With varying levels of comfort and curiosity, my family and I decided to check “watch a traditional, Spanish bullfight” off of our Madrid bucket list. We prepurchased tickets from TicketsToros, an online bullfight ticket distributor, and picked them up at the office just outside of the Plaza de Toros de Las Vantas. The exterior of the building itself was beautiful, and though the inside showed some age, it added a sense of historic time travel to the event.
My research on the Las Ventas experience advised purchasing seat cushions for the concrete benches from we would watch the show. On the way to our seats, we picked up the much-appreciated, rear-end protection for a euro and change, and shuffled through crowds of tourists, spotted with the occasional group of Spanish elders, towards the ring. Our seats were in the cheapest section, “Sol,” or the area of the open-air coliseum that received the most sunlight during the event. We were happy to be out of the shade, because April in Madrid isn’t too warm. Squished together on our small section of bench, I remembered the tight quarters of the Flamenco show, and couldn’t help but wonder if the seats were Spanish-sized or if we were American-sized…
At 6 p.m. exactly, the event began. Between spirited music from the band and the procession of participants in proud, shining dress, I felt the pregame jitters. Just like any other sporting event, the performers prepared in the ring while the spectators sat in anticipation of the start of the event.
Generally, a bullfight begins with the least prestigious matador of three. For six bulls, the matadors perform in order of increasing esteem twice, each fighting two bulls. The matador-to-bull matchup totals about 30 minutes, comprising of three parts. The first stage requires field assistants to tire the fresh bull, prompting him with double-sided pink and yellow capes to charge repeatedly back and forth across the ring. Once the animal has burnt its initial energy, horses enter the ring for the second phase of the fight. In this middle section, horse-mounted assistants spear the bull in the shoulders with banderillas to further weaken him. Finally, the matador takes over, one-on-one with the bull. The goal of the matador is to make as few movements as possible to make the bull charge. By a single spear thrust in between the shoulders of the animal, the fight is finished.
The body of the bull, once drug by horse-drawn stirrups out of the arena, is then prepared for consumption. Rabo de toro, or tail of the bull, is a popular dish, especially during bullfight season. Sometimes, however, body parts are reserved for the matador. If he performs exceptionally well, he may receive the ear of the animal as a prize. The matador can even earn the second ear, or both ears and the tail, for a truly impressive fight. It was obvious to all, though, that the matadors that we watched were not receiving any execution prizes.
In the first fight, the matador’s assistants fatigued the bull. Then, a horseman introduced the decorated spears, sticking them in the bull to further drain him. Watching the blood drip down the bull’s sleek, dark hide, shining in the setting sun secured my distaste for this event. Already, the poor animal, had had enough, and the matador hadn’t even begun.
When the matador entered the arena, he inched his way closer and closer to the bull as it became increasingly exhausted. Then, though, in one, quick motion, the bull scooped the matador off of his feet, sending him face-down into the sand as the animal reared about him. Saved by his assistants, the matador recovered quickly. He did not, however, emerge from the hiccup unscathed.
The sweep from behind pierced through his beautiful uniform and punctured his behind! With flaps of fabric hanging down, and skin fully exposed, the matador continued the fight.
From the bloody beast to the injured matador, I tried to act like I was watching TV and not real life. It was all a little too much. I had mistakenly imagined the experience with more theatrics and less reality. I thought it would be a show, instead of the bullfight that it was.
To make the trip worthwhile, my family and I saw the first fight through to the end, but by then, we had had enough. Once we had gathered our belongings and were ready to leave, the second fight had already started. On our way out, we ran into old men and angry yells. Too slow to exit, we were forced to stay for the second fight. Feelings of frustration soon turned to understanding when we realized why fate determined us to stay: the second fight was horrible.
From our barely-attentive, untrained eyes, things seemed to be playing out in the second matchup just as they did in the first. Then, the whistling began. Drawing from tennis knowledge, my aunt suggested that they were sounds of disapproval. We glanced down at what was happening in the ring to realize that the second matador had spiked the bull with the “final” spear multiple times and was still trying to finish the animal. As the bull stumbled in disorientation and pain, my aunt recognized that we had to see a poorly executed fight to appreciate the skill and humanity of the first set.
Though there is beauty in the grace of the matador and the fanfare of the event, bullfighting is an ugly sport. I am glad that I got to experience a great Spanish tradition, but only those who enjoy fight-to-the-death events or are truly invested in learning about Spanish culture should attend.
Paz, Amor, Madrid