, , , , , , , , ,

Last Olé for the Fighting Bulls

“A mi me gusta los toros, el futbol no!” 

I first met Juan in his café when I got up too early for Spain one morning.  I had gone to the Mostenses market across the Gran Vía from the Plaza d’España in Madrid to buy pan and jamón de bellota for breakfast, but it was still closed, so I walked into a little café that had just opened and ordered coffee at the counter.  We were alone apart from two road workers in blue overalls and helmets already having drinks.  The café – very basic.  It’s not the grand Café Gijón, where waiters in waistcoats will serve you a water.  Juan, who ran the place, had an open smile so we struck up a conversation apropos nothing.  I become a regular there over the next four weeks.  On a day he asked me whether I would be going to the Feria de San Isidro bullfight festival that had opened the previous night.  I said I would, and that’s when he declared his love for bullfighting and not for football.

Bullfight aficionado

Bullfight aficionado

He was a bullfighting aficionado.  But the “ecologists” were spoiling it these days, he said.  They were trying to ban it.  Didn’t they know that the fighting bulls live a regal life for five years and only suffer for fifteen minutes, that’s all, whereas other stock are kept miserably in sheds where they can hardly move and are then killed by a gun at age two?  Juan said that if he were given the option to live like a king for fifty years and then suffer for the last fifteen minutes, like the fighting bulls, or live miserably for fifty years and then be killed instantaneously by a gun at an abattoir, he, Juan, would definitely opt for the former.  In fact, he’d sign on the dotted line immediately if they brought him the forms.  In fact, the ecologists could bring the forms to him right away, here to his café.

The ecologists were stuffing it all up.  He was a bullfighting fanatic to the point of illness.  He used to sleep outside the bullring’s ticket kiosks overnight to beat the black marketers to tickets.  He attended bullfighting events and talks hosted by toreros.  Would I like another drink?  Definitely Juan.  By the way, here’s some jamón serrano to go with your drink.  On the house.  Thank you Juan.  Nowadays he doesn’t have the will to sleep outside kiosks.  Neither is he going to pay the prices extorted by the black market.  Depending on demand they at times sell a twenty euro ticket for a hundred.  No thanks, he’d rather eat and drink for that money.  Given his afición, did he himself ever try to bullfight, I asked.  Was I loco?  Never!  If one put him, Juan, with a cape in front of a she-goat he’d completely shi_t himself, let alone a bull.  Some wine Alex?  Which would you like?  Ah, good.  Here are a few slices of baguette and some queso.  On the house.  Thank you Juan.

Las Ventas Bullring Madrid

Las Ventas Bullring Madrid

A customer approaches the counter and Juan tears himself from our bullfight chat to serve him.  Someone plays a slot-machine in the background.  Two women smoke at a table.  Coffee aromas waft from an espresso machine.  It’s funny how in life you get to talk to people like Juan who have time.  The café down the block is much busier so the owner doesn’t talk to you.  More people go there than come here, to Juan’s.  Successful futbol people most likely, the real afición of Spain.

Over the next few days Juan tells me more and more about the subculture of los toros.  What seat to choose.  The barrera or contrabarrera if I could afford it, the rows of seats right next to the ring, preferably in sectors 1, 2 or 12.  That’s where most of the action takes place as its in front of the president’s box so you get really close-up views.  I was to take a hat if sitting in the sol or sol y sombra sectors, where the sun blazed.  If taking someone err… sensitive along with me, then out of consideration it would be best to sit high up in the stands.  And I should take an excellent cigar along – cigars and bullfighting went together, he said.  Of course, I shouldn’t expect the grand bullfighting of old.  These days there’s a down-breeding of the bulls so that they’re not as vicious as in the past.  The horn is bred to project lower so it doesn’t hit the bullfighter’s abdomen or groin but the thigh in a goring.  It’s less fatal.  There’s even talk of drugging the animals to render them placid.  All but the very top matadors today don’t take risks – they keep well clear of the horn.  Where are the valiant bullfighters of old?  But at least we still had this shadow spectacle to cheer ourselves.  I had to remember that the ecologists were agitating fervently to end bullfighting in Spain.  In España!

The next day I took metro line two to Las Ventas and bought tickets to that evening’s corrida.  The barrera and contrabarrera tickets had been snapped up, so I asked for tickets close to the bandstand where I could better hear the music.  That evening, I dressed up like a dandy and took my cigars along.  At exactly 7PM the corrida’s president gave a signal, the band struck up a pasodoble and the pageant began.  Two men on resplendent horses rode in, and then the rest of the evening’s troupes strode out in fine livery.  A buzz went through the crowd.  I lit up my cigar.  What expectation!

Dandy at the bullfight

Dandy at the bullfight

The first bull is announced.  620 kg of hard beef from a reputable ganaderia.  Out come the picadors.  The gates open and out charges the bull, then stops and looks back.  They always do.  It then sees the first picador on horseback, charges and crashes his horns into the horse’s quilted armour.  The picador does what is perhaps the goriest thing of the bullfight – he pokes a long spike into the each of the bulls tossing muscles as its horns locks into the horse’s armour.  Blood flows down the bull’s magnificent flanks.  This, more than anything, makes the squeamish squirm.  This, more than anything, gives the matador a chance.  It also drops the bull’s head making the spectacular faenas possible.  And then is fight was on.  The toreros with banderillas perform their horn-defying acts, piercing the charging bull’s back with festooned arrows.  The bull shakes off the stings and rages on.  Finally the matador comes on to pace a dance of nerves and torment with the bull.  He, of all the bullfighters, is most at risk.

La Maestranza  bullring Seville

La Maestranza bullring Seville

The fighting bull – the toro bravo or toro de lidia – is no ordinary bull.  It has been known to kill lions and tigers in cages and is bred for its ferocity by ganaderias – special breeding houses.   They roam freely in the fields and must be at least 4 ½ years old before they’re allowed into the ring, and for the bullfighter’s sake, must never have fought a human before.  They are huge, magnificent, dangerous animals.  They can maim and kill (see pics).  The papers were full of the goring of the famous bullfighter José Tomas in May.  Anatomical sketches of the injuries he suffered were splashed all over all the front pages.  The goring of Julio Aparício through the neck and cheek also got wide coverage.  I saw a few close shaves myself, including a trampling and a tossing.  The crowd gasped when the horn came so close it tore the matador’s raiment.  The danger is always there, you can smell it, that’s why the people are there, to feel it.  It lurks at every turn.  Most bulls are brave but now and again a cowardly bull emerges, one that turns its back on the fight.  The crowd shouts and whistles at this.  Such a bull is always shooed out of the ring by a team of oxen.  Only the brave deserve the fight.

Goya - Bullfighting scene

Goya – Bullfighting scene

A matador prefers an animal that charges true and straight, as though mounted on rails.  That’s when they can do the spectacular.  But those are the easy bulls.  The difficult bulls are the ones that toss at the matador unpredictably, and that learn fast that there’s a man behind the cape.  The matador has fifteen minutes in which to kill the bull else it goes free.  Above anything, the crowd loves a brave bull.1

El Toro Enters
El Toro Enters
El Toro Exits
El Toro Exits

I’m at the bullfight at the Feria de San Isidro.  All’s well with life.  Six bulls.  Three matadors and their entourage.  Two cigars.  Charged atmosphere.  Lovely ladies.  Lovely ladies, lovely gentlemen.  The bullfight at Las Ventas.  In Madrid.  The faenas are sharp, the evening is festive, the pasodobles rousing.  I would go on to watch the corrida at the La Maestranza in Seville, as well as to the corrida de rejones at Las Ventas a few weeks later.  Forgive me.  My dark side at times thinks I was made to go to corridas in a panama hat and a scarf and a cigar, all elegant, with a most beautiful tall woman in a colourful shawl by my side, waving a fan.  I too, like Juan, will sign on the dotted line.

Classic Death in the Afternoon

Javier Cortes being tossed

Joselillo being gored by an Aguirre bull

The next morning I tell Juan all about the corrida and read the reviews in El País and El Mundo.  Juan asks questions, explains.  I order another early morning Spanish brandy.  It’s my holiday, it’s traditional.  We discuss further.  But the aficionados are losing the battle.  Juan’s so-called ecologists are winning.  Catalonia has just passed a bill banning bullfighting, so there will be no more bullfights in Barcelona after two years.2  Defenders of tauromachy like the socialist politician David Pérez are on the back foot.3  The pro-bullfighting block is relying on intellectual and political support from France to block European Union regulations and prohibitions on bullfighting.  But they’re losing ground.

