Thursday, 17 October 2013

Bull-running... for kids!

Hemmingway introduced the world to running with bulls at Pamplona’s annual San Fermin fiesta (in which you can risk your life in front of a herd of charging ‘toros’). But did you know that there is a much more ‘animal (and human!) friendly’ version? One in which the only screaming you will hear will be the intense piercing squeals of young children having devilish fun... and where the only bulls involved are on wheels!

Encierros infantiles’ or ‘children’s bull-runs’ are becoming an increasingly popular part of those Spanish fiestas which include bull-running (which are by no means confined to Pamplona). I was in the Valencian community during the summer and saw encierros infantiles advertised in the local press almost on a daily basis. I popped along to the small town of Nules (population 13,000 and pronounced noo-les) to see what all the screaming was about.

I arrive early and find the town set up for a week of full-blown bull-running. The pretty main plaza (the size of half a football pitch) is dominated by the ayuntamiento (town hall) boasting bell and clock towers. But today the plaza is made smaller by the cadafales which have been erected around its perimeter. Cadafales are cages made of steel bars, thick enough to withstand an assault by an enraged bull. On top of the cadafales the genteel folk sit and sip cañas, while underneath the young and the brave (some may say foolhardy) seek refuge when the bull gets too close. The cobbles are liberally sanded and it seems as though every child from miles around has come to make sandcastles. But don’t be fooled, a white van pulls up in the corner and the castillos are trampled in the stampede.


       From the van emerge the Bou Per la Vila (Bull in the Town) team, a heavy-duty sound system and half a dozen carretones taurinos (bulls-on-wheels). The excitement level of the couple of hundred children in the square ratchets up a couple of notches as the back-doors of the van swing open to reveal the bull-heads, with horns topped by golf-balls. Who said élf ´n´safety never made it to Spain? The sound-system booms into life, Gangnam-style, and babes in arms have their photos taken by proud parents in front of the waiting carretones. Red neckerchiefs (similar to those worn by the San Ferminers) are given out and a quick warm-up session is attempted before mayhem takes over. And then it begins; the screaming goes Richter, the bulls are on the move.

The older children, anyone over about 10, run towards the bulls or after them. Younger children, the 7 or 8 year-olds, generally seem to run away. Anyone younger than that (who is able to run) doesn’t seem to know what to do, and usually ends up running around in circles, screaming their head off. If you take your eyes off the bull for a second, you will see that the adults carrying babies, or holding the hands of 5- or 6-year-olds (to keep them ‘safe’) are actually having as much fun as the children.


At a given signal, the carretones charge en mass up a long side street, followed by what must now be three or four hundred children (and adult ‘carers’). All goes quiet for a brief couple of moments before the crowd spews back into the plaza pursued by the bulls, like an uncorked Cava bottle.


There is a call on the PA for ‘toritos pequeños’ and anyone who has brought along their own mini bull on mini wheels is now welcome to join in the mayhem. Adults chase children. Children chase adults. Bulls chase bulls. Some children have brought capes while others are even riding the bulls!

The Bou Per la Vila team then defy all known laws of child-psychology by asking the hyper-excited children to form lines for individual ‘runs’ against the bulls. This won’t happen, my experienced-teacher’s brain tells me, confidently. And I am wrong.

I have to confess, I’m no fan of bull-fighting or (adult) bull-running, but for an evening I regret bitterly that I was born and brought up in Cricklewood, rather than Nules. It seems to be the most fun it’s possible to have as a child, without actually doing anything ‘wrong’. 

I shot some video in Nules. It'll give you a pretty good impression of the atmosphere:

Nules night run

And here's the 'real thing', an adult 'bull-run' from the nearby town of Burriana:

Burriana run 2013

But be warned... There is no doubt that the encierros infantiles escapades, while being good, clean fun for all the family, are also the perfect recruiting sergeant for the next generation of (adult) bull-runners. These events bring people (and therefore money) into the small towns that host them. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that the adult events are the same ‘fun’. Four days after my afternoon in Nules, a local man was killed in that day’s run.

So, if you want to experience Spainish ‘toro’ culture in a safe (if noisy) way, then take my advice and ignore the bull-ring with its blood and gore, and instead seek out an encierro infantile for all the family to enjoy. They’re especially common in the summer months, in the towns inland from the packed beaches. Take a break from the sun, sea and sand... and run!

Read more of my adventures in Spain in my eBook, Zen Kyu Maestro: An English Teacher's Spanish Adventure. Click on the cover for more details: