Thursday, July 29, 2004


When is the best time to visit Spain?

Any time except August.

It’s true. Each year when the clock strikes 2pm on the last Friday of July, Spain’s main cities transform from bustling urban bazaars to something resembling NASA footage of the lunar surface. Stores and restaurants are shuttered. Streets are devoid of traffic. Prime parking spaces abound. If Spain had tumbleweed, it would be tumbling.

August is the month that most Spaniards take vacation. This, in itself, is ironic. Spain is not exactly known for its orderliness. The Spanish perception of orderliness would strike most Anglos and Germanics as a half-step from anarchy. Queuing in the British sense – i.e., patiently waiting in a single file line…and actually enjoying it – does not exist here. Rather, Spanish queuing is more of a “gather `round and sniff your neighbour’s cologne” affair. Driving and parking are even worse, with most Spaniards viewing no parking zones as more of a suggestion than a mandate. So imagine the absurdity that a country living in controlled chaos for eleven-twelfths of the year will – on the same afternoon – uniformly pack up and leave.

But that’s what happens. And many Spaniards do, in fact, take off the entire month of August. This is shocking (at best) or heretical (at worst) to Americans; a work-loving people who may get only two weeks of vacation each year, yet are afraid to take it all at once. In Spain, however, nary an eyebrow is raised at the prospect of thirty-one uninterrupted days of lounging about.

So…where do these Spaniards go, and what do they do, for an entire month? Many, especially city dwellers, have a second home located near the sea, in the mountains or in a small village in the country’s interior. Often these homes have been in the family for generations, and are shared during vacation time by some portion of the extended family. The prospect of vacationing with extended family may seem undesirable at first, but think about it logically: What could be more relaxing for tired parents than to have grandparents on hand to baby-sit during a four week stretch? And they baby-sit for free.

This vacation model, however, is starting to change a bit. More young Spaniards – and in particular, those without children – now devote at least part of their vacation to travelling to other countries. And more are choosing to split-up their vacation weeks so that, for example, they can lounge on the beach for two weeks in August and then ski for two weeks in January. This may not yet be the norm, but the practice is growing.

We, by the way, never take vacation in August. Why should we? We’d miss all the peace and quiet. Our work phones are silent, email inboxes are empty, and there are no lines at the supermarket. It’s as if we’ve actually gained an extra month of vacation. Plus, there’s a certain perverse satisfaction in knowing that – at the end of August – we still have our full vacation to look forward to while most of our countrymen are returning to work in a fog of depression; albeit a well-rested depression.

But staying home and working through the month of August has a downside, as well. Just try to find a restaurant, bread store, tobacco store, or even a pharmacy that is open for business. Granted, the Spanish government mandates that at least one outlet for essential services – and yes, tobacco stores are deemed to provide an essential service – must remain open within a X kilometre radius during August, but having to drive 5 kilometres to buy a newspaper can be a bit bothersome. If I wanted to do that, I would have stayed in the US.

Some people – particularly Americans – might ultimately view the Spanish practice of taking a full August vacation as a quaint holdover from a simpler time, but one that has no place in modern society. I disagree. In fact, I can think of at least one high-ranking American executive who has not been afraid to spend the entire month of August on holiday: George W. Bush. He spent all of August 2001 vacationing at his ranch...remember? Then again, that was at a time when he liked Spain.

Sunday, July 25, 2004


I detailed in my July 19, 2004 post that Cabanillas del Campo’s “People and Bulls Festival” was in full swing, and that its final four days would feature a running of the bulls each morning. I also promised that I would attend one of the runnings – strictly as a spectator, of course – and report my observations. Well…for better or for worse, I attended yesterday morning’s running of the bulls.

Two runnings of the bulls were scheduled to take place yesterday morning. The town of Cabanillas prepared a course that was approximately one kilometre long. It was located on the street running between our main soccer field and the town’s sports center. The street was lined on each side with a red, seven foot high, temporary iron fence. Each section of fence was comprised of two vertical and five horizontal iron bars. It was plenty sturdy, yet allowed for a nearly unobstructed view. At the end of the street, the course curved to the right and continued for another 100 meters; at which point it emptied into the bullring stadium.

María, Inés and I arrived at ten minutes before 11am, and took a spot behind the fence at the course’s midway point. María and Inés prudently retreated to a shady location farther back, whereas I climbed to the top wrung of the fence with digital camera in hand.

