On our last day in Madrid before heading to Valencia, Tania & I went to a bullfight at the main bullfighting arena in Madrid (Plaza de Toros Las Ventas).
If you don’t want to see pictures of animals being harmed, I suggest you stop reading now & move onto the next post.
The arena was quite full this particular evening – probably about 18,000 people. Vendors were selling the usual sort of things – sunflower seeds, coke, beer, schooners of gin & tonic !! Yep…nothing like a big, tall plastic cup of ¾ gin & ¼ tonic to get you in the mood. We ‘d had one a little earlier before going into the arena.
A session is made up of six bullfights, each lasting about 20min. With all the pomp & ceremony, that will stretch out to about three hours.
Three matadors take part in a session, each one taking on two bulls.
Interesting fact 1:
The bulls are specially bred & well looked after before being sold to the bullfight association. A normal bull will sell for about Euro 6,000 but those from some of the more prestigious breeders can sell for up to Euro 15,000.
In case you’re wondering, it’s always going to end badly for the bull – just so you know !!
The arena is divided by a series of rings (inner & outer), the significance of which will become obvious as I explain it to you.
At the start of the session, trumpets announce the arrival of the participants who enter the arena in a parade, called the paseíllo – they are the matadores, banderilleros & the picadors. They salute the presiding dignitaries & the crowd. They then assume their positions.
A person with a sign then parades into the middle of the arena. His sign tells you the size of the bull that will be up next.
The bullfight – a death in three parts
Part One – Testing & Lancers
The bull enters the ring where it is then tested for its ferocity (mainly by the banderilleros with a magenta cape). They test to see how the bull reacts.
A banderillero testing his cape
A banderillero testing his cape
Two men on heavily padded (& blindfolded) horses then enter the ring. They both are carrying lances. These guys basically have to goad the bull into charging the horse so they can be in a position to stab the bull just behind the “morrillo”. The morillo is a mound of muscle on the bull's neck & piercing it will weaken the neck muscles and lead to the animal's first loss of blood.
Interesting fact 2:
Prior to 1930, the horse did not wear any sort of protection whatsoever – resulting in the bull disemboweling the horse. Until this change was made, the number of horses killed during a fight was higher than the number of bulls killed.
We saw two horses knocked over completely by the bulls.
One picador did a particularly good job of lancing the bull this night – so much so, he got a standing ovation as he exited the arena.
Trumpets will sound the start of the next part
Part two – Banderilleros
It is then the turn of the three banderilleros who take centre stage. During this stage, they each have to face the bull head on & attempt to stab two banderillas (sharp barbed sticks) into the bull's shoulders.
The purpose of this is to anger the bull some more (as if he isn’t angry enough), get its adrenaline going & to weaken it a bit further.
If the banderilleros can stab the bull from the front & whilst standing, it is considered excellent form. If, however, he stabs the bull while running away – that’s really poor form !!
Trumpets will sound the start of the final part
Part three – Death
By the time we have got to this stage, the bull is bleeding & has been weakened. It’s now the turn of the matador to take centre stage. With a small sword & red cape (called a “muleta”), the matador uses the cape to attract the bull in a series of passes.
These serve the dual purpose of wearing the animal down for the kill and producing a beautiful display for the crowd (to the sounds of “Ole”). This will continue for a while, as the matador wears the bull down even more. At some point, the matador will change swords & will prepare for the death.
He will face the bull head on, cape in one hand & sword ready in the other. He will have the cape low to the ground & he will maneuver the bull into a position where he can then stab it between the shoulder blades and through the aorta or heart.
A clean kill is if the sword goes all the way in. A bad kill is if the sword bounces out or is not fully in. The crowd do not like (nor will they tolerate) a bad kill.
By this stage, the bull is all but finished – the banderilleros will crowd around the bull, assuming that it hasn’t already collapsed & will finish him off with a quick jab into the brain.
If the matador has performed particularly well, the crowd may petition the president to award the matador an ear from the bull. They do this by waving white handkerchiefs (or their programs). This particular night, one of the matadors
In very rare instances, if the public or the matador believes that the bull has fought extremely bravely, they may petition the president of the event to grant the bull a pardon. If it is granted the bull's life is spared and it is allowed to leave the ring alive, return to the ranch where it came from where it then becomes a stud bull for the rest of its life.
Interesting fact 4:
As with any sport where you have up to a 700kg bull charging at you, sometimes it can end badly for the matador. If a matador is killed, the bull that killed him is killed (well…duh !!) & his mother is killed as well so that she may no longer sire any more “killer” bulls.
Now…..I mentioned earlier in this piece that there are six bull fights in a session so you think that the final score for the evening would be 6 – 0 to the Matadors. The night we were there, it was 9 – 0 to the matadors & here’s why:
This particular night, we had three bulls that were not considered “worthy”. By not being “worthy” I mean that it’s considered weak (ie: it collapses as soon as it’s lanced; it collapses for no reason & can’t/won’t get back up) or won’t put up a fight. In that case, the crowd will start booing, express outrage & turn to the “President’s Booth” for a decision (the crowd at a bullfight are very hard to please at times).
Think of the “President’s Booth” as the Emperor’s booth at the Gladiatorial arena. He has the power of life or death by simply holding his thumb up or down. In the case of the president (it can be the Prime Minister or the president of the bullfighting association), all he has to do is to wave a green flag – the bull is then condemned.
He will either be killed there in the arena (as happened with one of the bulls we saw) or he will be led out of the arena by a herd of white cows. The white cows are directed on the arena & are guided by a “shepherd” who uses a series of whistles to direct these white cows. They will “round up” (so to speak) the “unworthy” bull & lead him out of the arena. The “unworthy” bull will then be killed out of sight.
This particular night, one of the “unworthy” bulls didn’t want to play the game & wouldn’t be led out the arena. The “shepherd” ended up having to wave his grey vest at the bull (along the length of the arena) until it followed the vest out into the right gate. The guy got a rousing cheer from the crowd for his unique way of getting the bull out the arena.
A substitute bull is then brought in & the whole process starts again.
This particular, the last bullfight of the evening was a substitute bull. He was a little fella (only 470kg). The crowd, seeing his size, then turned on him by making “meow” sounds, indicating that he was a kitty cat; not much chop.
Well….this little fella turned out to be the most aggressive of all the bulls this particular evening. At one point, Tania & I swear he was eyeing off jumping into the crowd.
When the bull is finished off, his carcass is lead out of the arena by a draught of horses.
What happens to the meat of the bull ?? Once upon a time it was handed out to the poor but now it’s sold to the general public.
Okay…I never had an opinion about bullfighting & it wasn’t the sort of thing that I’d consider going to normally, but in this instance, I’m glad I did. It turned out to be disturbingly enthralling.
After seeing the first bull “lose” (so to speak), we really got into it: we were cheering the bull when he was doing alright, we were shouting “Ole” when the banderilleros & matadors were strutting their stuff; we cheered the bull’s carcass as it was led out of the arena.
We had a lovely Spanish couple beside us during the event who took the time to explain to us what was going (as well as the rules & traditions). They were obviously big fans.
The thing I took from this experience is this:
To me, bullfighting is this big, f*** you finger to political correctness sweeping Europe. You had people drinking in public, smoking in public, cheering on the death of these bulls – it’s all so wrong but at the same time, it’s kinda invigorating.
To watch the Spaniards follow on with these traditions, even though the world is telling them it’s got to stop means there are enough people who care about the sort of things that makes the Spaniards who they are.
I hope they never lose these traditions.
I read somewhere that the President of Spain once said that if the EU forces a ban on bullfighting, Spain would leave the EU. I can imagine that happening.