The Denia Dip Leading a Bull to Water -- and Making It Swim

Sure, it might take years of practice, nerves of steel and a few sharp swords to bring down a gigantic, raging bull. But have you ever tried to make one swim? Residents of the Spanish coastal town of Denia do every year -- 18 times.

By now, we're all familiar with the festival of San Fermin in the Spanish city of Pamplona with its "running of the bulls" and bullfights. Yet, while that city is in the grip of gorings and bloody battles with beasts, each year an entirely different festival involving man-vs.-bull is going on at the same time elsewhere in Spain -- one that has more to do with swimming than fighting.

Head 600 kilometers (370 miles) due south from Pamplona, a bit past Valencia, and you'll come to the port town of Denia on a peninsula pointing straight east to Mallorca. Each year, the town holds its "Bous a la Mar," or "Bulls in the Sea," festival.

This festival has little in common with Pamplona's hair raising running and bullfights. Here the arena is square, not round. The bull's antagonist is not a highly trained matador decked out in a silky, embroidered outfit, but gaggles of mostly scrawny young boys in swim shorts. And the finish is not a mountain of muscle heaving in a pool of its own blood but a bull enjoying a refreshing dip in the bay.

The event happens twice every day -- at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. -- for nine days starting on the second Saturday of July. It has been held annually since at least 1926 as part of the festival of Santisima Sangre, or "holy blood," which commemorates how, as legend has it, a monk named Pedro Esteve saved the town from a plague in 1633 by getting its citizens to pool and then redistribute their bread.

As in Pamplona and elsewhere, the ceremony begins with a more sedate "running" as the bulls chase young boys down the Calle Marques de Campo, the town's main boulevard, down to a specially designed arena in the port.

Three sides of the square arena have stands on top of an open area at the bottom with bars just wide enough for humans to slide in and out of the arena should the bull get too close. The fourth side opens out into the harbor, with an approximately one-meter (3.3-foot) drop between the sanded arena floor and the water.

One by one, the bulls are released into the arena, where they are awaited by dozens of people -- mostly young boys. The stated goal is to lure the bull into the water, but the real fun is in testing one's bravery. The bull charges around the ring, chasing the self-styled toreros around.

To escape the bull, there are three options. You can duck between the bars beneath the stands. You can hop on or under one of the two platforms in the middle of the arena -- which the bulls often run up onto, scattering their terrified taunters like bowling pins.

Or you can jump in the water, where the bull is highly reluctant to follow. Indeed, it creates quite a spectacle when the bull runs along the edge of the pier forcing its tormenters to leap hastily in the water one by one, as if in a choreographed pattern.

The contest ends when -- whether due to clumsiness, fatigue or some combination of the two -- the bull's massive frame inadvertently follows one person into the water. As the bull is rescued and brought back to shore by trained handlers in small boats, visitors to the festival stream out of the stands to enjoy the festival's food, music and dancing.


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