By 11am, approximately 100 runners congregated at various locations on the street. Most were men in their late teens to late 20’s. The ones waiting at the top of the course obviously intended to run with the bulls as much as much a possible, whereas others seemed content to sprint only the last 100 meters into the stadium.

Many of the runners dressed in white, which I thought was wise. If one of these runners were to be injured by a bull, the emergency personnel would spot them immediately. I was puzzled as to why several runners chose to wear brown pants, but after further thought I concluded that this was a wise decision also.

At approximately 11:15, a starter’s gun fired and the bulls were released. The sea of participants poised at the top of the course began to run; their heads bobbing up and down in unison. Have you ever compared and contrasted people running in a foot race versus people running for their lives? The former group is a classic display of head-down, straight-forward motion and single-minded concentration. The latter group, on the other hand, practically runs sideways…with heads frantically looking over shoulders at two-second intervals. Watching the runners approach, I kept thinking about that scene in every Godzilla movie in which hordes of citizens run terrified through the streets of downtown Tokyo. It really was like that.

I got my first glimpse of the bulls when the initial group of approaching runners was fifty meters away. As far as I could tell, people who run in these events will do one of two things when the bulls get uncomfortably close. Twenty percent will continue running and hope to be passed by without incident. The other eighty percent will leap to the side and cling to the iron fence like kittens in tree.

The event passed incredibly quickly. It was a bit like standing beside a highway and watching a trailer truck pass by. Here they come…ZOOM!!!...and then they’re gone. And that’s exactly how the first of yesterday’s runnings happened. It started…ZOOM!!!...and it was over without incident or injury. The second running, however, was another matter.

At the tail-end of the second running – where the road curved right and headed toward the bullring stadium – the last of the bulls drove its left horn into the left buttock of a runner, tossed him into the air, and sent him crashing to the pavement several feet over the bull’s left shoulder. This happened right before my eyes. To watch a man be gored by a bull on television is one thing. To see happen live is quite another.

The runner was wearing white pants and even from my vantage point fifty feet away, a large red stain was apparent as soon as the bull withdrew and departed. A crowd immediately swarmed on the runner and carried him to a nearby ambulance without moment’s hesitation.

Most spectators were visibly shocked. I can only imagine the expression on my own face when it happened. This type of incident is to be expected in Pamplona. But I hadn’t mentally prepared myself for such a possibility in Cabanillas del Campo. Obviously, I was not alone in this regard.

María, Inés and I passed the location of the goring as we exited a few minutes later. The amount of purplish blood that had pooled on the pavement where the man was gored was staggering. More shocking still was the inches-wide trail of blood that marked the route by which he was carried to the ambulance. It was a very severe goring.

We decided to skip this morning’s running.

Saturday, July 24, 2004


The two of you who regularly read this blog are well familiar with Bar Alcázar. It is our favourite spot in Cabanillas for morning coffee breaks, local gossip and, in general, cultural and philosophical enlightenment.

Now – thanks to some new software that I spent the better part of a morning trying to learn – I can finally SHOW (rather than tell) you what it looks like. Pictured are views of the façade (above) and interior (below). The little girl with the water bottle is my daughter Inés, who holds court there every Saturday and Sunday morning.

I hope you appreciate the magnitude of this event. These two pictures of Bar Alcázar are the only ones to be found on the world wide web. Do you feel like Indiana Jones when he found the Ark of the Covenant? If you do, then you really should be spending more time with your spouse and children.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004


María and I celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary last weekend by leaving Inés with the grandparents and travelling to San Sebastián in the Basque Country. Since we had visited San Sebastián in 2000, we felt free to skip the typical tourist sites and concentrate on more important cultural matters: namely, pintxos.

Broadly speaking, “pintxo” is the Basque term for “tapas” – a small snack that is eaten with your drink at a bar. In practice, however, the terms differ. A tapa can be anything from a fried sausage to a slice of potato omelette to a dish of peanuts or olives. The bartender will hand you a tapa free of charge each time you order a drink; except in miserly Cataluña, where nothing is provided for free except Catalan language courses.

A pintxo, on the other hand, is usually a small slice of baguette bread, toast or croissant topped with another item. Toppings can be as simple as a slice of smoked salmon, or as elaborate as crabmeat salad capped with a dollop of caviar. Pintxo bars are typical of the Basque Country, and in particular San Sebastián; a city with a world-class reputation for good eatin’.

