A Bavarian Horse-Blessing Ceremony

As we sauntered closer to the steeple-skylined village of Unterammergau, Germany, horses trotted past us, their highly decorated manes and tails blowing in the late autumn breeze. Not to be outdone by the animals’ distinguished appearances, the horse owners also sported fine Bavarian attire: the men wore grey woolen jackets finished with deer-horn buttons, and dark green or brown Lederhosen, while the ladies sported Dirndls with colorful flowing skirts, and button-down sweaters to protect them from the chilly air. As someone who adored coiffing her My Little Pony figurines’ hair as a child, I was instantly in shutterbug heaven.

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Tails from a German Horse-Blessing Ceremony

Leonhardiritt Unterammergau Horse TailsDuring the last weekend of every October, the village of Unterammergau, Germany honors St. Leonhard, the patron saint of agricultural animals. The event begins with a horse procession through the village of 1,500 people, and culminates in an open-air church service, during which more than one hundred horses are blessed. (Unterammergau is the neighboring village to Oberammergau, where we’ve been spending the past summer and autumn. Together with O-gau, the village’s name is an essential ingredient in a well-known, and especially challenging German tongue twister about the two villages.)

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The Beauty and Tragedy of Sevilla, part II

Note: This is Part II of a Sevilla series. Click here for Part I: 

We arrived at Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla in the evening hours. The summer sun was still blazing down, the stadium grand with elegant trimmings. It is Spain’s oldest bullring; its construction began in 1749.

There was anticipation in the air as merchants peddled striped seat cushions, cigars, frozen water, peanuts and candies. There were also hats and fans to shield spectators from the scorching sun. These trinkets would be vital for any attendees who had chosen the least-expensive seats, which would be directly within reach of the sun’s sizzling rays.

Faces from all corners of the world were in the darkened, tunnel-like passageways that formed the perimeter around the ring: middle-aged Asian tourists, backpacking American college students, and elegantly-dressed Spanish couples. Some fans sported bandanas on which their favorite matador’s image was emblazoned. I was surprised to see young Spanish children there as well. There was a young boy with his father’s hand resting on his shoulder in a reassuring manner, little girls clad in frilly dresses, hair ribbons and lacy, anklet socks. I’d earlier read that Spanish television channels had restricted the broadcasting of bullfights specifically to protect child viewers. Therefore, I was surprised to see children under the age of ten in attendance.

Upon entering the stadium, the colors were magnificent: the ring’s curry-colored dirt floor contrasted sharply with the flawless blue sky and stark-white architectural accents. Also, there was the mosaic-like jumble of clothing of attendees and the dark uniforms of official personnel.

Suddenly, lively snippets of music from Bizet’s Carmen commenced and out came the torero doing their signature prance, closely followed by a trailing legion of photographers. The costumes worn by men on horseback, as well as those worn by the torero, were stunning. The outfits were in crimson, purple and turquoise hues, with the primary matador’s cloth being woven with a thick gold embroidery. It’s no wonder why this outfit is known as a traje de luces or ‘suit of lights.’

I was impressed by this pageantry, initially. How swiftly my mood changed when the disoriented bull arrived into the ring and the two sharp banderillas (sticks with a sharp end) were brought out in the steady hands of a banderillero. To great pomp and circumstance, the first banderillas were plunged into the bull’s back and later its neck. Blood seeped from the bull’s wounds, leaving its now-crimson back radiating agony in the sun. I watched for a second, and then glanced away, using my Spanish fan to help block the scene.

The matador’s moves were refined and practiced and he was poised as he gracefully swayed the hot-pink cape past the aggravated 1,100-pound bull. The torero continued to pierce the animal with spears, risking their own harm to elicit gasps and cheers from the crowd. Despite their courage, I pondered what percentage of the Spanish citizenry actually reveres them for this practice. (A Gallup poll from 2006 indicated that only 8% of Spanish citizens consider themselves bullfighting fans. Yet, the Spanish king was once quoted as saying if the European Union were to ban bullfighting, then that would be the day Spain removes itself from the EU.)

With each approach of the bull, each twirl of the matador, each stab, the audience grew ever more enthralled. Old ladies stood up to cheer. Others sat in their seats with emotionless faces, their hands cloaking their mouths. Some children watched listlessly, while others played with their hand-held video games or mobile phones. Occasionally, the picadores (a pair of horsemen) rode into the ring to stab the bull with a long spear. The bull charged the two horses several times, causing the horses to get rammed into the wall. One horse was violently knocked to the ground.

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The Beauty and Tragedy of Sevilla, part I

Note: This is Part I of a Sevilla series. Click here for Part II – The Bull Fight.

Sevilla. The name evokes a blend of passionate images: Flamenco dancing women clad in vibrant, polka dot-studded dresses, their feet striking a floor with thunderous blows… A matador de toros poised to enter a ring facing possible goring or death… Spirited bodega-goers clinking glasses overflowing with jewel-toned sangria and amber cerveza… On a balmy long weekend earlier this summer, Shawn and I journeyed to Andalucía to witness it all, resulting in our own mixture of intense emotions.

Arriving first at Jerez de la Frontera’s train station, we were delighted to see Feria revelers of all ages donning colorful flamenco dresses and charcoal suits with top hats. Mothers and daughters sported coordinated ensembles with matching dresses and floral hairpieces. Their spirited energy was contagious.

We soaked up the procession of polka dot ladies until our bus for Sevilla arrived. Once we crossed the threshold into the city, we treated ourselves to refreshing sangria and cervezas along with rich Iberian cheese and toasted bread tapas treats.

Suddenly, there came the roar of brass instruments, coupled with the shuffling of feet in a procession to honor a saint. Weary-faced children carried candles, incense and gold-embroidered religious banners. Gilded relics were carried by a sea of parish members; only their sneakers and shins were visible. It was the first of many processions that would traverse our paths in the coming days.

On our second day, we strolled throughout the city, admiring palm trees, ceramic tiled façades and the soul-soothing tunes of charismatic flamenco guitar players. Despite our limited knowledge of Spanish niceties, the locals warmly welcomed us. We were also impressed with the elegant manner in which young and old dressed. Adult women wore smart silk suits and dresses, some with lace mantilla veils; young children donned clothing reminiscent of 1950s or 1960s Americana (sweater sets, hair bows, patent-leather shoes). We noted that families with young children almost always dressed the little ones like Doublemint Twins. This was regardless of whether or not the children had twin status.

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