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

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

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.

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

The Witch Caves of Navarre

Zugarramurdi, in the Valley of Baztan

Zugarramurdi, Navarra, Spain – December 7th, 2010

In the extreme north of Navarre (a state in Northern Spain) is a little town called Zugarramurdi, home to 218 people and, four hundred years ago, one of the biggest and bloodiest witch hunts of the Spanish Inquisition. Ultimately, forty suspected witches were found guilty and sent south for further trial, where many ended up being burned at the stake.

In my second to last week in Pamplona, some friends and I took a rental car up to Zugarramurdi from Pamplona (about 1 1/2 hour drive). We were in a bit of a hurry, so we only took the quickest peek at the new Witch Museum, but we were eager to see the Sorgin Leze, or Witch Caves, where the devil himself was said to give services to congregations of witches on the banks of the Hell Stream (Infernuko Erreka in Basque).

The Hell Stream

The first thing we came across while walking the loop path was the infernal stream itself, reddish brown and strangely opaque. It looked as thick as paint, but it was moving too fast and without staining the stones around it. Although we were certain that the colour must come from the soil – clay or something similar – it was easy to see why earlier generations had found it so unsettling.

Following the stream, we soon found ourselves in the cavern itself, with its high ceiling and the little chambers above us to the left, where the covens were said to hold more private meetings. Open on two sides to the air, it was more like a natural bridge than a cave, but spectacular either way.

The enormous cave opening...

Whatever you believe about the historical ‘witches’, it’s easy to imagine some fantastic bonfires taking place here!

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

The Castle of Olite

Where: Olite, Spain

When: November 2010

Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

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One morning at dawn, I climbed all the way up to the highest tower of the Castle of Olite for this view of the palace, the sleepy village below, and the wide agricultural fields that are just becoming visible on the horizon. According to the history books, the castle was once home to Navarre’s royal family, exotic pets like giraffes and lions, and hanging gardens modeled after those of Babylon. Today, the castle stands empty save for a modest number of tourists and a thick layer of rich, red ivy that spreads like a red carpet for kings long gone.

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

Three Steps to Choosing a Study Abroad Program

After a lot of preparation, paperwork, and choices, I’m finally ready to start studying abroad. In the end, I settled on programs in Pamplona (Spain), Bonn (Germany), and Bergen (Norway). Although I am extra lucky in being able to study abroad not one but three semesters, it was still hard for me to narrow my choices down to three when my school offered dozens of options. Here are some of the criteria I thought about when making my decisions, and can recommend to others struggling to choose a program:

1.) Research Programs

Before you can follow any of the other steps, you should have some idea of what’s out there – what the raw possibilities are for your major, university, and budget, and what criteria are worth weighing against each other. Usually, this will narrow your options, but not make the final decision for you.

2.) Assess Your Main Goals

For some people, living with a hostfamily is the perfect way to polish language skills and get a personal look at a foreign culture... other students find that it limits their freedom to travel and party while abroad.

What are the most important things for you, personally, to get out of your study abroad experience? Although everyone I’ve ever talked to has come back from their semester or year abroad with stories about how much fun it was, how it changed their life and made them more confident, worldly, etc… the experience is still slightly different for each person, and you should consider your priorities carefully. For example, if you haven’t been abroad before and are slightly nervous about doing so, but want to expand your horizons in a manageable leap and have some fun, you might look into an English language program – either in an English speaking country, or in a program that offers classes taught in English abroad. Not having a language barrier to contend with will cut the stress in half – and you’ll still have fun and meet people from all over the world.

Do you want to become fluent in a foreign language instead? An exchange program might be best, as these offer near-complete immersion with the native student population. On the other hand, a specialty program that puts you with other international students might be a wonderful way for you to meet people from all over the world. Are you planning to travel? Many people use their semester abroad as a springboard to see the rest of Europe. (or Asia, or South America, or Africa…) If this is you, look for a program in a city that has good transport connections with other places you’d like to go. Other people would rather study in a more isolated location, say, a small town in the mountains, where they can really sink into the authentic local lifestyle.

For me personally, I knew that I wanted to improve my language skills, especially my Spanish and my German, so right away I narrowed my choices to those programs that used my target languages as the primary languages of instruction. After doing steps 1 and 2, I had already picked one of my programs – the one in Pamplona, Spain. I had to pick at least one program from my school’s Journalism school, and that one was the only one that wasn’t taught in English.

3.) Think about your Comfort Zone

Any sort of study abroad will take you at least partly out of your comfort zone – that’s part of the fun! Still, you should think about the things that make you feel more comfortable – the cultures, climates, and landscapes that you feel you fit into well. You may choose to pick the place where you fit in best, or you may choose to stretch your boundaries further in some way or another. Still, you should be conscious of either decision.

I had already decided that I wanted to study in Germany, but I was having a hard time picking between several programs offered there by my school. Ultimately, I decided to study in Bonn, because my second choice, Tübingen, was a small city in the mountains – just like the locations of my other two programs. I decided that studying in a slightly larger city, like Bonn, was a good way to break out of my comfort zone and do something different. Besides, Bonn has better rail connections to other European cities, and I’d like to travel during my stay.