The procedure for ordering pintxos is simple. The bar will be lined with plate after plate of them. When you order your beer, wine or hard cider, the bartender will (upon request) hand you a plate. Simply graze along the bar and select the pintxos that look most appealing. All pintxos are the same price. When you are ready to pay, tell the bartender what you drank and how many pintxos you ate. This works strictly on the honor system. And it does work. Spaniards, who tend to be weasel-like when dealing with salesmen or tax authorities, are scrupulously honest when telling a bartender how many pintxos they’ve had.

Pintxo dining is not a sit down affair. Rather, it is a rolling feast from bar to bar. Stop at a bar, order a drink, eat the pintxos that look good, then move on to the next bar. This was exactly how María and I spent our Saturday in San Sebastián. We researched San Sebastián’s best pintxo bars beforehand, and then pounced on them like army of invading barbarians.

Listed below – in order of preference – are the pintxo bars that we visited during our trip to San Sebastián.

Address: General Artetxe, 8.
Specialty: Sophisticated pintxos.
This was our favourite pintxo bar. Pintxos here are elevated to works of art. We ate the following four pintxos (all of which were served on a slice of baguette): Foie gras with mango, caramel and black pepper; mushrooms, shrimp and garlic; roasted red and green pepper with egg; anchovy, shrimp and shredded hard-boiled egg whites.

TXEPETXA. Pronounced “chay-PAY-cha.”
Address: Pescadería, 5.
Specialty: Anchovies.
This was our second favourite pintxo bar. When I say that they specialize in anchovies, I refer to the marinated fresh ones…not those mushy, salty things that come from a can. We ate the following four pintxos (all of which were served on a slice of baguette): Anchovies with sea urchin roe; anchovies with marinated minced green pepper, tomato and onion; anchovies with black olive paste; anchovies with a creamy spider crab salad.

Address: 31 de agosto, 9.
Specialty: Cured hams.
What this bar lacks in creativity, it makes up for with high-quality pig parts. Many of the pintxos took the form of little sandwiches. We ate the following three: Sliced, cured wild boar on a mini roll; sliced Jabugo cured ham on a mini roll; anchovies with roasted red pepper on a slice of baguette.

Address: San Jerónimo, 21.
Specialty: Wild mushrooms.
The wild mushroom choices are not displayed on the bar. Rather, they must be ordered. We took a pass on the mushrooms, because the pintxos on display looked good enough. We ate the following three: Smoked salmon on a mini croissant; skewer of marinated fish roe (known as “huevas”) with a slice of raw onion and parsley; oven-baked crab salad in a mini tart pastry.

The pintxo jag described above wasn’t the reason we went to San Sebastián. The point of the trip was to have dinner at Arzak later that night.

This leaves me with a small dilemma. So much has been written about Arzak by others, that it seems pointless for me repeat the task here. It is world-famous, and deservedly so.

It would be more pointless still for me to attempt a “review/critique” of the food and service. The joint has three Michelin stars, which means it is the embodiment of perfection. And it is. So there…that’s my restaurant review.

I will, however, tell you what we ate. We both chose the multi-course degustación (tasting) menu. So many elaborate food items crossed our table that it is difficult to remember what we had. Sorry, but I was there to eat…not to take notes. So with that disclaimer in hand, here goes…

Aperitif: Osborne Fino Quinto.

Starters: Blue potato with bonito tuna under a mound of canónigos greens; raviolis of foie and a creamy cheese; lettuce soup; paprika-dusted melon with a slice of anchovy; various other items of which I can’t recall the specifics…except that one involved deep-fried banana slices shaped as a funnel and filled with a white cream.

First course: Soft “flower” of poached egg with pureed chistorra sausage with date; small langostinos.

Fish course: Monkfish with a garlic broth.

Meat course: Foie gras with mint and saffron-poached pear, served with a glass of Sauternes; beef with a salpicón of cereal grains.

Cheese course: Assortment of five cow and goat cheeses, arranged in order of potency and served with grilled fruit and walnuts.

Dessert: Assortment of chocolates; two other desserts, one featuring mango and the other pineapple [Oops, another memory lapse.]

Coffee: Café cortado, served with artisan chocolates.

Wine: Roda I (D.O. Rioja).

Digestif: Anís de Chinchón, dry.

Dinner bill: Smelling salts.

