A man dressed in a black beret and wide red belt appears on the plaza in front of Madrid’s City Hall, leading two black oxen joined together by a wooden contraption reminiscent of a distant era. Amidst the car-lined streets and illuminated shops, the scene stands in stark contrast to the modern city.
The oxen’s arrival at the Plaza de Cibeles marks the final act in the Fiesta de la Trashumancia, or Transhumance Festival, which has been taking place in the city every autumn (typically at the end of October) since 1994. Conceived by the Association of Transhumance and Nature, it was designed to recognise and celebrate the centuries-old tradition of seasonal livestock migration. Since then, hordes of sheep (and sometimes bulls and horses) take over the Spanish capital once a year. They stumble through the elegant streets of Madrid with their hoofs clattering on the asphalt and eyes glazed in terror.
Singing and dancing precedes them. Keeping the beat with castanets, women in mantillas, customary head coverings, and large, colourful skirts with aprons and men in wide pants tucked into long socks swirl around each other in a jota, a traditional Spanish dance. Most wear wooden shoes on spikes, which help dancers navigate muddy fields.
Accompanied by the sounds of flutes and tambourines, Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena greets the shepherds in front of City Hall. When the 2,000 sheep appear on the square, the public—until now disciplined enough to keep to the sidewalks—spills onto the plaza. The sheep falter at the chaos at first, but then push forward, spurred on by ranchers yielding long sticks. The shepherds pay the mayor 50 maravedís al millar—50 coins per thousand heads—the payment established in 1418 for crossing the city.
In her 2016 speech, the mayor suggested making the festival a regularly-held event in which people could join ranchers on their way to Madrid. “It’s a beautiful tradition,” she says. “Why not?”
Perhaps they should ask the sheep.
Lead Image: Shepherds guide hordes of sheep through the streets of Madrid, Spain, during the annual Tanshumance Festival. PHOTOGRAPH BY MARCOS DEL MAZO, GETTY IMAGES