Two disclaimers. First, I don’t pull any punches here. What happened is what I write, even the killing of the bulls. Second, since this is a controversial sport as far as animal rights go, I wrote as impartially as I could to not influence you one way or the other. I just wrote what I observed.
And they dragged the sixth bull off to a loud roar from the mainly local, Spanish crowd. But that’s the end of the story. For me it all started in Portugal…
While in Portugal I was unsuccessful in attending a corrida (bullfight) because there weren’t any scheduled in the places I visited so I knew when in Madrid, going to a bullfight was something high on my list of things to do. Before I went to Spain I knew there was a corrida in Madrid every Sunday so I thought this might be my last chance. After taking the night train from Coimbra, Portugal I arrived at my city center Madrid hostel around 9:30. Being there so early meant I couldn’t check in so I hung around for an hour, stowed my bags, and joined the free walking tour. The tour was great, lasted 3 hours, and I learned a lot about Madrid and its history. I also learned it was the beginning of the week-long San Isidro celebrations in Madrid. Among other things the celebration includes corridas every night! Suddenly I had my choice of nights to go. I met a brother and sister from Toronto and the three of us all went together one night.
Upon arriving via metro (subway in Madrid) at the Plaza de Toros stop we emerged from the underground right next to the arena. It looked just like I thought it would. Old, round, tall. Impressive and imposing I thought. We went in and found our seats, about halfway up for 13 Euro….which I thought not bad considering only the best matadors and bull breeders are involved during San Isidro week.
The sun was slowly setting with a third of the arena floor already shaded when the formal introductions began. The matadors, then picadors (men on horses with lances), and I think the bulls or the bull breeders (no hablo español). Then it began. Suddenly. It almost caught me off guard. I guess I’m used to watching American sporting events that include several minutes of commercial breaks every several minutes.
Like me before going to the arena on this perfect May evening, I’m sure many of you reading this have never seen a Spanish bullfight. Here’s a not so quick overview of what happens:
- Several matadors enter the ring with their pink muletas (capes) but stay hidden behind the entry walls.
- The bull enters and gets baited a specific direction by a few matadors and their muletas (this allows the main matador to get into place behind the bull).
- After running (tiring out) the bull for a minute, then turning the bull toward the main matador, he ‘fights’ the bull for several minutes. Olé, olé, etc., etc.
- The horns blow (yes, there’s a band) and the picadors come out, one across from the other in the ring.
- All the while the matadors have continued to run the bull back and forth (wearing him out). When set, they turn the bull toward one picador (the horse is heavily clad with protective gear). He charges and attacks the horse’s side. At the same time the picador strikes the back of the bull, putting all his weight on the lance until the bull retreats (anywhere from 5 to 25 seconds). This all happens twice. (Picador, it seemed like a less dangerous job then a matador, until I heard that the night before one of the horses got knocked over and trapped a leg of the rider for a moment. That must have been a scary few heartbeats.)
- The matadors distract the bull again as the picadors leave the ring.
- Two matadors become banderilleros and trade in their pink muletas for a pair each of barbed wooden sticks. They look like 24” long batons with little spears in one end.
- After the bull gets ran some more and turned toward a banderillero he charges and gets stabbed in the back with two barbed spears at the same time. The barbs keep them stuck in the bull and they dangle from his back. This happens three times so there are 6 dangling sticks.
- The bull, now noticeably weaker, continues to get directed and run around until the main matador comes out with a red muleta and sword. Now the two are alone in the ring and they
begin to dance. Olé, olé, olé…for a few minutes. This is called the faena (the matadors capework) and it’s very impressive, even with the bull tired, weak and bloody.
- The matador trades up to his sharp, stabbing sword. A couple more olés occur before the matador aims and strikes as the bull makes one last lunge. The 30” long sword goes completely in the back of the bull.
- Immediately all the matadors come out and confuse the bull until he collapses. One matador takes a knife and stabs the spinal cord until its severed and the bull is dead.
- Several workers come out and start raking the arena floor (they’re like the grounds crew between innings at a MLB game, except they have to clean up blood too) as a few others along with two horses drag the dead bull out of the arena.
- It’s over.
- It is all choreographed, seemingly down to the second, and very theatrical. There is a lot of posturing and posing from the matadors and bulls alike. Everyone knows their role and plays it, including the bull.
- While I was there, this happened 6 times. 20 minutes each, almost exactly.
Like I said, everyone plays their role. So after the initial 20 minute corrida, which was very interesting because it was my first, the others can seem monotonous…unless a matador messes up. Or unless the bull goes off script. Both of which happened the night I was in attendance.
In the second corrida I don’t know exactly which happened. Maybe a combination of the two. Whatever occurred the result was the main matador ended up riding the head of the bull for a few steps, doing his best John Heisman impression with a hand between the horns along the way. He escaped without any harm or even falling to the ground. It was a very athletic move.
The last corrida had all kinds of unexpected action. Throughout the fight the bull was doing his own thing. When the band signaled for the horses to come in, he turned and charged the wall in the direction of the horns. At times he seemed disinterested in continuing, but the matadors kept him in line. Then, after the matador came out with his red muleta, he fell down in the middle of the faena. Yeah. FELL DOWN…four feet in front of the bull. This situation must be on their ‘worst case scenario’ practice schedule because everyone knew what to do and didn’t hesitate. The matador immediately started rolling away as all the other matadors rushed in to distract the bull. It worked. The bull didn’t move and the main matador was able to get back to his feet with only a dirty uniform.
At the end of the night, these were my main takeaways:
- I heard you could go buy the meat of the 6 bulls afterward. Any cut you wanted: steak, criadillas (mountain oysters), whatever!
- I had gained respect for the bravery of the matadors and picadors. Most of the time the bull does what he’s supposed to, but sometimes he goes off script. It takes major cojones to stand 3 feet from a bull and turn your back. Especially when the bull randomly has a mind of its own.
- As someone who enjoys watching just about anything performed by people who are really great at it (professional sports, live concerts, an artist sketching The Sagrada Familia, etc.) I enjoyed seeing the regions best matadors and the best bulls battle to the end….even if the end was never in question.
- I decided I’d like to see a Portuguese bullfight where the bull doesn’t die, and see if there are any other differences (I hear there’s a test of courage that has to do with the bull charging and seeing who is the last man to move).
- I also noticed the picadors horses are blindfolded. I suppose they wouldn’t stand there and get attacked by a bull if they could…ya know, SEE. Perhaps the horses are the smartest mammals in the ring.