Dinner at Arzak was great fun, but the most entertaining part was watching the tables full of kids around us. Kids at a Michelin three star restaurant? This was a bit of a shock, although not enough to make us doubt the logic of leaving Inés with her grandparents.

Whether these were highly enlightened kids or parents with too much disposable income was irrelevant. María and I were amused. At the table to our left, a seven year old boy slurped his fettuccine and tomato sauce while his parents enjoyed the same tasting menu that we chose. The table to our right had three pre-teens. There was much debate amongst this family about what the kids should order. The debate stopped when the big man himself, Juan Mari Arzak, waddled up the stairs and ordered for them. Whether they liked it or not, these three kids were served steak, French fries and croquettes.

And yes…they DID like it.

Monday, July 19, 2004


The annual “Fiestas Populares y Taurinos” (i.e., the “People and Bulls Festival”) began last night here in Cabanillas del Campo. For the next eight days, my fellow townsfolk and I will enjoy such diverse events as fireworks displays, Bielarussian dancers, potato omelette cook-offs, concerts by big haired pop bands, and a giant paella.

But the highlight of the Festival is the bulls. Beginning on Thursday, we will be treated to four consecutive days of bull-antagonizing events to take place in or near the temporary bullring that was erected last month. And during the morning of each day, there will be a running of the bulls through the streets of Cabanillas; although thankfully, not on our street.

The running of the bulls in Cabanillas will be much as I described in my earlier Pamplona posting, except on a much smaller scale in terms of participation and blood-letting. There is logic behind this madness. The bulls that run each morning are those that are destined for the bullfight later that day. By running the bulls in the morning, bullfight officials are able to assess whether the bulls are healthy, coherent and have acceptable eye/hoof/horn coordination. A defective or erratically behaving bull will be a disappointment to the paying bullfight audience and a danger to the matador. Ironically, such concern for human welfare is not extended to the runners that bullfight officials use as guinea pigs each morning.

The Cabanillas del Campo city hall takes its civic responsibilities as seriously as it does its coffee breaks, and has published eight important nuggets of advice for any citizen planning to run with the bulls this week. Listed below is an English translation of these nuggets, as pulled from my mailbox yesterday afternoon.


1. Don’t forget that your participation in the running of the bulls is at your own risk.

2. Mentally prepare yourself for the running of the bulls in accordance with your own physical abilities. Don’t rely on luck to save you, because luck might not be with you.

3. Be aware of, and careful about, who or what is running beside you.

4. It is bad for all if runners attempt to perform bullfighter-type manoeuvres with the bulls. The purpose of a runner is simply to run.

5. If you drink, don’t run. If you intend to run, don’t drink.

6. If the street on which you are running has curves, then take the curves at a diagonal on the inside. This will help you gain distance from bull.

7. If you fall while running and a bull is nearby, don’t get up. It will be worse for you if you do.

8. Pay attention to the instructions that are given over the megaphone by Festival organizers. In case of accident, please cooperate with the emergency personnel.

This list is brimming with prudent advice, although I fear that strict adherence to point 5 will seriously decrease participation in this year’s event. I would further like to highlight point 6, as evidence to all high school students that geometry does have practical applications in the real world.

I will not be running in this or any year’s event, but I will attend as a spectator and report my findings in a later posting. I am sympathetic with those who may feel that such Festival activities are cruel, but please remember that bull-related events are embedded in Spain’s culture and have been practiced for hundreds of years. That which seems bizarre or inhumane to non-Spaniard eyes is largely considered normal here. Besides, these bull-related events serve the important function of occupying Festival time slots that might otherwise be filled by Marie Osmond or Gerry and the Pacemakers. Even PETA would agree that such alternative is repugnant beyond words.

Friday, July 09, 2004


Summer is festival season in Spain. And that means one thing – lunatics willingly placing their kidneys within a hair’s breadth of an incoming bull’s horns. Sad but true. When people think of festivals in Spain, they think of Pamplona’s running of the bulls.

The running of the bulls takes place each year during Pamplona’s Festival of San Fermin, in honor of the city’s patron saint. The Festival has been held since 1591, but was “outed” internationally by Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises.” It has since become a magnet for knuckleheads worldwide.

The running of the bulls (known in Spanish as “el encierro” – which translates to “the enclosure” or, as I prefer to think of it, “you’re trapped, you bloody fools!”) starts at 8:00am during each morning of the Festival. This is an important point. Pamplona’s running of the bulls is not a once-per-year event, but rather occurs every day for a week. If you are not killed or maimed during the first morning, you still have seven more chances to get it right before calling it a year.

