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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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

The Window

Where: Suomenlinna, Finland

When: June 2008

Camera: Canon Powershot A550

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My friend Liisa and I were playing in the Suomenlinna tunnels when we encountered the brilliant light of this window-frame, and had some fun taking silly photos there.

Fresh Bull Eggs and Googly Eyes

Fishies say 😛

Bilbao, País Vasco, Spain – September 12th, 2010

Just steps from Bilbao’s old town, we visited El Mercado de la Ribera, which claims to be the world’s largest covered market. It’s hard to find independent confirmation of this claim, but the Guinness Book of World Records did list it in 1990 as the biggest covered food market in Europe, at 10,000 square meters. Cynthia and I went in for a stroll during our day in Bilbao, but Lea didn’t quite have the stomach for it…

The market is divided into three floors, each with its own theme. To summarize, the basement is for seafood, the main floor meat and pastries, and the upper story fruits, vegetables, and flowers – quite nice, really, as you don’t have to enjoy the aroma of octopus while you pick out your apples or tomatoes!

This is euphemistically called a 'bull's egg' - huevo de toro. Yes, it's what you think it is.

Its a lot to take in for an American – I’m used to being quite separated from the bloody reality of animal products. A quick walk on the main floor brought me past a dozen things I’d never seen in America – entire pigs’ heads, brains and tongues, freshly skinned rabbits, even bull testicles. One butcher was graphically hacking open a sheep’s carcass even as we went passed!

"Mira, mira, para un recuerdo!"

The basement was less frightening but stronger smelling – it had all the fragrance of low tide on a hot day. Still, I know it makes me a horrible person, but sometimes fish just look so funny/cute when dead, with their rolling googly eyes and their tongues sticking out! Cynthia and I stopped to take a picture of one group of them, and a boy working at the market became pretty enthusiastic about getting into our photo. “Look, look,” he said, “For a souvenir!”

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

Vitoria of the Bean Eaters

Vitoria-Gasteiz, País Vasco, Spain – September 11th, 2010

This weekend, I visited Vitoria (Gasteiz in Euskera), the capital of the Basque Country. Like other parts of the region I’ve visited thus far, Vitoria charmed me with its duality – the medieval alongside the strikingly modern, the way children laugh and play in the fountains as police block off plazas for protests, the way everything has two names – in Spanish, and in Basque. The residents of Vitoria can be called Vitorianos, or Gasteiztarras… or Babazorros, which means Bean Eaters. I like that.

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

U.K. 2010

From the Lowlands to the Highlands

August 1st-23rd, 2010

Trip Conception, Goals, and Planning:

In my second year of university, I became friends with a Scottish exchange student named Allan. We both loved walking, so we hatched a plan to meet the next summer in his country to try a long distance trek. As the date grew closer, we invited another good friend (Lucia from Chile), selected the Great Glen Way for our walk, and added in stops in London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, as well as a visit with Allan’s family in Lockerbie.

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Considerations/Advice:

Cost: My budget was approximately $1,800, of which airfare was $700, other transportation was $310, and accommodation was $340. One pound was worth almost two dollars, but things were priced as if they were equivalent. While we looked to save money in general, and we able to stay with Allan’s friends on a few occasions, we did splurge on several meals out and cultural events in Edinburgh. I’ve had less expensive holidays. In general food and souvenirs were quite pricey, but a few things, such as bus transportation, were surprisingly reasonable (8 pounds from London to Carlisle, 10 from Inverness to Edinburgh).

Thinking Ahead: We reserved hotels several weeks in advance. While there was occasionally an empty bed or a walk-in that found some room, in general the hostels were pretty full in the summer and we were glad we’d booked ahead. Few of the places in the Highlands had websites, so Allan had to call and make the bookings over the phone. We also pre-booked our Megabus routes and our Edinburgh Festival shows.

Timing: We travelled in August, which except for the midges is a lovely time to be in Scotland. It’s supposedly high tourism season, but nothing was really crowded – we passed few people on our walk, and even had our own little beach on the island of Iona.

Food: All three of us like food quite a bit, so we splurged a bit in this category from time to time, and got to try a wide variety of dishes. In London, we had upmarket chocolate and delicious Greek and Indian food in their respective neighborhoods, in Lockerbie Allan’s mom made us Kipper, British-style Curries and Pan Haggerty, and on our walk across the Highlands we had Fish and Chips in Oban, Haggis in Gairlochy, and Blood Pudding with Tatty Scones in Drumnadrochit. In general I loved Scottish food, which surprised me given its reputation. A cheap and hearty favourite were the Meat Pies and Bridies from Gregg’s – a store you can find on almost every block in Glasgow or Edinburgh.

Getting Around: We alternated between trains and Megabus for the longer distances on our itinerary. Megabus is a nice cheap option when available. We took a package tour of the innermost Hebrides (buses and ferries included), used the city buses to get around Edinburgh, and walked the Great Glen Way on our own feet. Some of the things we did around Lockerbie with Allan’s family may be difficult without a private car.

Language: I could joke that in the Highlands the accent is so thick that it’s hard to understand, but except for one or two instances, there were no real issues with this. Gaelic was more present than I expected it to be, but a tourist will never need a word of it. If you speak English, you’re good to go.

Other: When the weather was good (about half the time) it was glorious. When the weather was bad (the other half of the time) it was abysmal. It rains often and hard in Scotland, but definitely not all the time.

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Itinerary:

Lucia and I arrived in London on August 2nd, met up with Allan and spent the next two days seeing London. We saw Kings Cross Station, Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the London Eye, and the British Museum, as well as the Greek and Indian neighborhoods, where we had some delicious meals.

