hidden europe 39

Beauty and the Beast

by Diego Vivanco

Picture above: A tranga has picked up a madama, who will now become his ‘possession’ for the carnival. Both will head arm-in-arm to the dance in the main square (photo by Diego VIvanco).


Just prior to the start of Lent each year, the village of Bielsa on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees welcomes a flood of visitors to its annual carnival. For a couple of days of transgression, the frenetic energy of the carnival contrasts with the normally slow pace of mountain life. Diego Vivanco escorts us through the crowded streets of Bielsa at a time when caution is thrown to the wind. Anything can happen at carnival time.

The bear nervously surveys the scene ahead. The onlookers gather to the left of the bear, and they gather to his right. Even straight ahead, some people wait, daring to stand in the path of the beast. Those who wait and watch the bear take care to keep their distance.

The animal, confronted by such a swarm of onlookers, is cautious but undaunted. Here is a bear who wants to take the path he wants, not one defined by others. So with measured paces the bear slowly advances along the main street of Bielsa. He stops, he growls and looks hither and thither, evidently registering each movement in the surrounding crowd. Appreciating that he is the centre of attention, the bear rears up on his hind legs and asserts his power. He displays his fierce teeth, and then drops down on his haunches. It looks as if the animal just wants to pause for thought — a chance, perhaps, to consider his options.

Suddenly there is unexpected action. A young woman darts out from the crowd, boldly running in front of the bear. This foolish attempt to cross the street taunts the beast. It springs forward, a streak of fur and muscular bristle, and runs towards the unwitting prey.

Two strides away from its goal and closing fast on the young woman, the animal is suddenly stopped by a powerful yank. The bear turns around, only to be reminded of the cruel reality of his situation. The bear is chained to a man holding the shackles with his left hand whilst brandishing a thick stick with his right. The domador tugs on the chain, reminding the animal who holds the reins in this duet.

Now the bear is tired of being staged. He has worn weary of the parade. He rears one last time, moving towards the one who claims control. The domador responds, stepping forward assertively towards the bear. He brandishes a wooden club, which he uses to lash the animal’s back. Then, with all the might that he can muster, the domador jumps on the bear, pushing the confused animal to the ground.

The bear falls badly. Part-stunned, his dark eyes look beyond the Bielsa roofscape to the snow-capped ridges beyond. In the cold Pyrenean air, the bear takes the only option left unto him. He relaxes and he watches. His public humiliation is complete.

“Get up, onso” calls the domador. He walks towards the bear, as if ready to give the animal another swipe with the stick. “Come on: up, up, up!”

“I donʼt want to get up,” replies the bear, prompting bouts of laughter from the surrounding crowd.

The domador grabs a wineskin and passes it to the bear. The onso grabs and drinks profusely. Revived by the coarse red wine, he even casts a smile towards the domador. The evening promises to be long. The carnival of Bielsa is now in full swing.

Related article

Cardinal points

One travel guide claims that Finisterre is the most westerly point on the European mainland. This is in fact wrong, just as other points that lay claim to special status as geographical extremities are often spurious. We map Europe's extremities.