The streets are closed off and up to six bulls are released from a pen. The bulls then make a raucous two to three minute charge through the streets of Pamplona – admist cheering crowds – before emptying into the bullring stadium where they are met by the calming influence of a group of steers. Now, this event would be exciting enough as it were, don’t you think? But then add to the mix several hundred crackpots – many of whom are fresh off a night of debauchery – poised directly in front of the gates when opened. We now have an event that might cause even Evil Knievel’s heart to palpitate.

In the interest of full disclosure, Pamplona doesn’t have a monopoly on such foolhardiness. Many towns throughout Spain, both large and small, have a running of the bulls event at some point during the annual calendar. For those towns that do not run with the bulls per se, there are many analogous (and, from the bull’s perspective, equally antagonistic) variations on the event. In my own town of Cabanillas del Campo during its annual July festival, bulls are set loose in the local bullring so that the townsfolk may have the pleasure of leaping in, running for dear life across the ring’s diameter, and leaping out the other side. Other towns tie sparklers to the bulls’ horns and set them alight. Still others herd the bulls off the edge of a pier in furtherance of a bovine synchronized swimming display.

But back to Pamplona. The six bulls that run through the streets each morning are destined for the bullfight to occur later that day. We can make several generalizations about such Spanish fighting bulls.

First, they are big. “Enormous” would a better word. Anyone contemplating a run with these buggers should first find himself a bar in Spain that has the head of a fighting bull mounted on its wall. Stand next to it and take a good look. Your first reaction will be, “Jesus, that head is huge!” Quite right! Now just imagine the rest of its body. Do you remember how surprised you were the first time you stood next to a real, live horse? Remember how you thought to yourself, “I didn’t realize they were this big.” Well, a horse is a malnourished Chihuahua when compared to a Spanish fighting bull.

Second, they are strong. Spanish fighting bulls are a giant mass of muscle. Their necks, shoulders and hump are particularly imposing. A Spanish fighting bull can slide its horns under the belly of a fully grown horse, and lift it off its feet using only these muscles. Now imagine if one of those horns got a hold of a human…even one of those Big Mac-engorged, US-type humans. The bull would flick him into the stratosphere as effortlessly as a Polish-American plumber flicks a Marlboro butt out the window of his 1984 Chevy Impala.

Third, the bulls are fast. Much faster than you or I. ‘Nuff said.

Of course, this all begs the question, “Who is crazy enough to run with these monsters?” The Spanish? Some do, but most don’t. The Spanish are, by an large, content to play spectator. After all, why have your morning coffee and cigarette disturbed by a horn through the liver? Nope, a large chunk of Pamplona bull runners are foreigners. Especially, tourists and backpacking university students who have come to the Festival with a chip on their shoulder, an elevated blood/alcohol content and a misguided perspective on their own mortality.

Since record-keeping began in 1924, thirteen people have been killed running with the bulls in Pamplona. But as someone once said, there are things far worse than death. Running with the bulls leads to plenty of bruises and broken bones and to be fair, I’m sure these injuries hurt like a bitch. But it is the horns that are of foremost concern. Gorings comprise the most serious injuries suffered in Pamplona each year, and the bulls’ favorite targets are the runners’ thighs, groins, buttocks and rectums. A bull’s horn in the rectum! This makes death seem a lot less frightening, don’t you think?

But despite all this, the popularity of Pamplona’s bull run continues to grow. And this year, there was no shortage of participants…or casualties. Set forth below is a summary of the serious injuries suffered at this year’s event. You may think me cruel for making light of such human tragedy, but I disagree. If a person is given the choice between breakfasting at a cozy Pamplona bar or placing his body before the path of a charging bull and he chooses the latter, then he is fair game to be made light of…regardless of the state of his rectum.

DAY 1 – JULY 7:
Eight people were injured; none seriously. No gorings.

DAY 2 – JULY 8:
Various participants were hospitalised with bruises and other traumas, but no gorings

DAY 3 – JULY 9:
A 22 year old Spanish man was gored in the right thigh by a bull’s horn. The wound was 15 centimeters deep. And so we begin this year’s goring season!

A 27 year old Spanish man was hospitalised with a lumbar contusion. Note to self: When a bull is breathing down your lumbar, step aside quickly.

