Spanish Bull-Boards

Archaic coats-of-arms? So out. Overtly masculine bull icons? So in.

Pamplona, Spain November 14th, 2010

Since arriving in Spain, I’ve seen the simple but striking outline of a black bull emblazoned on t-shirts, keychains, and bumper stickers. It seems to be every bit as strong a national symbol as the Spanish flag itself – in fact, the two are often combined, especially for sporting events!

There are also postcards sold here and there which appear to show a large, standing interpretation of the black bull in a field of sunflowers. Later, I was out with some friends when we spotted one by the road. It was enormous – a thin piece of metal painted jet black and standing proudly over the highway. I was starting to get curious. This was clearly a different specimen than I had seen in the postcards, and, now that I thought about it, I’d seen another one in my friend’s photographs from the Canary Islands. So there were at least three across Spain, I thought, and logic would say there were likely to be more… a good deal more.

I’ve kept my eye out on my travels around Spain, and by now I’ve probably seen close to a dozen, perched everywhere from the dry, rocky roadsides of Alicante to the lush green hills of Galicia. My curiosity was piqued. How many were there? How did they get where they were? How are they maintained? I assumed that they had been placed along the highways in order to reflect a national symbol – but after a little bit of research, I learned that the truth was precisely the opposite, and that the bulls have a long and complicated history that has taken turns no one could have predicted.

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The History of the Osborne Bulls:

It all started in the 1950′s, when the sherry company Osborne (incidentally, the second oldest company in Spain), chose a simple bull logo to advertise their new brandy, and began erecting modestly sized wooden billboards in the shape of this logo, each painted with the word “Osborne”. If these bulls sound quite different from those seen today, that’s because they were!

There were once more than a hundred 'bulls' across Spain, each held together with more than 1,000 bolts.

Soon, weather conditions required the company to switch their material from wood to metal, and they increased the size of the billboards to 7 meters. Then, in 1962, new laws required advertisements to be kept further from the roads, so the size of the bulls was double to a massive 14 meters, and they were strategically placed over flat stretches or on hilltops in order to maximize visibility.

Advertising restrictions continued to tighten, and by the late 1980′s Osborne had to remove their names from the sign and paint them plain black in order to follow regulations. This worked for a few years, until new laws said that the bulls – plain black or no – would have to be taken down.

Then, something extraordinary happened – the media and the people of Spain leapt to the billboards’ defense – a massive ‘save the bulls’ campaign was initiated. The argument went all the way to Spain’s Supreme Court, which in 1997 ruled that the bulls had transcended mere advertising icons, and were now part of Spain’s cultural identity and heritage.

The bulls were safe! Well, mostly. Some had already been destroyed before they were given protected status, and those that remain are still subject to the weather (in 2009, one of the Alicante bulls was demolished by strong winds – it has since been rebuilt) and vandalism (the only bull in Catalonia, near Barcelona, has been repeatedly vandalized by Catalan nationalists, and has not been rebuilt after its most recent destruction.)

The Osborne company itself has had mixed feelings about the bull saga. Just as the status of the bulls as cultural icons has protected them from advertising regulations, it has protected manufacturers of souvenirs utilizing the logo from copyright restrictions.

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Where are they now?

Wikipedia's map showing bulls per Spanish province.

The 89 remaining Osburne Bulls are scattered unevenly across Spain, from the greatest concentration (23) in Andalucia, to the single speciments of the Basque Country, Navarra, Catalunya, the Balearic Islands, and the Canary Islands.

For fellow residents of Navarra, ours is in the south, near Tudela.

Wherever they are located, the bulls are taken care of today by Felix Tejada and his family, in whose workshop they were first created.

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

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Paddleboarding

Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, U.S.A. – February 13th, 2011

Free Watersports West paddleboard demos are held weekly in summer, monthly in winter.

The sign said: ‘Free Paddleboard Demo’, and a half dozen people were braving the fifty degree weather (frigid by Floridian standards) to give it a try. The beginners were standing up slowly and carefully – a February morning swim was not on anyone’s agenda. That was just fine. Paddleboarding isn’t that kind of sport.

“This is the yoga of surfing,” said Steve LeVine. “You don’t put in where there are a ton of boats going back and forth, or where there are huge waves.” He advised us not to paddleboard where we wouldn’t feel safe putting a canoe, and gave a few good and bad examples in the area. Steve owns Watersports West, and runs frequent demos so people can take a turn paddleboarding, or ‘standup paddle surfing’.

I cuffed my jeans and took off my shoes to try it for myself. I was a little nervous about standing up, dreading a cold swim, but the board was broad and didn’t tip easily. Before I knew it, I was up and moving. When I went with the wind, I didn’t have to do a thing – my body acted like a sail, and the board glided over the water. The paddling came in when I headed back towards the beach. It takes some practice to put deep strokes into the water without shifting your center of gravity too much. I wobbled almost as much doing this as I had getting to my feet!

I look like a cross between a Gondolier in Venice and Huck Finn rafting down the Mississippi. I can live with that.

