Terceira Island sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, among the isolated archipelago of the Azores. Its origins are humble—Portuguese farmers and fishermen settled the island in the 14th century—and it’s still a place without pretension, where people rely on agriculture and artisanal traditions such as cheese-making for their livelihoods.
This also happens to be the only place in the world that hosts a sport called courida a corda (running by rope)—a form of bull-running in which a tethered bull is let loose in the middle of a village. At the other end of the long green rope, six to eight male pastores (shepherds) hold on, ostensibly preventing the bull from breaking free of the designated running zone and into the “safety area.” For the daredevils who run into the street to taunt the bulls, the object is to get as close as possible to the animal while escaping injury.
I attended a courida in the town of Porto Judeu, population approximately 2500, with a few travel companions and local guide Mr. Pires Borges in the fall of 2009. Mr. Borges was emphatic about distinguishing this tradition from the bull sports practiced in Spain. “Spanish bullfighting is a tradition of the noble class,” he said. “Here on Terceira, the courida is a peasant sport for pleasing the gods.”
Later, I would discover other resonances of pagan attitudes here. Spiritual energies allegedly imbue the Black Mysteries, lava rock mountains of the interior, and colorfully painted chapels are dedicated to the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit—another tradition unique to the Azores— a reflection of the colors of spring and the people’s devotion to the gods of the harvest.
From the balcony where Mr. Borges at first insisted the two women in our group watch, it looked as though people had been preparing for the festivities all day. Barricades, made from pallets and plywood, had been constructed all along the street, blocking doors and windows and the entrances to gardens. Temporary beer stands stood in vacant lots serving long lines of customers, and people crowded behind the barricades and spilled out of windows, vying for a good view of the street. Men walked up and down hawking candy and colored popcorn from big woven baskets, and teenage girls sat along the curb teasing one another, while the boys stood in the street casually smoking cigarettes. Children as young as three and four ate popsicles and dangled their legs over the balcony where I stood waiting.