A 22 year old Louisiana man was gored in the left knee. Congratulations Bubba! You are Pamplona’s first US casualty of 2004. If past festivals are any indication, you won’t be the last.

A 22 year old British man received a “slight” horn wound to the groin. Slight? You must admire the British for their unflappable, stiff-upper-lip mentality.

A 53 year old Spanish man was hospitalised with a cranial contusion. Ouch! And he thought his hangover was bad before the run began.

A 58 year old Spanish man was gored in the left forearm. Spain’s pensioners seems especially well represented this year. What would possess men in their fifties to run with the bulls? I’m only 37, and it’s been at least 15 years since I’ve made an all-out sprint for anything. I envision a confused tour guide in a yellow nylon jacket unwittingly leading a busload of middle aged tourists into the path of this morning’s charging bulls. This is the only explanation that would make sense to me.

A 25 year old Spanish man was hospitalised with a contusion to his right thigh. At least we’re returning to a proper age group.

A 21 year old man of unknown origin was hospitalised with a sprained knee. Unknown origin? I guess he didn’t tell his mother where we was going this morning.

DAY 4 – JULY 10:
A 44 year old Spanish man was gored in the ass. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.

A 30 year old Spanish man was gored in the right leg. His ass escaped unscathed.

A 40 year old Spanish man was hospitalised with a trauma to his left arm.

A 20 year old Michigan man was hospitalised with multiple contusions. This should make for a good tale when he returns to the frat house in September.

A 25 year old Spanish man was hospitalised with a sprained left ankle. A sprained ankle? Oh, you poor wittle baby. Please have the nurse bring him some milk and cookies.

DAY 5 – JULY 11:
A 36 year old Spanish man was gored in the left buttcheek. The wound was 5 centimeters deep. He further suffered a neck and head trauma.

A 29 year old Spanish man was hospitalised with a contusion to his right knee.

A 42 year old of unknown origin suffered a broken left arm.

DAY 6 – JULY 12:
Today’s run was extremely dangerous. It resulted in many runners being gored. Details are as follows.

A 56 year old Spanish man was gored twice in the right knee. One of the wounds was 15 centimeters deep.

A 24 year old Spanish man was gored twice; one in the right arm and again in the right armpit.

A Spanish man of unknown age is (as I write this) undergoing surgery for “various horn wounds.”

The fate of these three men highlights a very important point about running with bulls in Pamplona. There is no “one goring per person” limit. If the bull is in a foul mood or just plain doesn’t like your look, it can gore you as many times as it wishes. I’ll bet you never thought about that. This presents one further argument for planning a beach vacation in 2005.

A 25 year old Spanish man suffered a 10 centimeters deep horn wound to the buttocks.

A 24 year old French man was gored in the right knee.

A 29 year old Spanish man was gored in the right thigh.

A 26 year old Spanish man was gored in the left thigh.

From this list, we can surmise that bulls prefer thighs and buttocks. It’s fortunate for all Pamplona runners that more bulls are not “breast men.”

A 47 year old man of unknown origin was hospitalised with a trauma to the lumbar.

A 50 year old New York man was hospitalised with a trauma to his leg.

A 24 year old Pamplona man was hospitalised with a knee trauma.

A 40 year old Colombian man was hospitalised with a contusion to his knee.

A 49 year old Spanish man was hospitalised with a fractured left arm.

Another Spanish man was hospitalised with a cranial trauma.

Incredible, isn't it? All this pain and suffering in the name of fun and/or machismo. You'll note the conspicuous absence of women from this casualty list. I think that says a lot about the inter-gender intelligence gap. I feel fortunate to have a daughter...yet fearful about to whom she might marry 25 years from now.

DAY 7 – JULY 13:
There were no gorings or serious injuries during this morning’s run. This is a welcome relief after yesterday’s carnage. Never let it be said that 13 is an unlucky number.

However…that’s not to say that there were no injuries this morning.

A 40 year old Spanish man was hospitalised with a cranial trauma and a scalp injury.

A 27 year old Spanish man was hospitalised with a minor cranial trauma.

A 20 year old Spanish man was hospitalised with a minor contusion to his right knee.

A 43 year old man of unknown origin/identity was hospitalised with a 10 centimeters deep horn wound to the buttocks, and a slight cranial trauma.

A man of unknown age and origin was hospitalised with a contusion to his arm.