On the 4th, we took a bus up to Allan’s part of Scotland. We spent the next day getting ready for our journey north and taking walks around Allan’s village and it’s abandoned castle. The 6th saw us on a train to Oban, gateway to the Hebrides, and we spent a few hours in Glasgow on the way. The next day, we toured the Islands of Mull and Iona, where we had a white sand beach all to ourselves.

On August 8th, we climbed Ben Nevis, the U.K.’s highest mountain, and the next day started out on the Great Glen Way. We went from Ft. William to Gairlochy (8/9), to South Laggan (8/10), to Fort Augustus (8/11), to Altsigh (8/12), to Drumnadrochit (8/13), and finally Inverness (8/14), facing torrential rain, fairies, and the Loch Ness Monster on the journey.

By the 15th, we’d had enough of the adventurous life and headed south to Edinburgh for some culture. We toured the castle and old town by day, and took a ghost tour of the catacombs and cemeteries by night. We were there for the Edinburgh Festival, and participated by going to see a decent play and truly dreadful opera.

After Lucia went back home on the 18th, Allan and I went back to his house for a few days to relax and enjoy nearby sites like Hadrian’s Wall, New Lanark, and the Devil’s Beeftub before heading out on August 22nd.

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Posts about this trip:

(Check back on this section from time to time – I’ll continue to put up new links!)

Journal Entries:
Does the British Museum Transcend Liberal Ethics? (London, England – 8/2)
The 5 Weirdest Objects in the British Museum (London, England – 8/2)
Moffat Toffee and the Devil’s Beeftub
(Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland – 8/21)

Photography: Flowing out to Sea

Basque Church

Where: Zumaia, Spain

When: November 2010

Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

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I took this photo on a stormy November day, when a Basque friend had offered to show me some of the small villages that dot her region. Despite the weather, and although her car broke down the day before we’d planned to leave, we decided to press on by foot, bus, and coastal train. As the evening light turned the sky heavy colours, we came across this tiny church by the sea. I love the people huddled in the doorway, stretching out their goodbyes before they leave the cozy building under threatening skies.

The 5 Weirdest Objects in the British Museum

London, England – August 2nd, 2010

Look to the British Museum’s “History of the World in 100 Objects” if you want an official list of its most relevant artifacts. If, instead, you’d like a very unofficial list of its most irrelevant artifacts, read on! Here are the five things that really made me laugh:

1.) This is a piece from the Lewis Chess Set, one of the British Museum’s most famous exhibits. The chess set is striking for its antiquity (it dates to viking times), its high level of detail, and the humorous appearance of its pieces. This queen is one of my favorites, as her eyes bug out and she presses a hand to her face as if worried. Apparently, however, that’s just how people carved eyes back then… and the pose was meant as a symbol of wisdom and gracefulness.

 

 

 

 

2.) I found these three human figurines in the Mesopotamian section of the museum. What’s great is the academic description below: “These are of unfired clay. Though very crude, two certainly represent males. The third might either be female or has lost a small piece of clay.”

 

 

 

 

3.) This statuette comes from the Roman section. I can think of a dozen possible explanations of what’s going on here, and frankly, all of them are pretty weird. Just check out the facial expressions.

 

 

 

 

4.) This looks like a goofy, modern pen holder (or maybe a coffee mug?).  Apparently it’s actually from South America and pretty old at that.

 

 

 

 

5.) This is my favourite item in the whole museum, hands down. It’s a secret dagger, hidden in… a similar dagger! Brilliant! So, you know, people will never suspect you’re carrying a dagger… they’ll just think you’re carrying a… dagger! Anyone have an opinion about whether or not the interior dagger could even be used?

/From the Lowlands to the Highlands

Does the British Museum Transcend Liberal Ethics?

London, England – August 2nd, 2010

When I first entered the British Museum, I was ready to be filled with a sense of righteous liberal indignation. On a visit to the Acropolis a few years earlier, the Greeks had been only too happy to tell me where all the missing statues were – the friezes, the caryatids, the pediments – all in London, some ‘British museum’, a world away. But once I entered, I found it impossible to hold a grudge against the museum itself. The circumstances under which it obtained and holds such a diverse and rich collection may be controversial, but everyone agrees the collection is a marvel.

Under one roof, a visitor sees Egyptian wall paintings, the Rosetta stone, viking helmets and chess pieces, turquoise serpents, crystal skulls, records written in cuniform, totem poles, knives carved out of antler and decorated with reindeer, Roman mosaics, Arabic calligraphy wrought in metal, and yes, even the Parthenon exhibit. The museum’s official stance about its… erm… forcibly borrowed goods is that “The Museum is a unique resource for the world” which “exists to tell the story of cultural  achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of  human history over two million years ago until the present day.” It’s easy to question the purity of their true motives, but there’s certainly some truth there. I, for one, found myself enchanted despite myself.

/From the Lowlands to the Highlands

Cumbres Borrascosas

Where: Irati Forest, Spain

When: October 2010

Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

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I took this picture while hiking and picking mushrooms in the Irati forest. The fog was so thick that day that for a long time all we could see was the path at our feet and the occasional feral pony. The cold,  white damp was eerie and isolating, like the setting of Cumbres Borrascosas – that’s Spanish for Wuthering Heights. I wondered vaguely how so much fog could form in a forest. Months later, while driving in the mountains, I was shocked to realize that I’d been on that road before. That day in the fog, we hadn’t realized we were surrounded by 2,000 foot high mountains!

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain