Friday, April 15, 2016

Bullfight - Madrid

If we were going to Spain, we knew that we had to go and see a bullfight.

Now, all those who are PETA or animal rights activists, read no further. There is plenty else to read on the internet. Do not lecture me on rights and wrongs.

Bullfighting is one of those legendary sports, to which we have no exposure to in India – save and except Tamil Nadu – but from what I know, that has been banned. I have little doubt that bullfighting in Spain will get banned soon. But while it was still legit we had to watch a bullfight.

The first challenge was to get a ticket. After doing some research, we figured that there were two ways to buy tickets – without getting involved in a sort of `guided’ tour package. One was to simply go to the stadium and buy one. The second was to buy one from some resellers on the internet. We chose the latter. After some Spanish to English translations we figured that tickets come with a few variations – sun, sun & shade, shade and of course close to the ring and high up. We chose the most expensive – shade and close – paid the money and hoped we were not being conned. The tickets were to be picked up on the day of the bullfight from an office near the bull ring.

Bullfighting season in Madrid starts in the last weekend of March and runs thru the summer. Fights start at 6 pm. The way it works is that there are normally 6 bullfights each lasting about 20 minutes. Bullfighters come in various categories and skill and experience levels. On the agenda for us were 6 bulls, 3 bullfighters or Matadors each with a chance to fight 2 bulls.

Now you must understand one thing. In a bullfight only one survives – the man or the bull. The bulls die, they are killed in front of you, and their carcasses dragged away. This is the real thing.

The great Ernest Hemmingway had these two things to say about bullfighting – both absolutely correct:

“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”

“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honor.”

On the morning of the bullfight we walked from our hotel to the bullring – a nice 30 minute walk – found the ticket office, heaved a sigh of relief and collected the tickets from a very nice man. No regrets.

That evening we walked back to the bullring. It was cold and there was a slight drizzle. As we entered we did what we have only read about, rented two leather cushions from the vendor - € 1.20 per cushion + tip he said. I gave him 5 € and he was happy to pose for a photograph. Cushions in hand we sat in our seats. They were indeed good seats.

A happy atmosphere all around. Vendors selling ice cream and peanuts, ushers taking people to their seats. The ring seats some 24,000 but as the ticket seller told us there would be about 6,000 people that day as it was early in the season. At about 5.55 pm a band started to play and promptly at 6 pm, to the sound of trumpets and beat of drums the bullfighters entered the arena.

A minute later Bull No1 entered. The bulls that would fight today were all up to 600kg in weight. A bullfight consists of three stages. In stage 1 the bull is attracted by the Matador using a large cape. The Matador gauges the bulls strength and courage. In the second stage a Picadores, on horseback, with the horse blindfolded and thoroughly protected by armour enter the ring. The Picadores use long lances to weaken the bull's neck muscles. The bull's courage can be discovered by his willingness to approach the horse and lance. Then, the Banderilleros stab brightly-coloured barbed sticks or banderillas into the bull's back. All this thoroughly enrages the bull. Honestly, this part of the bullfight was thoroughly entertaining.

Then starts the third and final part of the bullfight. It is Matador versus the bull. This part too is most fun to watch. Holding a small red cape the Matador attempts to pass the bull as close to his body as possible in an artistic and varied manner. This is really dangerous and can be really really attractive to watch. You soon realise the skill and clumsiness of the different Matadors. After effecting these passes, the Matador will take a real, sharpened sword to attempt to kill the bull by bringing it on to him with its head lowered so he can thrust the sword between the bull's shoulder blades. This part can get really gory. Because the Matadors vary in skill levels, they sometime miss the spinal cord of the bull, thereby don’t kill it in the first instance. The bull then struggles and once the bull collapses the Banderilleros swiftly sever the spinal cord killing the bull. The first bullfight was rather upsetting. The bull was badly injured; blood pouring out of its mouth, but alas it did not die. A fresh sword was inserted. Still did not die. Then mercifully the bull collapsed. This was distressing. The next bullfights, the bulls had a far swifter death, thankfully, if that is a word that could be used.