A 51 year old Miami man was hospitalised with a light trauma to his right knee.

The vast majority of injured bull runners at this year’s Festival were Spanish. There are two possible explanations for this: (a) the Spanish are becoming more reckless as their country becomes richer and more modern; or (b) American tourists all stayed home this year to work on John Kerry’s election campaign.

Given the strategic location of most horn wounds this year, there is arguably a large, untapped market in Spain for Kevlar underwear.

The Pamplona city council rejected, by a vote of 14 to 1, a motion that future Festivals of San Fermin shall feature a daily “Running with the Yorkshire Terriers.” Sorry. I made that up.

Wise parents in the Pamplona area will encourage their children to pursue careers in health care – or alcohol counselling.

Of all the beasts in the animal kingdom, humans are the only one that will risk life and limb for something as unnecessary and nonsensical as running with the bulls. We clearly have no business ruling the earth.

Woman smart; man stupid.

Damn! I can’t wait for next year’s Festival.


I went to Bar Alcázar at 10:15 this morning for coffee and a chocolate chip muffin. Unlike other mornings, however, today I went armed with a pen and pad. My mission: To conduct an earnest (albeit unscientific) survey of what the bar patrons were drinking at this tender hour.

As I’ve mentioned in past postings, the period between 10:00 and 10:30 is when the construction workers and shepherds arrive for their morning “coffee” break. Today was no exception. When I took my place at the end of the bar (right next to the Lotto machine), there were thirteen men lounging about; most of them beefy and wearing coveralls.

Here’s what these thirteen men were drinking at 10:15am:

- Five (5) coffees.
- Five (5) mugs of beers.
- Three (3) snifters of anis dulce (i.e., sweetened, liquorice-flavored 80 proof liquor).
- One (1) snifter of green apple-flavored orujo (i.e., a grappa-like liquor; also 80 proof).
- One (1) snifter of brandy.
- One (1) bottle of alcohol-free beer (you guessed it…this was Skeletor!).

And just like that, they finished their drinks, paid their bills and returned to their power tools and heavy machinery. Impressive!

I ask you…What could be more emasculating than sipping coffee and eating a chocolate chip muffin (dressed in shorts, no less!) amongst a group like this?

I need to buy a Harley-Davidson…and quickly!

Monday, July 05, 2004


How I lament the disrespect with which the Spanish wineskin, or bota, is treated in 21st century America. The bota, an essential tool for thirsty Spanish shepherds throughout the centuries and lovingly memorialized in the writings of Hemingway and Cervantes, has been reduced in the US to a vessel used by frat boys to smuggle peppermint schnapps onto ski slopes. What a pity. If more people were to appreciate the history and craftsmanship surrounding the bota, as well as the simple rules for its use and maintenance, then perhaps it would be treated with the respect it deserves. On behalf of Hemingway, Cervantes and my adopted country of Spain, I resolve to defend the bota’s honor in the paragraphs below.

The bota is as old as Spain itself, existing before wooden casks and bottles came in to use. It is said to have evolved from the pellejo, which is the skin of a largely intact goat carcass sewn and sealed liquid tight, and was used by Spanish families to store several months’ supply of wine. It was a line of pellejos that succumbed to the mighty sword of Don Quixote in the upstairs loft of the inn. The bota evolved as a small pellejo, holding approximately 1.5 liters of wine for individual use. No Spanish shepherd would dare tend his flock, or farmer work his fields, unless armed with bulging bota. Botas are still used in rural Spain, and have three common characteristics: they are made from goatskin, have a curved shape and impart a slight pitch flavor to the wine.

Making a quality bota is not like mass-producing tennis shoes in a Far East sweatshop. Rather, bota construction is considered an art in Spain and the botero a respected artisan. Bota-making is a labor-intensive process requiring a period of apprenticeship and a heavily calloused set of hands.

First, the hair of the goatskin is trimmed to a length of one centimeter and the skin is salted in order to close the pores. A pattern is then laid upon the skin and cut. The pattern-shaped skin is folded together, hair side out, and lightly stitched. The botero then intertwines several hemp threads to make one strong thread and rubs it with pitch so that it will pass more easily through the skin. The pitch-rubbed hemp thread is strung through a needle tipped with a stiff wild boar hair, and the bota halves are tightly sewn together. The botero keeps constant pressure on the stitching in order to assure a wine-tight seam. When tightly sewn, the bota is turned inside-out (so that the hair side faces in), wetted and inflated. The botero then pours a brew of hot pitch and olive oil into the bota and swishes it around to distribute it evenly. When the pitch cools, it clings to the hairs and renders the interior impermeable. Finally, the botero attaches a plastic spout (which, in bygone days, was fashioned from bone or wood), wraps the spout with a collar and attaches a carrying cord. Like a high-quality corkscrew or well-stocked cellar, the handcrafted bota is now ready to serve its thirsty master.