The paddles are a little different than the ones used when canoeing or kayaking. They’re much longer, so you don’t have to bend down, and the blades are more sharply curved and a little counter-intuitive. “It’s like you put it in backwards!” another participant agreed with me. But for the most part, the basics are easy to pick up. By the second time I went out, I had a handle on the mechanics and could concentrate on the experience.

I understood why Steve compared it to yoga. It was more peaceful than thrilling, but in the best way. Like a kayak, the board moved silently, without disturbing the water underneath. Pelicans seated on dock pilings seemed completely undisturbed as I slid past them. Another bird came within a few feet of me as it flew just over the surface of the water. Standing upright meant I could look down as easily as up, and it was dizzying to watch fish, sea plants, and submerged mangrove go by. It just might be the closest I ever come to walking on water.

/Even Where You Are

Suomenlinna – Finnish Castle or Swedish Fortress?

A seagull perched above the King's Gate at Suomenlinna

Helsinki, Finland – June 30th, 2008

Whenever anyone asks me what they should do in Helsinki, I know exactly what to tell them – take a ferry to Suomenlinna. A boat runs all through the year, breaking ice when it needs to, so brave souls can even visit the Unesco World Heritage Site during the cold Finnish winter. But summer is Suomenlinna’s best season. The sprawling fortress is built on six islands,  and tourists and locals alike love to visit the cafes, have a picnic on the rocks by the sea, or explore the network of tunnels and gates. The place is today so park-like and peaceful that its military history is difficult to imagine. Children climb on old cannons as if they were playground slides, and subterranean walls and gunpowder magazines are now mistaken for gentle, grassy hillsides.

Most of Suomenlinna's tunnels are on the islands of Kustaanmiekka and Susisaari.

On the surface, Suomenlinna is not terribly different from many other Baltic islands. But the best part of a visit there is going down into the tunnels. Although visitors are advised that they enter at their own risk, entrances to the accessible tunnels are clearly shown on the map, and they are easy to navigate (even if I once or twice wished for a flashlight!)

You may not get lost in the tunnels, but you will get disoriented. Liisa and I were constantly surprised to emerge from the tunnels far from where we had first entered. And while we always felt quite safe, there was still an element of adventure. As we walked down one tunnel, we realized it sloped down to the sea when we got our feet wet… in another, we found the remains of a little campsite.

Suomenlinna was so named in 1918, when the newly independent people of Finland named it “Finnish Castle” in their own language. The Swedish speaking world still calls it by its former name, Sveaborg, or “Swedish Fortress.” It’s easy to see why both nations would like to claim this beautiful place as their own!

/A Taste of Scandinavia

Mountains in the Rearview Mirror

Where: Rocky Mountain National Park, U.S.A.

When: July 2010

Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

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A reflection in a crystal-clear mountain pool? A break in the fabric of dimensions? Actually, it’s just an interesting way my camera dealt with my rear-view mirror while I was driving on Colorado’s Highway to the Sky.

/American Road Trip Plus

Notes from the Cloud Forest

Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica – June 10th, 2008

When I was a child, I saw a cartoon set in the cloudforest of South America, and I had wanted to go there ever since. I was reasonable about it – I knew one couldn’t truly expect to find ancient ruins, hidden caves behind waterfalls, or the secret sanctuary of the endangered quetzal birds. Still, the name promised enough with its very essence – imagine, a forest set so high in the mountains that it rises into the clouds and is filled with mists… It’s like something out of a story book.

And it really is. Something out of a fairy tale and a sci-fi horror all together. Some of the plants growing in there were like nothing I’d ever seen, like the shoots of wet green, covered in dark spots as though, reaching a certain age, it would rise from the earth as a sentient being… plants whose roots pulled nutrients out of the wet, rich air itself, the monkey tree, which ends in spiralling branches so like the tails of monkeys…  and monkeys themselves, spider monkeys and howler monkeys, crashing through the leaves overhead, making the forest alive. And the mists swallowed everything, enshrouding the forest in mystery and leaving beads of moisture on everything that passed through it.

Lianas like those of a thousand jungle movies hung from the branches above, and disappeared below into the mists as we crossed swinging bridges hung over valleys. It was something from a dream, from another planet, from a fairy tale, from an earlier age in the long lifespan of the world… beautiful.

Perhaps I had learned something from O’Toole’s photography lecture at the volcano. Some things… you just remember. I didn’t take as many photos as usual there in the forest. Of the few I took, most failed utterly to capture the experience. The water everywhere, the wet echoes of footprints and screeching wildlife, the grey mists and sudden, jolting, flash of colourful wings, the heaviness of the air, when I almost expected to see my reflection, hovering in the mists ahead.

And the sloth. I have no picture of him, but that does nothing to diminish the memory. It looked at me, see. It was high up in the trees, covered in shaggy fur, tinged slight green by the fungus that grew there, and it looked down at me from there, the absolute picture of mischievous smugness. Not in a dog, not in a dolphin, not in a monkey, have I ever seen an animal mirror a human emotion so clearly. His little humanoid face peeked out at us through thick green fur with a knowing, mocking gaze – as if he knew he was special, knew we were staring at him in awe, and was laughing at us.

/A Walk in the Clouds