Tag Archives: Animal Cruelty

Travels in Spain, The Historical Centre of Valencia

Valencia Town Hall

Regardless of the size of any Spanish city the historical centre is generally small and easily managed on foot and Valencia is no exception confined as it is within a circle that was once the old medieval city walls.

Our excellent accommodation was close to the central squares adjacent to the Cathedral and to the central market which was one of my favourite places.  Every morning I volunteered for breakfast shopping duties and made an early morning visit joining lines of Valencians going about their daily business, some vigorous, some dawdling, some urgent and energetic some reluctant and lethargic.

On the very edge of the centre is another market, a very fine building with a colourful Gaudi-inspired façade which is an example of Modernista Valencian Art Nouveau architecture of the time and has since been declared a national monument.

Valencia 008

It was once a real market but these days it has been gentrified and gone up-market and instead of stalls of fish and vegetables it is home to expensive cafés, restaurants and shops, the smell of the sea and the soil has been replaced by barista and croissant but it is a good place to visit all the same.

Not a great deal of the original city walls remain in place, just a pile of gnarled stone here and there but there are two restored gate houses that El Cid would surely have recognised even today and I chose one of them to pay the very reasonable admission fee of €1and climbed to the top where there were good views over the whole of the city.

Valencia 08

One of the things that I especially liked about Valencia was the general level of cleanliness with tidy streets and a thankful lack of graffiti, I know some people consider it to be a form of expressionism but in my opinion it is almost always a punishable crime.  I do however like good urban art and on almost every street corner there was something worthwhile to see, always well done and tasteful.  (The three worst places that I have been for graffiti by the way are Bologna, Lisbon and Ljubljana).

Valencia 05

Finally we visited the Bull Ring which I know a lot of people won’t agree with as being something worthwhile.  I used to think that I would like to see a Bullfight but not anymore.  Not because I disagree with it in principle but simply because as a spectacle it wouldn’t appeal to me.  That is because I am not Spanish and it is not part of my culture and tradition.

“Nothing expresses the masculine quality of this country better than the bull-fight, that lurid and often tawdry gladiatorial ritual, which generally repels the northerner in the theory, but often makes his blood race in the act.”  – Jan Morris. ‘Spain’

Valencia 07

There are many calls from outside Spain (and within as well) to ban the sport but that would be doing away with a pagan tradition that stretches back to the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans and once it has gone that link will disappear forever.

“I do not consider bullfighting a sport, it is an art, a science, a ritual more spiritual than physical”   Patricia McCormick – America’s first professional female bullfighter

The informative little museum explained that in a bullfight six bulls are killed in an event and this involves three matadors with their band of attendants, the picador horsemen who lance the bulls and the banderillos who stab them with barbed spikes.  If the spectators approve of the matador’s performance they wave white handkerchiefs to signal to the president of the fight that he should reward him with a trophy, one or both of the bull’s ears and/or its tail.  Personally I would rather have a bottle of champagne or a cheque!

Every year, approximately two hundred and fifty thousand bulls are killed in bullfights. Opponents condemn it as a cruel blood sport, supporters defend it as a cultural event and point out that animal cruelty exists elsewhere in horse racing, rodeos or any form of hunting with guns which are all forms of sport that are stoically defended by those who take part.

Personally I would include the cruel and pointless sport of fishing in that list because to my way of thinking there is nothing more barbaric than catching a poor creature just going peacefully about its daily business with a hook and line and dragging it from its environment in a most stressful way and watch it lying there on the bank of a river gasping for breath.

All in all, I remain firmly on the fence in the matter of Bullfighting. I think we should first address the issue of man’s inhumanity to man.

Valencia 01

Another Strange Bird Story – Vinkenzetting

vinkenzetting2

This is a story that I find almost unbelievable but I swear that it is true and if there was a list of pointless things that mankind has thought up to amuse itself then this would be close to the top of the list.

The chaffinch is a popular pet bird in many countries because of its beautiful song.  In the Flanders region of Belgium, the four hundred year old sport of vinkenzetting (finch-sitting) is a competition that pits male chaffinches against one another in a contest for the most bird calls in an hour.  The sport was first recorded in 1596 and currently it is estimated that there are over thirteen thousand vinkeniers breeding ten thousand birds every year.

