“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.