brown water. Some brave person leaps out to shut the gates behind us. And now we are locked into a new world, the primeval world of the bull. With a keen sense of stage management, the weather lends the atmosphere of suspense a hand, and morning mists swirl around the holm oaks dotting the huge meadow. Suddenly there they are, looming out of the vapour, tall, erect, and very black, with curving horns wider than the gaping jaws of a Great White (or should that be a T. Rex?).
On a small knoll a group of mothers stand with their calves, ranged outwards towards the jeeps like a wall of Triceratops facing down a pack of raptors. But is this a defensive wall, or the prelude to a charge? One of our group leans out of a jeep window and takes a snapshot at close range. The flash fires and the calves scatter backwards, followed by their mothers.
Further on, a day old calf totters behind its mother. As the jeeps approach it sits down in the grass, attempting to go to ground, but its cute features remain clearly visible above the well browsed stems. Its mother stands warily to one side. “If we get any closer, she would attempt to decoy us away from her calf,” explains Diego. “And what would happen,” somebody asks with obvious anticipatory relish, “if we got out of the jeep?” “She would kill us,” is the short reply.
The bulls, both male and female (if that’s not a contradiction terms), can be so dangerous that dogs and horses, as well as vehicles, are used to help in their husbandry. Distraction is the name of the game, of course, as the bulls are so treasured. It is, for example, a job for two horsemen when the calves have their ears tagged. While one rider occupies the mother, the other does the work. And dogs can keep a charging bull busy while a dismounted human gets to shelter.
For those who would like to do more than just look, you can play at being a matador in a “capea”, a mock bull-fight. The hacienda has its own bull-ring, complete with grand-stand for your fan club, and wooden walls in the arena for darting behind when pursued by lethal prongs. Not that you’ll be allowed anywhere near a creature so dangerously equipped. Instead visitors can pirouette with their red capote (cape) against a very young bull whose horns have not yet grown. Apparently a firm favourite with groups of friends.
We drive on to another field where the anojos (yearlings), still small and without horns, are kept (the calves are separated from their mothers, and males separated from females, at six months). Their home is a large stone-walled paddock near the farm. The farm buildings themselves, numerous enough to make a small village, cluster defensively together on a hilltop. With its own chapel, whose bell-tower seems to reach for the glowering clouds above, and a silo like a watchtower, the farm dominates the surrounding savannahs of pasture like a medieval fortress, which may be what is called for, with medieval predators on the loose. ”We recently lost some yearlings to attacks by wolves,” says Diego. “They killed two, and badly mauled another.”
We drive down a rutted lane through yet another gate and into a large paddock dotted with giant creatures. Some are beef cattle, toros de carne, others are stud toros bravos, called sementales. The beef cattle, weighing up to 1,500 kilos, are the Brachiosauris of the bovine breed. They look like huge walking walls of meat, so hulking that, until you approach closer, you feel that perhaps you will be unable to see their feet.
The tips of their horns are docked, they have been castrated, and they have been deliberately mixed in with the fully equipped fighting bulls (these do not, however, seem as fully equipped as the Osborne roadside billboard bulls, whose cojones, you now realize, may be somewhat over-emphasized). The different kinds of bull are mingled in an attempt to help keep down what might otherwise be the over-macho temperature. Not that they don’t still fight amongst themselves. A particularly handsome pair of large, white, beef bulls stands together in a corner like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, each missing one horn – one left, one right – lost during too much sumo-like tussling.
Meet the Jefe
From the upper reaches of the paddock a lone, massive toro bravo approaches. “That’s the leader,” observes Diego. “Bulls are very hierarchical, and there is only one jefe.” Annoyed by the intrusion, Boss Bull is obviously itching for a fight, and keen to protect his position. First he asserts his dominance by bearing down on the other bulls in the field, stopping to extend his thick neck and bellow angrily, repeatedly, a sound like the klaxon of an approaching freight train. Although nearly three times his weight, the beef bulls wisely slink off.
The skulkers dealt with, Top Toro turns square on to our jeep and faces it down at ten paces. It’s obvious he has no intention of slinking off himself, and is gearing up to see us off. Nobody leans out this time, but hands bearing cameras are thrust out of windows. “Time to leave,” says Diego. “He weighs at least 600 kilos, and if he decided to ram one of the jeeps broadside it would probably roll at least twice.”
As we leave the field we pass a bull who is at the opposite end of the pecking (goring?) order, the very bottom. He is nearly 20 years old, and few survive beyond that age. He is remarkable for having been pardoned, indulto, at the request of the crowd, for having fought so bravely during his supposedly mortal combat. That was almost 16 years ago. For the next dozen years or so he impregnated up to 50 cows a year (if they told that to the other bulls, perhaps more of them would fight that hard). Now he is useless, old, shaky and despised by his peers, literally put out to pasture, but honoured by his human visitors.
“We do not feel sad when we lose bulls in the arena, “ explains Diego. “We are proud if they have fought well. That is what they are raised for.” Diego gropes for words to explain what is obvious to him, but apparently a mystery to us, this projection of the Spanish psyche, the almost indefinable something for which these bulls are selectively bred, fed and constantly tested: bravura, fuerza, poder, corazon (fierceness, force, power, heart), all words which translated together roughly mean something like “fighting spirit”. Raising bulls is more “romantico”, he says, than other kinds of stock-breeding. And it has taken more than 60 years of passion and dedication by Ana’s family to bring the hacienda to the stage where it now produces some of the best bulls in the country.
The piece de resistance in our safari comes in the final field we enter – the walled enclosure where the three year old machos (males) are kept. Now being fed for weight rather than simply for health (they go to the arena when four years old), the bulls in this paddock are mountains of muscle and apparently awash with testosterone. Despite their size and bulk, they buck and run with the agility of antelopes, flicking their massive horns with a twist of the head that says, “Come on, try it!”
Some accept the challenge and horns are locked in titanic struggles of shunting and shoving. Others rub their jaws on the edges of huge craters that they have excavated, apparently in an attempt to show off their power – the bigger the hole, the bigger the bull, is how the bovine logic seems to go. They paw the shattered soil with their forelegs and kick out fountains of earth with their hind legs. Even if none of the other bulls are impressed, the visitors in the jeeps certainly are.
Are they always so feisty? Apparently not. Diego thinks it may be the autumnal chill. Apparently bulls like it cold, which is just as well, as it can get down to 14 below in January, not counting the extra effects of a howling, steppe-like winter wind. The bulls are less happy in summer, when the heat is stifling, and they become both lethargic and irritable. So much so that every year a few bulls get killed fighting among themselves.
The best time to visit, if you like your bulls, to be frisky, territorial and playful, is apparently spring. But it’s worth it at any time. Unlike the leaden “terror lizards” of the movies, who are always and only fighting, bellowing and angry, these terrifying creatures are also often cute and even beautiful, and always (forgive the cliché, but what else?) magnificent.