A Visit to Palha, A Ganadería of Renown
Some 20 CTLers eagerly accepted the invitation for a visit to this highly respected breeding ranch in Portugal. It had been arranged by our illustrious president, Ivan Moseley, following the Fiesta de Olivenza, which had staged, in a sold-out plaza, three magnificent corridas within two days. In spite of late nights and little sleep while in Olivenza, virtually everyone turned up surprisingly punctual at the appointed hour at the stone gate of the large ranch, which produces some of the finest and fiercest bulls for the plazas in Spain. One should add that driving on the more-often-than-not empty motorways of Spain and Portugal can still be “fun”.
Soon Victor Mendes turned up, said the magic words for the gates to open and led the convoy of cars to the main house. Ivan had introduced Victor to us in Olivenza. He is a charming, handsome man with a bright smile and the most famous matador de toros (a pie) that Portugal ever produced. The late 1980s and early 90s saw him at the top of his profession, a time when he appeared in all the major plazas of Spain. Now retired, he is closely connected with this ganadería.
Home of the Palhas, the ranch ‘Heredade de Adema’ lies opposite Vila Franca de Xira in the wide, luscious flats of the Tejo river, some 40km east of Lisbon. Hot coffee was served to everyone in what one might call the Great Hall, displaying many bulls’ heads, trophies and historic posters of Palha glory days. João Folque, who has the same personal attributes as Victor, directs the fortunes of the ganadería nowadays and was just back from Madrid – and off again there that evening to receive yet another trophy for his bulls. He gave us a brief introduction of the ranch’s 150-year history, which, needless to say, had its ups and downs, not least because of revolutions in Portugal and the Civil War in Spain. He smiled at the suggestion, to simply declare independence from Portugal in order to avoid future troubles.
‘Heredade de Adema’ seems almost large enough to do that. Hectares don’t mean much to most of us, but the ranch has 1100 of them. To try to put it in perspective: it is three and a half times the size of Hampstead Heath in north London. Two hundred out of the 1100 hectares are close by, but not directly connected to the main ranch. Bulls that have been selected for the corrida will spend time grazing there, as special nutrients in the grass give them a shinier hide and have a positive effect on the development of the horns. The bulls are transported in open trailers from one pasture to the other without much difficulty.
João invited us for an excursion through the vast green grazing grounds. We climbed aboard a tractor-drawn trailer, prepared specially for this purpose, and first passed by his attractive, spacious, one-storey ranch house. No, he said, he doesn’t use it all the time, preferring to live with his family in the fashionable seaside resort of Cascais, from where he commutes. The picturesque landscape is dotted with cork oaks; sizable natural ponds indicate that water is aplenty. Here and there we sited the beautiful dark Palhas. Everything looked just as one imagined it, or as it is sometimes pictured in magazines, books and postcards.
Each year, the ranch produces toros for some 10-11 corridas in Spain. Palhas are regularly seen in the plazas of Madrid, Sevilla, Barcelona, Bilbao and elsewhere. João pointed out the lotes that will soon appear in the Maestranza in Sevilla, during the Feria de Abril, and in Las Ventas, Madrid, for San Isidro. They had grown up together, but were recently separated. It takes up to two weeks before they find their natural rhythm for food intake again. And what purpose do the two calves have that are in together with the toros? They are simply there to help calm them down, said João. One can only speculate how stressful that last journey must be, when they stand alone in individual boxes on the way to what is hopefully going to be a glorious afternoon in the ring. Nîmes is farthest away and takes the longest - some 22 hours.
Time had gone by too quickly; we had to leave, but not before Tristan Wood presented João, on behalf of the Club, with a copy of his excellent book Dialogues with Death. The caravan followed Victor once more, this time into Vila Franca de Xira, where everyone was invited for a delicious lunch at the Restaurante Il Forno. Then it was good-bye in the hopes that a similar experience can be realised once again in the not-too-distant future.