This is a sport even more pointless than fishing and this is how the contest works – a row of cages, each housing a single male finch, are lined up approximately two metres apart along a street, the close proximity is important because it increases the number of calls, as the birds sing to attract a mate and to establish its territory, and every time the bird sings this is recorded as a score by making a chalk mark on a pole.  A timekeeper begins and ends the contest with a red flag and the bird singing its song the most times in one hour wins the contest.

Chaffinch

According to the organisers of the sport finches from the different regions of Belgium sing in different dialects. Flemish finchers insist that only Flemish chaffinches chirp the susk-e-wiet and that Wallonian finches, found a few miles away, sing in a dialect closer to French. If a bird fails to sing in the Flemish style then its tweets may not be counted.  Any bird singing in French is immediately disqualified with no right of appeal.  I imagine the French are not happy about that knowing how precious they are about their language.

In my opinion this must surely be a something that should be stopped immediately because why would anyone want to put a wild bird as beautiful as this into a wooden box simply for their own amusement?

As with other sports, vinkenzetting has had its cheating scandals and in one competition a champion finch sang 1,278 correct songs (that’s one every three seconds or so) but the owner was later accused of doping the bird with testosterone.  At another contest after one finch sang the exact same number of calls in two rounds the box was opened and a mini CD player was discovered inside.  I hope the owners were appropriately punished.

This man looks like the Diego Maradonna of vinkenzetting…

Vikenzetting 1

Travels in Spain – Medinaceli and Bizarre Spanish Festivals

Roman Arch Medinaceli Spain

“History lies underground.  On the surface is the bustling life of Spain with its smell, noise, burning sun, decay, street life, mountain shrines, fiestas, markets, dark wine, acrid dust… hard mountains, rushing ravines, hopefulness and resignation, openness, tragedy and song” –   Christopher Howse – ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

Over breakfast we had a debate about what to do today and agreed to act on a recommendation from the hotel owner, Juan, to visit the nearby town of Medinaceli in the Province of Soria in Castilla y Leon.  This was only about thirty kilometres away so a much more sensible idea than the mad drive to Zaragoza yesterday.

Hita Guadalajara Spain

Before that however there were some parts of Sigüenza still to explore so after we had finished eating we left the hotel and walked to the Plaza Mayor and out of the town gate and walked towards the Rio Henares to the north of the town.  The route took us along a quiet meandering path around the back of the Cathedral and then through a seminary and a collection of bleak monastic buildings before threading its way to the recreational gardens where we stopped for coffee and watched the old men of the town playing pétanque nearby and by late morning we were ready to set off for Medinaceli.

We could have taken the Autovia but we had seen more than enough of that the previous day so instead we followed the road signs out of town on a quiet road that followed the route of the high speed railway line but eventually the tarmac came to a stop and there was a shale, pot holed track to follow for about ten kilometres during which I worried constantly about damage to the car.

We stopped once to see some natural limestone caverns and I made an inspection of the paintwork and after we had carried on eventually we came to another asphalt road and I was relieved about that and we made our way into the town.

What was immediately obvious was that this was quite a touristic sort of place so I was surprised that I had never heard of it or seen it feature in the guide books and in truth almost all of the visitors here today were Spanish.  Medinaceli is famous for having the only three door Roman Arch in Spain, a truly Castilian Plaza Mayor and a Medieval castle which now houses the town cemetery.

Plaza Mayor Medinaceli

We walked through the Plaza and under the walls of the castle to the Arch and around the centre of the town, which had what seemed to me too many restaurants and souvenir shops for such a small place which confirmed its touristic status.

It was nice but I couldn’t help thinking that all of a sudden I had been transported into Disney World, EPCOT World Showcase because this was an over-manicured, not a thing out of place sort of place that was beautiful to see but was hardly authentic.

The cobbled streets were immaculately clean, the gardens would all have won gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show and everything was groomed to perfection.  The doors and windows were highly polished, the iron balustrades all black and shiny and without a hint of rust and the steps and streets that undulated gently through the village were all swept scrupulously clean.

