20.11.14

Cycling In Portugal: Tomar to the Rio Tejo (River Tagus)

Despite the absence of cars, a normally
dangerous section of road.

Now a long way from precipitous mountain roads, both in distance and in thought, I was soon crossing Portugal’s Rio Tejo (River Tagus), which has the distinction of being the Iberian Peninsula’s longest waterway. Rising in the Serra de Albarracin in Spain’s north-east, it winds westward across 1,038 kilometres of semi-arid land towards Lisbon, on the Atlantic Ocean. It was from here, along the docks that straddled its western shoreline, that the expeditions to the New World, during Portugal’s Age of Discovery, were first launched.

 
Today, the river supplies drinking water to much of Portugal and central Spain, including both nations’ capitals, Lisbon and Madrid. Combined government initiatives have also been devoted to increasing land irrigation along the river’s course, as well as numerous hydroelectric stations to generate power.

The fertile floodplains of the Rio Tejo are also one of Portugal’s principal wine-growing regions. Dating back to Roman times, vineyards in the area were exporting more than 50,000 barrels of wine each year to England alone, by the beginning of the 14th century. Hard hit by the country’s economic collapse during the 1970’s, the last decade has seen a re-emergence of the Ribatejo as a producer of not only bulk wines, as has been the practice in the past, but wines of superior quality. A devotee of red wine, though hardly a connoisseur, that’s what local wine ‘experts’ seem to be telling us anyway.



The white stone walls of southern Portugal and Spain.
A sign of the heat to come.

Other local industries with a close relationship with agriculture are stud and cattle farms. Once bred for the purpose of war, the region’s stud farms continue to breed Lusitano horses, which today are solely used for equestrian riding and bullfighting. Similarly, cattle ranches raise bulls destined for the ring. Regarded as a less violent and more humane form of bullfighting than its Spanish counterpart, Portuguese bullfighters (cavaleiros or in the case of women, cavaleiras), arrive on horseback, with the intention of stabbing the bull in the back with as many as eight bandarilhas (small javelins).



Unlike Spanish bullfighting, where the most acclaimed individual is the matador, it’s the cavaleiros who usually hold centre stage for the major part of the event. Garishly coloured, their attire, along with the other major performers, is extravagantly adorned with gold and silver embroideries looking as if they’ve just arrived on back order from 18th century France.

Following the spectacle of thrusting the colourful barbed spears into the already-incensed animal’s hide, a group of eight unarmed men attempt to perform what is known as the ‘pega de cara’ (face catch). Inciting the bull into a charge, the front man secures its head, until with the help of his associates, the animal is restrained. Unlike the Spanish style of bullfighting, the bull is rarely put to the sword in public. Instead, it may be killed in its pen by a professional butcher, or even more humanely, restored to health and released to pasture for breeding.

A bullring - Valencia, Spain. 
While the public killing of bulls in Portugal’s bullrings has become outlawed, there is still the odd exception. In the Spanish border village of Barrancos, for example, the traditional killing of the bull is still permitted in its main square, as part of its four-day festival at the end of August each year.

Despite its stricter laws, bullfighting, a ‘sport’ with 300-year history in Portugal, divides public opinion. Traditionalists continue to put up a considerably strong and righteous argument to uphold the institutions of the past, as they generally do, while animal rights activists contend that bulls are subjected to acts of cruelty. Just the same, bullfighting still remains popular in Portugal, Spain, southern France and other Hispanic American countries such as Mexico; as it will probably continue to do so, especially while spectators are still willing to pay as much as 75 euro, even more, for a front row seat.




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