At the medieval and cruel spectacle of Madrid, two bulls are enough
Wrapped up in Madrid’s metro crowded with Spaniards heading for Plaza de Toros, I wonder how I’m going to react when I see another bullfight – my first in several years. At the last stop, everyone piles up and the escalator pumps us straight up to the menacing facade of the bullring in Madrid, the largest in Spain.
It’s like going to a baseball game, but rather than peanuts and Cracker Jack, it’s pistachios and kernels. Bullfights take place most Sunday evenings from Easter to October. Serious fights with adult matadors are called bullfights. These are the most expensive and often sell out in advance. But now, in the summer, many fights are novilladas, with cheaper tickets, younger bulls, and teenage novices killing. My ticket is only $ 10 because the three bullfighters tonight are novilladas. The man in front of me in the queue aggressively negotiates for a good seat. I just say âUno, por favorâ and end up sitting right next to him. The ramshackle group appear to be led by the cymbal player, who hits an unrelenting beat.
It’s theater in the round and there are no bad seats; paying more brings you closer to gore. Traditionally, you could buy seats in the shade or, to save money, seats in the sun. Climate change has ended this tradition. This summer, with the hottest temperatures in memory, the fighting begins at 9 p.m. – later than in previous years, and everything is in the shade.
The bullfights are punctual. At 9 a.m. sharp, 500 kilos of angry and disoriented bulls charge into the arena. The older men sit intently, as the season ticket holders do – ready for the routine ritual, while the girls float their fans as if they are aroused by the prancing men. Many Spanish women consider bullfighting to be sexy and swoon at the dashing matadors who are literally dressed to kill in the traditional tight pants (with their noble partes – noble parts – usually held on one side, or, as locals like to say it, “farther from the bull”). It’s easy to tell who in the crowd is Spanish and who isn’t. With each murder, while tourists are snapping photos, local men croak “Ole!” Like old goats, and the Spanish women wave their white handkerchiefs.
In Spain, the standard bullfight consists of six bulls (two per matador), or two hours of medieval man-against-beast madness. Each ritual murder lasts approximately 20 minutes. Then another bull enters the arena. You probably won’t see much human blood spilled. In the last 200 years of bullfighting in Spain, only a handful of matadors have been killed. If a bull kills a fighter, the next matador comes in to kill the bull. Historically, even the bull’s mother is killed, as bad qualities are believed to come from her.
On this visit, the murder – under the swords of rookies – strikes me as more pathetic and cruel than ever, and the audience, though predominantly Spanish, seems to include more tourists than ever. The scene just doesn’t appeal to me. After two bulls, I leave, a little sluggish as I pass the ushers at the door. Coming back from the arena to the metro, I realize that I am part of a select small crowd – the lightest of the lightweights in the stadium – of about 20 people out of several thousand, leaving after only a third of the action. We are all tourists, including several American families. On the subway platform, I stand next to a Midwestern family: mom holding daughter’s hand and dad holding son’s hand. I ask: “Two bulls are enough? The parents nod their heads. The 12-year-old sums it up in three words: âIt was mean.
It was mean. Spanish bullfighting is as much a ritual as it is a sport. Failure to recognize the importance of bullfighting is to censor a venerable part of Spanish culture. But he also puts on a spectacle of the cruel torture and killing of an animal. Should tourists boycott bullfights? I do not know. I’ve always been ambivalent about the show, believing that as a travel writer, I need to be accountable for what’s out there, rather than judge it and support a boycott. When the event is kept alive by the patronage of tourists, I will reconsider my report. In the meantime, I agree with the boy and his parents: two bulls is a lot.
Edmonds resident Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, “For the love of Europe”. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.