Romancing the Bull

Figure 1: Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla, dating back to 1762-1881, Seville.

Ernest Hemingway, the writer, believed that there are only three activities that could be called sports, namely: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering. All the rest are merely games, he said.   Later on, perhaps driven by moral dilemma, he changed his opinion about bullfighting:

“Bullfighting is not a sport.  It was never supposed to be.  It is a tragedy.  A very great tragedy. The tragedy is the death of the bull played in three definite acts. Bullfighting symbolises a struggle between man and beasts”

(Hemingway Papers)


To others, bullfighting is never a sport.  It is often considered a ritual, an art, but never a sport.  Aficianados, lovers or fans of bullfighting, insist that bullfighting is an art form with a sporting character.  Whatever the opinion  is, watching a bullfight for the first time, can be a mix of emotions…intrigue, artistic, dangerous, heart-wrenching.


I could not appreciate the fascination people have for the bullfighting ritual.  However when we arrived at the hotel reception in Madrid on 24 May, we were told there was a bullfight at 7pm that very evening, if we wanted to watch one. Even though bullfighting was never on our to-do-list, we decided to give it a shot.  After all, we were first-time travelers to Madrid.  I was advised to go with an open mind, since I was seeing a bullfight for the very first time.


I heard that the best time to watch a bullfight is in May or June, when Madrid holds its world-famous bullfighting event called San Isidro Festival.  Ticket price depends on how close your seat is to the ‘arena’ and whether you are in the sun or the shade.  I saw a website called offering tickets at €149 for a platinum seat, €89 for a gold seat and €45 for a bronze seat. We got our tickets from the ticket counter at €10 each so it’s not hard to imagine where our seats would be located….right at the top of the stadium, with the afternoon spring sun shining brightly.



The best plaza de toros in Spain are in Seville, Cordoba and Madrid.  The magnificent bullring La Monumental Maestranza (Fig.1) in Seville together with Las Ventas in Madrid (Fig 2) are considered to be two of the oldest and most important in the world.  The best bullfighters fought in them and is the perfect place to experience the electric atmosphere of a corrida (bullfight).


The Maestranza building with an impressive baroque façade dates back to 1762 – 1881 with a seating capacity of 14,000.  Despite its size, the acoustics allow you to hear everything wherever you are seated.  Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas is the 3rd largest bullring in the world and is the most famous with a reputation for being the hardest bullring for matadors to succeed.  It is located in Guindalera quarter of the district of Salamanca, east Madrid with a seating capacity of 25,000.  It was built in 1929 and held its first bullfight in 1930.  Every year, 2000 bullfights are held here which meant a total of 12,000 bulls would have been killed every year.


While some cities have banned bullfighting altogether, Madrid has taken it to a new level, protecting bullfighting as an art form, of special cultural value.  Given the huge economics of the bullfighting industry, it is understandable that the city refused to consider a ban.  Anyone guilty of trying to stop bullfights is subject to fines for attempting to damage Madrid’s cultural heritage.  In fact a Royal Decree was drawn up in 1996, which laid out standards for the characteristics of bulls to be used in a bullfight.

Figure 2: Plaza de Toros de las Ventas, Madrid, where San Isidro Festival is held.



I was wondering which sport commands a bigger following in Madrid – bullfighting or football?  Despite thousands of protesters demanding an end to bullfighting, that Wednesday evening saw the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas (Fig. 2) overflowing with enthusiasm and brimming with excitement. The Plaza was full.  Before the doors to the Plaza were opened, we decided to walk around the grounds of the Plaza.  There were hawkers selling all kinds of nuts, sweets, drinks and souvenirs.  Enthusiasts were lingering around waiting for friends to show up.  A group of matured Spaniards were deep in discussion, some laughing away in the shade of the endearing copper statute of El Toro (Fig. 3).  This must most probably be those highly opinionated group of enthusiasts called aficianados.

Figure 3: A meeting of aficianados in the shade of the endearing El Toro, Plaza de Toros, Madrid, during the San Isidro festival in May.

The majority of the enthusiasts were elderly or matured male Spaniards.  It seemed bullfights attract real ‘aficianados’ of the bullfighting world and they are ‘devotees’ of the bullfighting ritual. It seemed good aficianados watch the bull as closely as they watch the bullfighter.  But some older aficianados watch mainly for the bull’s courage, strength, determination and ferocity. They spent time to speculate on the bull’s character and look for defects.  One can easily recognise these aficianados; they come in small groups, armed with crates of beer in their arms, ready for the two hours or so of an adrenaline rush.


That Wednesday afternoon, a fairly good mix of age groups were lingering inside the stadium.  Some were a younger (most probably) local crowd and some were tourists like me, with a dubious curiosity for the sport.  I was seated next to some tourists from Taiwan, who came armed with cameras and field glasses.  A beautiful green-eyed Spanish young lady came “dressed for a party”, carefully picking her way through some 10 or so flights of tight, narrow steps on her 6-inch stiletto!

I could feel the excitement building up as the crowd started filling up the stadium…



The traditional and most common bullfight format sees three matadors alternating in facing and ultimately killing six bulls over the course of roughly two and a half hours. This format is followed in Spain, Mexico, France and other countries with this tradition.


The opening parade or paseíllo was led by two horsemen called marshalls, in black velvet with ruffs around their necks.  Behind the two horsemen came the bullfighters with their support crew.  The three matadors (the star performers distinguished by wearing a suit of lights with gold embroidery) entered the ring together with their cuadrillas, their support crews of banderilleros and picadors.  The parade also included the red-shirted monosabios who smooth out the sand between bullfights.


The bullfight would commence in three phases (or tercio).  The First Phase saw the entrace of the bull and the act of the lances.  The Second Phase commenced with the act of the banderillas.  The Final Phase saw the use of the muleta termed Moment of Truth.  Each phase was distinguished by the equipment used to maim or kill the bull – the lances, the banderillas and the seemingly-innocent muleta. 


It was a dance of courage, fear and grace between man and beast.  After all, at the heart of all romanticism is suffering….a suffering that ends in the death of either the bull (most probably) or the matador (occasionally).

(Check out the second installment on bullfighting titled “The Dance of Death” in the upcoming 15th February post).

(May 2016, 1218 words)

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