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Festive Spain: Toledo Norte

The sheer joie de vivre of the people at the celebration of olive picking season in Spain’s Toledo Norte made for an unforgettable experience, writes Al Auger.

(Above): A panoramic view of Toledo, Spain including Alcazar and the cathedral.
(Below): A blindfolded horse and a bull during corrida in Sevilla, Spain.

Having returned home after a year in Europe playing gypsy in a VW camper bus, my wife and I were ready for the onslaught of questions from friends and co-workers. The two most frequently asked were: “What is your favorite European city?” which was quickly followed by “What were some of your most memorable experiences?”

The first was easy: Barcelona. The second wasn’t as easy, having traveled 20,000 miles from Amsterdam to Morocco, it would take days to describe how every morning we would wake wondering what the adventure of the new day would be. But, we settled on one that was a colorful example of what living in different cultures and meeting different people was like.

We had traveled to Toledo Norte a few miles from the city of Toledo, Spain, for the small communities’ annual celebration of the end of the olive picking season. Getting there was like being in a time warp and transported back to the days of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The region, known as Los Molinos (the mills), was dotted with tall, white windmills, their sails churning in the wind. Camped that night beneath a windmill, I could almost hear Quixote charging forth on his spindly horse challenging the imagined enemy.

The first big event Saturday in Toledo Norte was a parade of people from the neighboring regions. The parade was a kaleidoscope of bright traditional costumes of each region and bands playing music that has been played each year for generations long past. After the parade had passed the thousands of people lining the street and the viewing stand of dignitaries, judges voted on the best costumes and bands. It was like a big alfresco party of friends. Everyone we met was open and cordial and was soon treating us as new friends from Estados Unidos.

(Above): Windmills in Spain inevitably bring memories of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the immortal creations of Miguel de Cervantes.

As the celebration wound down it was time for the Portuguese-style bullfight on horseback and we drove off looking for a parking place outside the center of town. We wound our way into a neighborhood of small homes each surrounded by brilliant flowers and greenery. Sitting across the narrow street was a woman of questionable age sitting on the steps. She was dressed in the traditional black dress and gray hair pulled back into a bun.

When I asked her if it was OK to park across from her casa, she looked up and saw our “Blue Whale” camper and became quite voluble, said parking was OK and asked if we would show her our bus. She was completely intrigued by the setup of a “house on wheels” fitted with bed, stove and water basin. She left and we washed up and walked to the bull ring. What we found was a mass of humanity trying to squeeze through the small “Judas Door” in the huge rollup door.

(Above): Sagrada Familia Temple, a famous architectural landmark designed by the famous architect, Antonio Gaudi.

As the crowd continued to grow we felt the anger grow and the people began to shout and shove at the door. All of a sudden we heard the loud and continuous honking of a horn and saw a large Mercedes-Benz trying to move through the swarm and we deduced this must be the officials and president of the day’s fight. When it became obvious the car was not going anywhere the crowd became suddenly quiet as the large rolling door was raised and we saw a large and armed band of Special Police step out. The group moved into the crowd, rifles with attached bayonets at the ready. It was amazing how quickly the swelling mass of angry people suddenly became quiet and opened up a lane for the Mercedes to make it’s way through the people. After the president and his party passed our entry through the large entry was smooth and fast.

(Above): View of the Alcazar in Toledo, Spain, at dusk.

A bullfight on horseback is a tribute to the beautiful animals and their riders. It is no longer a traditional event as it once was but now a hobby for the rich sportsmen. Very similar to the place polo plays in the U.K. and U.S. And what an extraordinary experience it turned out to be! The usual events progressed as in a traditional bullfight with the exception of killing the bull.

The equine bullfight is choreographed; a singular horse is trained in the art of each stage. The horse and its rider became as one working the bull; the agility and grace of the horses were as if we were watching a ballet. Just a touch by the rider or some movement of bull and the horse knew exactly what he must do. It was a most thrilling afternoon and we talked about what we had just experienced as we returned to the Blue Whale.

What we found was a welcoming committee of our new friend from across the street. She was surrounded by her family of daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. A tasty mix of olives, peanuts and many other tasty treats, were offered. Then it was time to offer a tour of our camper bus to the family. We spent the next two hours talking about living in America, the lives of the people of Toledo Norte and town gossip. All in all, it was simply another example of the wonderful attitude of the Spanish people. But the sun was dipping lower and it was time to go.

Tradition is of great importance to the people of Spain and it seems as if there is an event or festival going on every day somewhere in the most welcoming of countries. Every day always emerged as a new venture, and a new adventure.

Al Auger is a freelance writer. He lives in Redding, Calif.


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