Bullfighting in Seville
Southern Spain is truly a destination within a destination. The region offers a few things found only there, which are designed to draw you out of your comfort zone and force you to live in the moment. Moorish influences can be seen in the minarets that tower above the cities; in the food, subtly flavored with almonds, honey and spices from North Africa; and in the tranquil call to prayer still heard several times a day in some cities. The sights will thrill and amaze you. The smells will challenge your willpower and seduce your palate. And the sounds will transport you, mind, body and soul, to another time.
Bulls have played an important role in the lives of the people who inhabit the Iberian Peninsula for centuries. Bullfighting began in the 8th century in Spain and has evolved over time into a firmly rooted national pastime. Bulls were once used as part of ancient pagan ceremonies, later converted by the Romans into a spectacle of sport. During medieval times, Spanish nobles rode on horseback as they chased down the ill-fated bulls, until that form of bullfighting was eventually abandoned.
However, bullfights were re-established during the 18th century. Peasants then introduced the use of the now-traditional cape and sword. The bullring also received a very important modification. It went from square, where matadors could get trapped by the bull, into a ring. And while bullfighting has been banned in some parts of Spain, it’s still quite popular in Andalucía. Unlike French bullfighting, Spanish and Mexican bullfighting involves the eventual death of the bull and occasionally the matador, and has survived various attempts to abolish it.
Don’t call it a sport, as you may offend the Spaniards. According to Robert Elms, a columnist with the Independent, “Much of the Anglo antipathy to the corrida (bullfight) comes from the misconception that it is a sport, and a deeply unfair one at that. But this unique event, which is reviewed in the culture section of Spanish newspapers alongside opera, cannot be considered a sport; the end is pre-ordained, the pattern deeply repetitive and the element of competition almost entirely absent.”
I consider myself a world traveler and not just a tourist. And while bullfighting may not be for everybody, I was curious to see it for myself. I was not disappointed. On the contrary, I was entranced by all the pageantry and enthusiasm shown by the spectators. It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement as more than 19,000 cheering fans all dressed in white chant and sing. And the costumes worn by the matadors were bright and elaborate, and didn’t leave much to the imagination either.
For €77, I had a great seat out of the direct sunlight and a stone’s throw from the trumpeters and ceremonial officials. I sat behind a group of boisterous, chain-smoking men of all ages from Barcelona dressed in traditional white with a blood red sash and handkerchief. I asked them why they had traveled so far, and was told that bullfighting was about to be abolished in Barcelona and the tickets had gotten extremely expensive. They offered me a can of beer they brought with them. I had to chuckle. I don’t care much for beer, and I’ve never cared for Bud Light. Of all the beers those guys could drink in Europe, they chose Budweiser in a can.
What is a bullfight?
It all begins with the paseillo, or formal introduction, where all the bullfighters parade around the ring. Two men on horseback present themselves to the officials to receive the keys to the locked doors, where six bulls are anxiously awaiting. The fights are separated into three parts, or tercios, with trumpets signaling the beginning of each round. During the first tercio, three bullfighters, bearing only capes, taunt and tease the bulls around the ring. Their capes, pink on one side and yellow on the other, are much larger than the ones used by the matadors. Narrow gaps are built into the ring where they can hide to avoid the horns of the angry bulls. During the second tercio, two piccadors ride upon heavily protected horses and use long spears to injure the bull, but not fatally.
During the third tercio, three banderilleros must charge the bull and stab a pair of colored knives into the bull’s back. The final round of each match, also referred to as the faena, is where a matador, donning a scarlet cape, must prove his courage as he faces down the charging bull. Spectators ooh and ahh with every flick of the matador’s wrist as the bull’s horns glide past his thighs. His feet are planted firmly as he teases the bull into exhaustion.
When the matador is confident he has proven his dominance over his prey, the bull is put down with an espada, or killing sword, thrust between the animal’s shoulder blades. If the sword is placed correctly, only the hilt will be seen, and the bull will drop instantly. If not, a smaller knife might be used to finish the job. Fans do not want the bull to suffer, thus matadors know instantly whether he will be rewarded or booed out of the ring. This is repeated five more times with successively heavier bulls. After the second bull, the shock wore off and I was able to sit back in my seat and relax. Perhaps if I had grown up with this art form, I wouldn’t have felt the need to justify why I went to some of my friends later. It’s not all bad, though. I found out later that the bulls are butchered and the meat donated to area schools. And to be honest, I wasn’t as bothered by it as I thought I would be anyway. After the fourth bull, I said goodbye to my friends from Barcelona and headed for the exit.