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.