On the other hand, when picking my third and final study abroad program, I was torn between Latin America, Finland, Italy, Japan, and Norway. All were tempting, but in the end I decided to go with my comfort zone – Norway. A semester was a long time to spend somewhere as different as Japan, I thought, but too short of a time to say, set down even the shallowest of roots in Finland, a country notorious for slow growing friendships. Besides, I knew more Norwegian than I did Finnish, Italian, or Japanese, and since my goal was fluency, I had a better chance of meeting it in Norway. I’m sure I would have loved going to any of the other countries as well, but I didn’t want to stay home because I couldn’t make a decision, either!

– Written June 6th, 2010

In Ochagavía

Plaza in Ochagavía

Ochagavía, Navarra, Spain – December 8th, 2010

For lunch on the second day of our road trip, Marketa and I stopped in Ochagavía, the most prominent village in Navarra’s Salazar Valley. We walked alongside the river, admiring the traditional architecture and taking pictures like crazy. Then we found a reasonably priced sidrería (Cider-house) to eat at. Marketa ordered “cow’s face” as she called it – some sort of cheek meat, while I ordered traditional Basque meatballs, Basque pate, and cuajada for dessert.

Marketa saw some Kukuxumusu merchandise in a store window in the plaza, so in we went. I was ecstatic to find several animated movies from my childhood – in Basque! Red-faced but determined, I asked the lady behind the counter for Haran Sorginduaren Bila – also known as The Land Before Time. She was very sweet. “I see you like cartoons, just like me!” she said. As she was scanning the movie, though, she realized that it wasn’t just in Spanish, but in Basque! I told her that was why I was buying it, because I was studying Basque a little.

At that, she went out to the street and called in her friends. “This is an American girl, studying Euskera!” she announced. All of them were pretty impressed. “You’re doing what we could not,” they told me. “We’ve tried to learn a little bit, but we’re too old now, it’s too late, we’re the lost generation.”

“Our grandparents spoke Basque, our parents understood it. But then came the Franco years… It skipped us. But now the children are learning again! And even you, an American!”

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

Sea, Sky, and Sculpture in San Sebastian

San Sebastian, País Vasco, Spain – August 31st, 2010

San Sebastian seems to be famous for a dizzying number of things: blue waters, stunning vistas, a calm beach here, a surfing beach there, amazing seafood, delicious pintxos, an international film festival, lovely sculptures… and from what I could tell from a single day trip, its good reputation is well deserved. (And, it’s only about an hour from Pamplona by bus!)

Ida, Lea, Cynthia and I started the day with a walk around Monte Urgull on the Paseo Nuevo, which during bad weather can be unpassable as the waves leap over the balconies. When we walked it, the surf was calm and delightful, playing on the rocks below. As we came around the mountain, the sculpture “Empty Construction” competed with the lovely bay for our attention. A crescent moon of sandy beach stretched out before us, snuggled into a natural harbour formed by the Isla de Santa Klara and filled with sailboats gliding about.

The view was nice enough from sea level, but we took the funicular up Monte Gueldo to find what might be the theme park with the best view in the world. The sea and the sky seemed perfect mirrors of each other as we stood suspended between the two. Heading back down, we walked a bit farther past the beach to find “The Comb of the Winds”, another lovely sculpture, or set of sculptures, all rusty red in contrast to the deep blues all around them.

We’ll have to return to give the city itself a fair share of our time and interest, as I know it’s filled with incredible cuisine and lovely architecture. Still, on our way back to the bus stop we did happen to wander through the procession for the 31st of August Celebration – it was a loud and flashy parade of cannons, music, and traditional Basque clothing – what luck that we happened to be there to see it!

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

Bilbao – Bigger, Brighter, Better

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

To think I’d heard such nasty things about Bilbao. In our geography of Spain unit Junior Year, we’d been told nothing more of it than that it was Basque, northern, industrial. Lacking in charm. Even Ana, my landlady, had said, “Go to the Guggenheim. The Guggenheim is beautiful. But don’t bother with the rest of it. Bilbao’s not a pretty city. It’s not so nice.” Perhaps I’d simply had low expectations – I loved it.

From the Old Town, with the winding alleys and pintxos bars I’ve already come to expect from Basque Spain, all the way to the famous Guggenheim, I wasn’t disappointed by an inch of the Bilbao I explored. I suppose it could be said that I was only really ‘impressed’ by Bilbao’s riverside market (the largest covered market in Europe), the pintxos at Bar Irrintzi (amazing), and, yes, the world famous Guggenheim Museum, but the spaces in between held their own charm. Our walk through the center of town took us past dozens of cheerful parks and row after row of elegant buildings, and our stroll alongside the Nervión river revealed fascinating, if puzzling, designs of office buildings, bridges, and modern art statues. A shameless mountain geek, I also loved the way the city is nestled down between two mountain ranges, earning it the nickname El Botxo – “the hole”.

I found Bilbao’s reputation to be quite ill-deserved – it was on the whole bigger, better, and brighter than I had been led to expect, and well worth a day or two of wandering. But if the great majority of the day trippers go straight to the Guggenheim without passing GO, well, that just means more pintxos for me!

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain