The Hallelujah Bull

Jonathan Harris | March 2020

Easter is almost upon us, a time of rebirth, Easter egg hunts and a raging bull charging down the main street of Arcos de la Frontera. Named the ‘Toro de Aleluya,’ this incredible spectacle happens every year on Easter Sunday in this beautiful whitewashed village in Andalucía.

A few years ago, I was living in El Puerto de Santa María with my wife and two young daughters. We heard about the Toro de Aleluya festival online and decided to experience it firsthand. So, we put on our Easter best, all shiny shoes and polka dotted dresses. We hopped into the car and headed for Arcos.

Arcos de La Frontera is an ancient village perched atop a limestone crag overlooking vineyards that reach the famous sherry town of Jerez de La Frontera. This is one of the famous White Towns of Andalucía, and you can see it glimmering in the sun for miles as you drive across the plains. Once you enter the town, the narrow main road curves up the hill, then under a narrow archway – part of the defensive walls around the castle that perches atop the hill. The archway was definitely made for horses, not SUVs, as evidenced by the colorful stripes of car paint decorating the stone on either side deposited by scratched bumpers and mirrors over the years. 

The old town beyond the archway is magical, a fairytale tangle of winding cobblestone streets and impossibly narrow alleys. Then you come upon the Plaza de Cabildo. Bordered on three sides by castle walls, a 15th century Gothic-Mudejar church and a stunning Parador hotel, the fourth is open to spectacular plunging views over the Río de Guadalete river valley.

On Easter Sunday, nobody was driving through the narrow archway into the casco antiguo. The main street was fenced off with barred metal barriers awaiting the running of the bulls. So, we parked our car in a field by the river specially set aside for the festival. As we got out of the car and straightened our Easter outfits, we joined the crowd of revelers walking towards the village. It began to dawn on me that we were embarrassingly overdressed.

We walked beside young men in Adidas track outfits shouting and telling jokes, and families in jeans munching on snacks, all in a rather irreverent mood for Easter Sunday. Most surprising, a good percentage passed around liters of Cruzcampo beer and bottles of brandy. As we walked into the village there was a carnival atmosphere, with vendors hawking cotton candy and cheap trinkets from folding tables.

We elbowed our way along the metal barrier flanking the main street, Calle Corredera, looking for a good place to post up and await the drama. All the way up the hill people were crowded in the narrow space between the whitewashed buildings and the barrier. We found a space halfway to the top of the hill in front of a small tree, and I hoisted my 5-year-old daughter on my shoulders. 

At noon we felt a surge of electricity run through the crowd. At the bottom of the hill the first bull had been released, and while we could not see or hear what was happening yet, the sudden excitement and alertness of thousands of spectators reached us long before the bull arrived. 

My daughter squeezed my head as the first group of men sprinted by. The powerful fighting bull rounded the corner at an energetic trot then came to a stop, jerking its massive head left and right to follow the closest runners. His two-foot-long horns shined in the sun. A man waved his shirt in the air and the bull charged up the street as the runners sprinted to safety. 

The bull was past us in less than a minute, but it seemed like time had slowed to a crawl. Along with the rest of the crowd, my family talked excitedly about the experience and breathed a sigh of relief. All of a sudden, the crowd above us surged and people started to shout – something was happening, and it was on our side of the fence. A group of men ran down the sidewalk and my daughter shouted that the bull was coming! As the men got closer, I could see they were clad in neon EMT jackets carrying a runner who had been trampled by the bull. Thankfully the bull had stayed inside the barriers!

After a few hours the crowd dispersed. Unlike in other cities, this ‘running of the bulls’ did not end in a corrida, or bullfight. The bulls were rounded up and sent back to their ranch, exhausted I am sure, but none the worse for wear. 

We wandered the streets and ended up having lunch at Bar Alcaravan, a restaurant located in an ancient cave carved into the limestone walls of the city. Sipping mint tea, we talked excitedly about the morning’s adventure. This was an Easter celebration we would never forget!