But how does one use and care for a bota? For guidance on this crucial matter, there is only one place to turn…a Spanish grandfather. As such, I sought the counsel of 78 year old Julio Montealegre, a lifelong Madrid resident who claims to have taken mother’s milk from a bota when Calvin Coolidge was in the White House. He gave me his ten commandments for use and care of a bota.

I. THOU SHALT NOT INFLATE A COLD BOTA. Never! When deflated, the two-sides of the bota will touch and, being covered with pitch, stick together. If you forcibly inflate a cold bota, you will likely tear the pitch from one of its internal walls. The end-result…a bota that can’t hold its liquor. A bota should be heated with a dry heat source (e.g., the summer sun or a heater duct) in order to soften the pitch before inflating.

II. THOU SHALT “CURE” A BOTA BEFORE THE FIRST FILLING. When you first unscrew and sniff the inside of a new bota, it smells like a freshly paved parking lot. “Curing” removes (or, at least, drastically reduces) this unappetizing bouquet. To cure a bota, pour in a cup of wine and a cup of brandy or cognac. Let it sit for two to three days, flipping the bota every 12 hours or so, and discard.

III. THOU SHALT NOT STORE SOFTDRINKS IN A BOTA. This is both sacrilegious and bad for the health of your bota. Softdrinks will eat away the pitch. Botas should only hold wine or liquors with an alcohol content less than 25 degrees.

IV. THOU SHALT NOT LEAVE AIR INSIDE A WINE-FILLED BOTA. Ignore this commandment if your goal is to dress a salad. There are two ways to avoid this problem. The most effective is to drink your bota dry during the same day that you fill it. Practical as this option may be, traffic police frown upon it. The next best solution is, after a good long drink, to hold the bota vertically with the spout pointed upward and gently yet steadily squeeze the bottom so as to force the wine upward. When you see the first drop of wine rising from the spout, screw on the cap.

V. THOU SHALT NOT HANG A BOTA. If you hang a bota, the pitch will drip down to, and accumulate in, the bottom. The result will be a bota that seems to have swallowed a tennis ball. A bota should be stored flat and horizontal. If the bota is empty, then it is a good idea to cover the spout with a small piece of plastic wrap before screwing on the cap. If the bota should accidentally slope downward and a drop of pitch migrates down and out of the spout, the plastic wrap will prevent the pitch from welding the cap shut.

VI. THOU SHALT NOT WASH AN EMPTIED BOTA. Soapy water will taint the pitch and, obviously, your next gulp of wine.

VII. THOU SHALT NOT PUT WHITE WINE IN A RED WINE BOTA. And vice versa. This is one of the few instances where the practice of segregation is encouraged.

VIII. THOU SHALT NOT BLOW CIGARETTE SMOKE ONTO A BOTA. Most Spaniards break this commandment, but it is still good advice. The bota’s leather absorbs cigarette smoke like a sponge. I once bought a bota from a smoky Barcelona bar. After several weeks of airing out, it still smelled like the Marlboro man’s finger. That smelly bota, for which a Spanish goat bravely gave its hide, ended up in the garbage…unused.

IX. THOU SHALT NOT PUT GOOD WINE IN A BOTA. The bota will impart a slight pitch flavor to any wine that it is filled with, so save your gran reserva for a crystal decanter. Nonetheless, pitch flavor or no pitch flavor, a less-than-stellar wine always seems to taste better when fired into the mouth from a bota held at arm’s length.

X. THOU SHALT NOT RUB A BOTA WITH SUNTAN LOTION. Mr. Montealegre concedes that few people would do such a preposterous thing, but his son-in-law once broke this commandment and ruined his bota. He therefore felt compelled to warn others.

Show a little respect! Slung over the shoulder during a sunny day’s hike (rather then stuffed under a ski parka during Spring Break), a handcrafted and well-maintained bota will provide its owner with years of bacchanalian pleasure.