What makes for a good festival? For me, I’m a sucker for the oddities in life. I love to be surprised, to experience nothing for which I’ve experienced in my past. Part of this novelty includes savoring local cuisine, walking among the crowds of people and hearing traditional music, ogling regional crafts, and above all else, imbibing the local brew. I want all six senses to be flooded with culture and history when I’m at a festival. And if I’m lucky, I’ll walk away with a memory so rich and layered that the experience can be retold a hundred times over as if it happened yesterday. Fortunately, Iberia is a hotbed for such experiences!
Today, I stumbled across Rapa das Bestas, a festival I would give my left arm to attend. Set in the beautiful northwest Spanish region of Galicia, on weekends from June to August, Galicians celebrate a tradition they have been participating in since the Bronze age: the taming of the beasts (bestas).
Seasoned travelers, stockbreeders and your average rugged Spanish cowboy are typically the only ones to have experienced wild horses galloping across the Galician sierra, while we’re satiated with Life Magazine photos. But for the curious, and rather adventurous among us, there is an opportunity for us to see hundreds of wild horses up close and personal.
Previous to the first night’s event, owners divide all the horses into groups that have been collected from the surrounding sierra. Then, expert stockbreeders, called agarradores, climb into a curro (traditional corral) filled with dozens of horses, intent to subdue the animal using poles and ropes until they can both rapa (groom) the animal and brand it with spray paint. Allow me to repeat, they climb into a jam packed corral filled with animals that weigh approximately 1000 lbs each with nothing other than a pair of scissors, a rope and a glorified stick! Tell me these props don’t beg for the MacGyver theme song!
Many of the curros are tucked away into the north and central mountains of Galicia, near to the la Coruña and Pontevedra coasts. However, in recent years, Pontevedra has taken on the majority of the celebrations, as the poor horses rounded up near Ourense have become a tasty feast for local wolves.
The most popular celebration, and one that is easiest to get information on, is in San Lorenzo de Sabucedo in A Estrada, Galicia. This particular event has gained international notoriety, not only due to its ancient stone curro, but also because the men, called Aliotars, gang up against a horse using nothing other than a pair of scissors. It begins with the first Aliotar sliding himself into place among a tightly packed group of horses. When the time arises, he jumps onto the first horse, gets onto his feet, propels himself across the gigantic backs of several other horses, teetering on unsteady legs, before he dives head first onto his chosen horse. Once mounted, another teammate runs to the tail of the horse, where he starts pulling it with such force that the body destabilizes, while another Aliotar grabs the horse’s neck with the aid of the mounted Aliotar, who has now repositioned himself to help his teammates force the horse to the ground. Once the horse is pinned, its mane and tail is trimmed and hindquarter is branded.
When trying to describe this event to a friend in Chicago, the best comparison I could come up with was if Vidal Sassoon donned a WWF leotard and competed in a rodeo. Maybe not the best analogy, but the image is priceless. Fortunately, if you’re not necessarily in the cowboy spirit, you can ditch this part of the event, and enjoy the various horse shows, Galician cuisine featuring cauldrons of traditional soup and the ample venues dedicated to folk music. (Flickr photos by jpereira_net)