If the anti-bullfighting lobby passes these directives a barely extant ritual that has somehow survived progress will vanish.  It’s barbaric don’t you know.  The politically correct say so.  Yet there’s a great love, respect and sympathy for the bull in Spain, not contempt.  It is the very symbol of the country.  When the ecologists win a thousand-year old tradition will die.  They’ll next outlaw cigars in public spaces in Spain as they have elsewhere.  Emboldened by this, they’ll proceed to stamp out the thinking that’s not allowed, the dance that’s too provocative and the love that is forbidden.

Javier Rodriguez gored

Arturo Martin bites the dust

Arturo Martin bites the dust

The free-roaming fighting bulls will disappear and their fields will be converted into golf courses for rich ecologists.  In their place, more cattle will be stuffed into pens to be instantaneously killed by nice guns with retractable projectiles to feed the MacDonalds share price on Wall Street.  Diversity will have been squashed.  Everyone will be happy.  The insipid tyranny of Juan’s ecologists would have won.

And when the last olé would have been cheered for the last fighting bull, I will go to Spain and talk futbol with Juan.



  1. Books on bullfighting abound.  A good if outdated classic is Ernest Hemmingway’s Death in the Afternoon.
  2. The parliament of Catalonia passed a law to ban bullfighting on Tuesday 27th July 2010.  The ban will take effect in January 2012.  Voting was as follows: 68 backed a ban, 55 voted against and 9 abstained.  Cynics say that this was as much as political move to assert independence from Madrid as an anti-bullfighting vote, but the vote remains.
  3.  Spanish newspaper El Mundo, 6 May 2010, Cultural Section, page 55.  Note that the bullfight is not covered in the sports section of newspapers in Spain, but in the cultural section.

Spanish Glossary

afición = deep love or fanaticism for an interest, hobby or a sport

banderilla – a decorated dart that is implanted in the neck or shoulders of the bull during a bull fight (definition from wordnetweb.princeton.edu).

barrera – the first row of seats at a bullfight right next to the ring

contrabarrera – the row of seats at a bullfight ring second from the ring, i.e. just behind the barrera seats

corrida = profession level bullfight in which a qualified bullfighter fights the bull on the ground and not from a horse.  The amateur version is called a novillada.
corrida de rejones =
bullfight on horseback

faena = the series of final passes performed by a matador preparatory to killing a bull in a bullfight (definition from thefreedictionary.com)

futbol = football stupid football, also known as soccer, the thing that should actually be banned in Spain

ganaderias = special breeding houses in Spain that breed the fighting bulls.  There are many famous ganaderias, including Miura.  A Miura bull is reputed to have killed 27 horses in a fight in Seville a long time ago, Juan tells me.  They had to buy horses from carriages in the street to feed his rage, the folklore goes.

jamón de bellota = acorn-fed ham from free-roaming black pigs, also known as pata negra

jamón serrano = literally “ham from the mountain”, not as prized and much cheaper than jamón de bellota

loco = mad

matador = bullfighter who actually kills the bull

olé = interjection used to express approval, triumph, joy, etc., as at a bullfight or in flamenco dancing. Origin: Sp, prob.  hola, hollo, echoic of shout (definition from yourdictionary.com).

pan = bread

pasodoble = a moderately fast Spanish dance, set in march, traditionally played by the band during bullfights

picador = the horseman who pricks the bull with a lance early in the bullfight to goad the bull and to make it keep its head low (definition from wordnetweb.princeton.edu).

queso = cheese

sol y sombra = literally sun and shade. The part of the bullfight ring which starts off in the sun in the early part of corrida but gradually becomes shaded as the sun drops.  The most expensive seats at a bullfight ring are the barrera seats in the shade.  They officially cost around 130€ for the corridas I went to, but forget it, they’re much, much higher on the black market, which is way you can get them.

torero = bullfighter