Cleaning the sword  

Almost on cue, in a rather strange and comical way, an animal rights protester jumped into the ring taking everyone by surprise. He held a placard and sprinted to the now dead bull and leapt on the dead bull and hugged it. The police swooped down and caught him. The crowd was absolutely livid. I seriously thought that he would be lynched. But, thankfully that did not happen, and he was whisked away.

Depending on the performance, skill, showmanship and grace of the Matador the audience signifies their approval. One Matador did a wonderful job. The audience was in raptures and showed their appreciation by waving white handkerchiefs. We did not realise that we had witnessed a good Matador at work. Once the next Matador came on it was clear why the previous guy got so much appreciation. The new guy was clumsy; he got tagged by the bull and winced in pain. On more than one occasion I thought that he was a goner – the bull nearly had him.

You may wonder what happens to the 6 bulls that are killed. That is easily 3000 kg of meat. Well, the carcasses are taken to an abattoir and the meat sold to restaurants that specialise in serving meat of bulls in bullfights. Well, why not? A particular delicacy is the Madrid oxtail stew made with the tails of such bulls.

In the end, it was an experience of a lifetime. I honestly believe that the two Hemmingway quotes are spot on in describing the power and beauty of a bullfight. This is really a very dangerous sport. The sport is highly regarded and loved in Spain, much like we like our cricket. Women and children attend with no seeming queasiness.

In balance I was glad I went.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


After the big, bustling city of Madrid, we were looking forward to the charming seaside Valencia which is supposed to have on average of 30 days of sunshine in the year. A super comfortable and super-fast Renfe train got us to Valencia 360 kms away in just an hour and forty minutes. To our dismay, when we pulled into the Valencia train station it was pouring rain. Of the 65 days of possible precipitation, we had found ourselves one if not more.

Not to be put out by such piffling matters we checked into the wonderful Hospes Palau de la Mar and set off for our first recce of the city. As we approached the old town we could hear bands and see waving crowds lining the street. We had arrived in Valencia on the day of their most important local celebration, the San Vicente Ferrer Festival. As the culmination of a week long festivity, people young and old representing different religious orders, dress in traditional, medieval clothes and participate in a procession that carries a statue of St. Vincent Ferrer to the city cathedral.

It was all very pretty and charming but after half an hour and over 10 music bands we were hungry and ducked into a nearby café for a bit of lunch. The Saint certainly smiled down on the procession as it started raining again almost as soon as the last person had ducked into the Cathedral.

The clouds loomed heavy and low when we woke the next morning so we decided to walk to the Science museum and what is believed to be the largest Aquarium in Europe and save the old town tourism for a brighter day. A fabulous 40 minute walk along the most lovely city park on streets lined with orange trees full of fruit. Across from our hotel are a series of bridges going across the now dry river Turia. Much of the dry river bed has been converted into the city park and each bridge is a work of art and beauty. You walk thru these 8kms of parks to the Aquarium and Science Museum complex. Absolutely fabulous city planning. The science museum is huge and impressive with a lot of interesting interactive bits and shows, but the aquarium absolutely blew us away. Incredible modern design, wonderfully planned and a great way to spend many, many hours. Look at some of the pictures.

The next morning the sun shone bright and clear and we set off to discover the old town. Our first stop was the mind bogglingly large Mercado Central – the restored market with over 1000 stalls. Rows and rows of the best possible produce and products imaginable. Absolutely clean, no ‘food’ smells and a happy buzzing atmosphere. After a look around and a bit of shopping, we stopped for a quick lunch of empanadas; a buttery puff pastry stuffed with tuna and tomato and of course glasses of orange juice.

Next stop was the impressive Llotja de la Seda, the 15th Century Gothic Mercantile Exchange followed by the main Cathedral which houses the Holy Chalice. The building are all very imposing and well maintained and the city have several small side streets that lead to smaller structures or pretty little unexpected plazas.

The Madrid motif of having winged beasts on buildings continued in Valencia. To add to this were some, in my opinion, really ugly statues. 

However the beautiful buildings were not all over Valencia. The newer area had some really horrid Mumbai style buildings. Not nice at all.

The most beautiful buildings, in pristine state, complete with ornate decorations on the roof were in and around the Plaza Ajuntament area. These were really gorgeous.