13 September 2007
Bonnie and Rick
We didn't understand what a big deal the Ayamonte fiesta was until we met the friendly taxi driver who drove us back to the marina after we dropped off the rental car. Without using a word of English (but with fluent body language accompanying his Spanish) he made us understand that every business in the city was closed for fiesta, that the bullfight would have six bulls and a famous matador, that a big procession would happen after the bullfight, and that there would be many beautiful women wearing mantillas, dresses and lots of make-up. Instead of taking us directly to the marina, he drove us through the town to point out the locations for the events -no extra cost for the detour.
It is hard to explain why Rick and I suddenly decided that attending a Spanish bullfight was an acceptable idea. Unlikely Portugal, they do kill the bulls in the ring here, and we had previously agreed that we weren't interested in seeing such a brutal spectacle. Perhaps it was the taxi driver's enthusiasm- and the fact that the bullfight seemed to be such an integral aspect of the fiesta. Or perhaps we were influenced by our Lonely Planet guide, which says that "to witness (a bullfight) is not necessarily to approve of it, but might give insight into the tradition and thinking..." In any event, without even consulting Christopher, we headed straight from the taxi to the arena, and bought three tickets for the 7 p.m. "corrida", on the sunny side of the arena. At 40 euros/ticket for the sunny side (versus 50 euros/ticket for the shady side) this was not an inexpensive venture.
As we walked toward the arena, a brass band in white military-type uniforms marched down the street ahead of us. By 6:45 we were settled onto the hard concrete seats of the Plaza de Toros, equipped with the complementary straw hats and fans that were handed out at the door. The arena was not full- perhaps the tide is beginning to turn against this "sport". (Apparently, Spanish public TV has recently decided not to broadcast the bullfights-a very controversial decision.)
Ayamonte is not a tourist destination, and the event we attended was probably quite typical of those staged in small towns around the country. Unlike our experience at the bullfight in Terceira, we had no one to explain the process to us, so it was difficult to follow the sequence of events. Two formally dressed men seated at the top of the arena appeared to be overseeing the fight. There were wooden screens placed strategically around the perimeter of the ring to provide places for the team to hide from the bull. A single horseman on a white horse entered the arena and the brass band began to play as the matadors, picadors and banderilleros paraded in. Then each bull was released into the ring, had its ferocity demonstrated by matadors using magenta and gold capes, and was systematically weakened by a series of wounds delivered by the picadors and banderilleros. At times, the anxiety of the picadors was palpable. Still, given the fact that it is one bull against a team of six men (who can duck behind the wooden screens when the bull charges) it is hardly what you would call a fair fight.
There were three matadors, one of whom looked considerably older than the others. Each matador fought two bulls. The performances of the younger two were admittedly impressive, but the older matador was obviously past his prime and was booed by the crowd. (He actually fell near the feet of the first bull, but the other matadors quickly came to his assistance and lured the bull away.) In the final stage of each fight, the matador performs a series of passes with a red cape, and kills the bull with a sword thrust. Presumably, certain of the matador's moves, such as turning his back to the bull, are intended to demonstrate bravery. The spectators waved white handkerchiefs and threw hats and fans into the ring when they were pleased with a matador's performance. When they were displeased, some empty water bottles were thrown. At the conclusion of the fight, the star matador, "El Capea", was carried around the arena on the shoulders of a spectator, having been awarded with the ears of two bulls. Ugh.
During the first "fight", all three of us were focusing on the bull and felt so disgusted that we considered leaving. As the evening progressed and successive bulls charged into the ring, we found ourselves focusing less on the bull and more on the bullfighters. Somehow, the spectacle of the ceremony and the skilled performance of the matadors seemed to distract us from the fate of the bull- it was a strange transition. The experience provided a lot of insight into Spanish culture and the nature of the controversy around bullfighting, but I would not want to attend another.
The rest of the evening was a lot more fun. We headed for a small caf� outside the town's "casino", (which is really a small tavern where elderly men play pool, cards and a domino-type game) and settled in to watch the crowd. We'd been told that the procession would start shortly after the bullfight, and by 11 p.m. we were getting worried that we had somehow missed it. I decided to approach the elderly couple at the next table and tried to ask them whether the procession was over. The wife, whose expert wielding of her large fan had been a source of great fascination to Rick, motioned that she was hard of hearing and pointed to the husband. The husband-doubtless as a result of my abysmal Spanish-thought that I was asking him which foods on the menu were good. We nodded enthusiastically during his long explanation of which items were "mucho bueno" and then decided we had no choice but to order some food. We followed his recommendations on the calamares and boquerones (sardines) and both were delicious. As the couple left, the husband told us that he owned a restaurant in Cadiz, and that it was much better than this one!
The street beside us gradually became deeply lined with spectators on both sides. Finally, at about 1130, the procession came past. It was amazing- hundreds of elaborately dressed Ayamonteans- women wearing classic high headdresses with mantillas, men in formal suits, military officers in uniform, altar boys carrying huge crosses and priests swinging incense balls. Just as a huge glittering float with a statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ came abreast of us, the procession stopped and fireworks started to go off overhead. It was one of those "I can't believe I'm here" moments.
We spent the next few days relaxing, cooking onboard and occasionally wandering out to explore the town. By watching where the local crowd gathered, we were able to find a much better tapas restaurant on the corner of one of the inner streets and had some wonderful clams and shrimp that rivaled the ones we had in Seville. We also took the ferry back over to Portugal to visit the small town of Villa Real de Santa Antonio and to book Christopher's train ticket to Lisbon. There was not much of interest in Villa Real and we were glad that we had chosen to pass by the marina there and pull into Ayamonte.
Last night was Christopher's last night and he chose to spend it on board cooking us a wonderful pasta with a made-from-scratch tomato/shrimp/sausage sauce. All other pretenders for the best-on-board meal have now been eliminated! It was fortunate that we had decided to eat on board, because a huge thunder and lightening storm began at about 9 o'clock and continued late into the night. We were happy to be tucked safely into the marina.
We left Christopher at the Villa Real train station shortly after noon today, and had one last galao before we boarded the ferry to leave Portugal for the last time- at least on this trip. We had now crossed the border between Portugal and Spain eleven times in just over a month. Small wonder we can never remember whether to say gracias or obrigado! On the ferry ride back, we noticed two sailboats at anchor in the river on the east side just inside the last green mark, opposite the Portuguese ferry dock. So, it appears you can anchor here, although the Imray guide does not mention it.
Things seem very lonely on board tonight. Christopher has just called to say he made it to Lisbon with no delays. He will be overnighting in a hotel in Lisbon and flying home in the morning. Hopefully no lost luggage on the return trip!
We have really enjoyed Ayamonte but it will soon be time to move on. From here, we'll be taking things at a slower pace on the way to Gibraltar. There are a few options- cruise up the river Guadiana (which might offer the bonus of killing some of the three months worth of growth on our hull), head directly to Magazon (where, I sincerely hope, a laundry facility awaits) or sail directly to Chipiona and up the Guadalquivir River to Seville. If we decide to return to Seville by boat, it appears we will face our first experience with med-mooring...and in a river current. It's a bit intimidating on a boat that has its own mind in reverse, a wind vane on the canoe stern and no proper pasarelle. We will keep you posted.