When we had seen it we stopped for lunch and sat and reflected upon our unexpected discovery. It was a beautiful, serene sort of place but I discovered later that it has an unpleasant side also because it has an annual festival that a lot of people would almost certainly disapprove of.

Siguenza Cathedral

Living in a country (UK) where health and safety officials successfully banned an annual cheese rolling event just in case the three kilogram cheese (rolling at seventy-five miles an hour it has to be said)  hit and injured a spectator most people in England will consider some of the Spanish festivals rather dangerous.

Most will have heard about the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona where bad tempered one tonne beasts with lethal horns are let loose in the centre of the town to chase people who are foolish enough to take part.  Similarly a lot of people will think the Tomatino Tomato fight in Buñol in Valencia is amusing (even though a well aimed tomato could surely take an eye out) but then some of the annual festivals become downright bizarre:

In Castilla y Leon they have some very odd and dangerous events.  In Soria people walk over hot coals in their bare feet and in Castrillo de Murcia near Burgos a madman dresses as a devil and runs around the town jumping over new born babies that are laid out in the street as some sort of alternative Pagan baptism.

And then things turn rather unpleasant and start to involve animal cruelty.  In Manganeses de la Polvorosa near Zamora, also in Castilla y Leon, they drag a goat to the top of a fifteen metre high church tower and throw it over the top where spectators try to catch the unfortunate animal in a tarpaulin!

Apparently the goat throwing is now banned and there is a fine for anyone caught doing it but the people of the town get around this by everyone making a contribution to pay the fine for the man doing the throwing!

In the last fifty years  the transformation in Spain from Medieval to Modern, from serfdom to twenty-first century has been more rapid than in any other Western European country but below the surface of progress there still remains the stubborn adherence to the past.

Andalucia Bull

In Medinaceli they have perhaps the cruellest of them all and my advice to visitors would be steer well clear of this one.  At the Toro Jubilo a baying crowd drag a terrified bull into an arena, tie it to a post and attach balls of pitch to its horns and set them alight.

Let me repeat that, they drag a terrified bull into an arena, tie it to a post and attach balls of pitch to its horns and set them alight.

To be fair to the  people of Medinaceli they do point out that they thoughtfully cover the animal in mud which is supposed to stop it from excessive burning suffering.  They then find it amusing to watch the tormented bull going frantic as it tries to shake off the balls of fire or try to extinguish them in the dust of the arena.  The poor animal stands no chance and has to wait until they are fully burnt out before the obvious trauma is over before it is taken away and slaughtered for its meat.

This apparently is the point of the festival.  Legend has it that when the Christians reconquered the territory of Teruel in Aragon in 1171, they sent bulls with burning torches on their horns to force the Moors out.  It was a complete success apparently and to this day eating the flesh of these tortured animals after they are engulfed by flames is said to bring fertility and invincibility.

In a country famous for bizarre festivals this has to be one of the most unpleasant in terms of animal cruelty.  As a rule I am not one for interfering with local customs and heritage but this is surely a form of animal cruelty that has no place in modern Spain or anywhere else for that matter.*

I used to think that it might be nice to sell up and go and live in a different country but as I have got older I have abandoned the idea.  The reason for this is that I am English not Spanish and my character, behaviour and whole way of life has been shaped by an English heritage that, even if I wanted to, can never be changed.  I couldn’t live in a country where they throw goats from a bell tower or set fire to the horns of a bull, not because I challenge their right to do it but  because I would never be able to understand why they do it!

We returned to Sigüenza by the same route and stopped for an afternoon drink in the gardens and watched the men who had been playing pétanque now drinking beer and playing cards – what a life!

Later we planned to dine at Le Meson but it was unexpectedly closed so we climbed to the top of the town and selected a restaurant close to the castle where we enjoyed an excellent final meal in Sigüenza which I am happy to instantly promote into my top ten favourite places in Spain.

Plaza Mayor Siguenza Spain

* Bear baiting in England for example was outlawed by Act of Parliament as long ago as 1834. The  Toro Jubilo  seems to me to a similar form of animal cruelty.