Corrida a Corda: Running from Bulls on Terceira Island, Azores
Terceira Island sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, among the isolated archipelago of the Azores. Its origins are humble—Portuguese farmers and fishermen settled the island in the 14th century—and it’s still a place without pretension, where people rely on agriculture and artisanal traditions such as cheese-making for their livelihoods.
This also happens to be the only place in the world that hosts a sport called corrida a corda (running by rope)—a form of bull-running in which a tethered bull is let loose in the middle of a village. At the other end of the long green rope, six to eight male pastores(shepherds) hold on, ostensibly preventing the bull from breaking free of the designated running zone and into the “safety area.” For the daredevils who run into the street to taunt the bulls, the object is to get as close as possible to the animal while escaping injury.
I attended a corrida in the town of Porto Judeu, population approximately 2500, with a few travel companions and local guide Mr. Pires Borges in the fall of 2009. Mr. Borges was emphatic about distinguishing this tradition from the bull sports practiced in Spain. “Spanish bullfighting is a tradition of the noble class,” he said. “Here on Terceira, the corrida is a peasant sport for pleasing the gods.”
Later, I would discover other resonances of pagan attitudes here. Spiritual energies allegedly imbue the Black Mysteries, lava rock mountains of the interior,and colorfully painted chapels are dedicated to the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit—another tradition unique to the Azores—a reflection of the colors of spring and the people’s devotion to the gods of the harvest.
From the balcony where Mr. Borges at first insisted the two women in our group watch, it looked as though people had been preparing for the festivities all day. Barricades, made from pallets and plywood, had been constructed all along the street, blocking doors and windows and the entrances to gardens. Temporary beer stands stood in vacant lots serving long lines of customers, and people crowded behind the barricades and spilled out of windows, vying for a good view of the street. Men walked up and down hawking candy and colored popcorn from big woven baskets, and teenage girls sat along the curb teasing one another, while the boys stood in the street casually smoking cigarettes. Children as young as three and four ate popsicles and dangled their legs over the balcony where I stood waiting.
A single firecracker launched into the air signals the start of the run and alerts people that there is a bull loose in the streets. When we arrived, the first two bulls had already run. Bull number three was taking his time about making his way to my end of the street, where anticipation was building. Every now and then, I’d see a burst of men and boys running around a bend in the distance, and the black bull would emerge chasing behind them and butting his head against barricades as spectators waved their arms, whistling and hooting.
I wanted to be closer to the action, so I climbed down from the balcony, and following our nervous guide, made my way into the center of the village. I held my breath as we rounded each bend, expecting to be greeted by an angry bull. As we got closer, my adrenalin pumping and the noise of the crowd growing louder, it occurred to me that I was running in the wrong direction—toward the bull. Maybe this was why they didn’t want Americans to participate. But soon, with help from Mr. Borges, I vaulted over a fence into a garden where I could watch from behind a stone wall. I squeezed into a space between two men, kicking aside the empty beer bottles at my feet.
When the bull came into view, he was heading for a group of young men holding their hands clasped behind their backs in a gesture of defiance. Some of them were clearly drunk. But when the bull charged at them, they dropped the defiance and ran, laughing but looking over their shoulders with fear in their eyes. Some dove over barricades, or climbed street lamps and utility poles. (I never confirmed this, but it seemed to me that the poles had been purposely constructed with foot-holds.) Meanwhile, the crowd went crazy, shouting at the bull and both encouraging and jeering the boys. I watched two elderly ladies shout “Touro!” from their windows and wave colorful tablecloths.
The first time I saw postcards depicting Terceiran men waving open umbrellas against an enraged bull, I laughed. To me, it looked like a choreographed dance with props. But this maneuver, in which an umbrella is snapped open, startling the bull into a wild charge, is actually considered one of the bravest. And using everyday items like umbrellas and tablecloths to taunt the bull reflects the peasant origins of the tourada. The pastores who hold the rope dress in humble uniforms—billowing white peasant shirts, gray pants, and broad-rimmed black hats (and in some photos I’ve seen, they also wear matching black Converse sneakers).
The village pays the bulls’ owner a hefty sum to host a corrida, and the bulls are contractually obligated to run to both ends of the street so that all the villagers and their guests have an equal opportunity to taunt the animal and take part in the festivities. The bulls used for street running in Terceira are raised to be lean and muscular animals that can maneuver themselves in the narrow streets of a village and can lift their heads to toss men in the air—unlike the heavy, unwieldy bull who charges in a straight line within the confines of a bullring.
I noticed that the pointy ends of the bull’s horns were covered in rounded bronze caps, perhaps to make them less deadly. But we had already heard the sirens of an ambulance taking away a boy who had been injured earlier that evening. Serious wounds and even death are not uncommon. Terceira has only one hospital, in its capital city of Angra do Heroismo, about a twenty-minute drive over winding roads from Porto Judeu. I had to wonder if there were specialists for stitching up bodies torn asunder by the horns of a bull.
“When a bull hurts someone, its value increases,” Mr. Borges said. Indeed, we’d seen the heads of famously aggressive bulls mounted on the walls at the Quiejo Vaquinha cheese factory and at the Bull Club in Angra. Video of the corrida was also playing everywhere we went, from local bars to shops and even the airport. It was a highlights reel of victories for the bull—in which he leapt over barricades or charged into the ocean amongst hapless swimmers. In one scene that was repeated over and over, a bull’s horns tear away a man’s jeans, leaving him in his underwear, grasping at the shreds of denim that remain. It always got people laughing, including me.
Perhaps partly because of how much it celebrates the triumph of the bull, Mr. Borges insisted that Portuguese bull sport is much more humane than the Spanish tradition. After a corrida, the bulls are not killed but are instead returned to their idyllic island pastures, where they can chew grass and romance the female cows. And when Spanish-style bullfights in the ring take place onTerceira, as they do during the festival of St. John, Azoreans never kill the bull in the arena as is done in Spain. Instead, the killing happens in the slaughterhouse later on, away from the eyes of the crowd. Whether this can be called humane is debatable, but if you have ever watched a bull suffer a long and arduous death in the ring, a quick finish does seem preferable.
No one knows exactly how the tradition of corrida a corda began, but it appears particularly well adapted to the island of Terceira and the tastes of the spectators. As I watched in Porto Judeu, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement and revelry of the crowd, and likewise easy to imagine the event occurring relatively unchanged for hundreds of years in this tiny, agricultural community.
On the night I watched, the bull roamed the streets of the village for thirty minutes, sometimes dragging the pastores behind him like rag dolls. He provided a spirited show, charging and snarling for the spectators who cheered him. And then he returned rather peaceably to his pen. A succession of firecrackers signaled the end, but still the energy of the crowd was high. As we spilled into the street with the rest of the spectators, we felt invigorated and excited, ready to party. We were shocked to learn that the courida takes place about 270 times a year on Terceira. So all the elaborate preparations we had noticed, along with the exhilaration of the crowd, were practically a nightly event.
“What’s the American equivalent of this sport?” one of my companions asked as we walked toward a restaurant called Adega Lusitania for a lively dinner and drinks to celebrate our first courida. “Something that happens regularly in a rural place, that’s really festive, and that sometimes kills the participants?” We decided it was demolition derby.