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

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

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

USA 2010

American Road Trip Plus

July 10th-27th, 2010

Trip Conception, Goals, and Planning:

This trip started with a email from my penpal, Liisa, who I visited in Finland in 2008. She wanted to come to America – see my haunts, and maybe a litte more – and since I’m pretty well spread out over the continent, we first decided to split the time between Florida and Missouri. As we started talking, the idea of a road trip seemed more and more appealing. After all, what mode of travel is more American than hitting the highway?

Our options were limited by automobile availability. Since we were too young to rent a car, we had to both start and finish in either Tampa, Florida, or Springfield, Missouri. We decided to start in Missouri and drive west to Colorado, then north to South Dakota, return to Missouri, and finally fly to Florida for a few days at the beach and at the theme parks.

Our final path took us through no fewer than ten states: Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Florida.

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Considerations/Advice:

Cost: My budget was approximately $1750, once we started off in Missouri. (Obviously, Liisa had to pay more than I did to get to the starting point). This broke down to $300 for food, $330 for accommodation, $210 for gas and tolls, $240 flight to Florida, $160 for parking and miscellaneous entrance fees, $380 for extra experiences like horseback riding, rock climbing, and universal studios, $75 for souvenirs and presents, and $45 for pre-trip car expenses. I had originally hoped to spend up to 25% less, but we splurged on extra experiences and ended up paying more than we estimated for miscellaneous entrance fees, food, and accommodation.

Thinking Ahead: The only things we reserved ahead of time were airfare, hotels in Orlando, and the rock climbing and horseback riding adventures. These were booked 1-2 months prior with no issues, and we never wished we had made reservations for anything else – the closest was in Custer, where many of the motels were full, but we still managed to find one without much trouble.

Timing: We travelled in July, so it was a good time to go north and to the mountains. The weather was accordingly quite pleasant for most of the trip, although the Missouri and Florida segments may be better done in cooler times of the year. The highway we took through Rocky Mountain National Park is only open in summer, and winter conditions would have greatly changed our horseback riding and rock climbing experience.

Food: As per our budget and search for the authentic road trip experience, we ate a lot of fast food and gas station meals. We did, however, splurge on a few nicer places. The culinary highlights of the trip were tasting rocky mountain oysters in Colorado and butterbeer and pumpkin juice in Universal Studios.

Getting Around: We were very grateful to have a car in Mid-America, where that’s often the only viable option. We drove almost everywhere, more than 3500 miles in total, although we did save about $30 in parking fees by walking from our hotel to Universal Studios.

Language: I was travelling in my native country, and Liisa’s English is excellent, so this was never a concern. Even dialectal variation in the region we were travelling was low and never hard to adapt to.

Other: For some reason I don’t quite understand, motels in Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota were on average twice the price of similar motels in Kansas, Missouri, and Florida.

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Itenerary:

Liisa arrived in St. Louis on July 10th, and we spent the next two nights with my friend Kate’s family. The first night, Kate got us free tickets to see a Titanic musical at the Muny outdoor theatre. On the 11th, we did a whirlwind tour of St. Louis, starting with the prehistoric city of Cahokia Mounds just across the border in Illinois, then brunch at First Watch with my cousins, the St. Louis City Museum, the historic downtown and Gateway Arch, and the famous free zoo.

On July 12th we warmed up for the road trip after a morning in my part of St. Louis. We drove to Columbia, Missouri, ate lunch and frozen yogurt with some friends and toured the Journalism school, then continued on to Lawrence, Kansas. July 13th was the longest day of the trip as we drove 550 miles across the plains of Kansas and into Manitou Springs, Colorado.

July 14th saw us shopping in Manitou Springs, tasting rocky mountain oysters, exploring eight hundred year old Native American cliff dwellings, and marvelling at rock formations in the Garden of the Gods and Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where we almost stepped on a rattlesnake.

July 15th was consumed by a nine hour horseback ride on the silver dusted mountain trails of the Roosevelt National Forest. The view from the top was unbelievable – even worth my horse going a little crazy and Liisa getting sick from allergies and the sun exposure. On the 16th, we drove the highway to the sky through the Rocky Mountain National Park, ate lunch at 12,000 feet and played in the snow on the alpine tundra before driving on to Wyoming.

On the 17th, we drove into South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial in progress. In the evening we toured Wind Cave National Park in search of wildlife and had buffalo, elk, coyotes, and countless prairie dogs step feet from the car. On the 18th we drove through the Needles of the black hills, learned to rock climb and even scaled a 180 foot granite dome before heading to Deadwood for some history and wild west reenactments, one of which we had to adopt temporary parents to get in to see!

On the 19th we started heading east again, taking time to visit a random Norwegian Stavkirke, see an underground waterfall, take old-time photos in the Wall Drug Store, and drive through the otherworldly badlands just ahead of a thunderstorm. On the 20th we saw Mitchell’s Corn Palace and the falls of Sioux Falls, hopped the border into Minnesota for our state count, had a classy and delicious lunch in Omaha, Nebraska, and ended up back home in Columbia, Missouri.

The 21st and 22nd allowed me to show more of my university, friends, and state off to Liisa as we toured Devil’s Icebox, Bridal Cave, and Ha Ha Tonka state park, ate nachos bianco at Addison’s and cream cheese clouds for breakfast, then flew to my parent’s house in Florida for the last stage of the trip.

We spent the 23rd and 24th on the barrier island, tasting sushi, walking on the beach, having lunch at Bubba Gump’s, touring downtown St. Petersburg, and taking a boat through a thunderstorm that gave way just in time to reveal a fiery and brilliant sunset.

The 25th and the 26th were our days in Orlando, as we visited Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure Theme Parks, most notably the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with its magical talking portraits, fantastic scenery, butterbeer and pumpkin juice – a satisfying end to our trip.

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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:
Little Norway on the Great Plains (Rapid City, South Dakota – 7/19)

Photography: Crossing Kansas