By Rick Steves
The bullfight is as much a ritual as it is a sport. Not to acknowledge the importance of the bullfight is to censor a venerable part of Spanish and Portuguese culture. But it also makes a spectacle out of the cruel killing of an animal. Should tourists boycott bullfights? I don't know.
Today bullfighting is less popular among locals. If this trend continues, bullfighting may survive more and more as a tourist event. When the day comes that bullfighting is kept alive by our tourist dollars rather than the local culture, then I'll agree with those who say bullfighting is immoral and that tourists shouldn't encourage it by buying tickets. Consider the morality of supporting this gruesome aspect of Spanish culture before buying a ticket. If you do decide to attend a bullfight, here is what you'll see.
While no two bullfights are the same, they unfold along a strict pattern. The ceremony begins punctually with a parade of participants across the ring. Then the trumpet sounds, the "Gate of Fear" opens, and the leading player — el toro — thunders in. A ton of angry animal is an awesome sight, even from the cheap seats (with the sun in your eyes).
The fight is divided into three acts. Act I is designed to size up the bull and wear him down. The matador ("killer") attracts the bull with the shake of the cape, then directs the animal past his body, as close as his bravery allows. The bull sees only things in motion and (some think) red. After a few passes, the picadores enter, mounted on horseback, to spear the swollen lump of muscle at the back of the bull's neck. This tests the bull, while the matador watches studiously. It also lowers the bull's head and weakens the thrust of his horns. (Until 1927, horses had no protective pads and were often killed.)
In Act II, the matador's assistants (banderilleros) continue to enrage and weaken the bull. They charge the charging bull and — leaping acrobatically across its path — plunge brightly-colored barbed sticks into the bull's vital neck muscle.
After a short intermission, during which the matador may, according to tradition, ask permission to kill the bull and dedicate the kill to someone in the crowd, the final, lethal Act III begins.
The matador tries to dominate and tire the bull with hypnotic cape work. A good pass is when the matador stands completely still while the bull charges past. Then the matador thrusts a sword between the animal's shoulder blades for the kill. A quick kill is not always easy, and the matador may have to make several bloody thrusts before the sword stays in and the bull finally dies. Mules drag the dead bull out, and his meat is in the market mañana (barring "mad cow" concerns — and if ever there were a mad cow...). Rabo del toro (bull-tail stew) is a delicacy.
Throughout the fight, the crowd shows its approval or impatience. Shouts of "¡Olé!" or "¡Torero!" mean they like what they see. Whistling or rhythmic hand-clapping greets cowardice and incompetence.
You're not likely to see much human blood spilled. In 200 years of bullfighting in Sevilla, only 30 fighters have died (and only three were actually matadors). If a bull does kill a fighter, the next matador comes in to kill him. Historically, even the bull's mother is killed, since the evil qualities are assumed to have come from the mother.
After an exceptional fight, the crowd may wave white handkerchiefs to ask that the matador be awarded the bull's ear or tail. A brave bull, though dead, gets a victory lap from the mule team on his way to the slaughterhouse. Then the trumpet sounds, and a new bull charges in to face a fresh matador.
Fights are held on most Sundays Easter through October (at 18:30 or 19:30). Serious fights with adult matadors are called corrida de toros. These are often sold out in advance. Summer fights are often novillada, with teenage novices doing the killing. Corrida de toros seats range from €20 for high seats facing the sun to €140 for the first three rows in the shade under the royal box. Novillada seats are half that, and generally easy to get at the arena a few minutes before showtime. Many Spanish women consider bullfighting sexy. They swoon at the dashing matadors who are sure to wear tight pants (with their partas nobles — noble parts — in view, generally organized to one side, farthest from the bull).
A typical bullfight lasts about two hours and consists of six separate fights — three matadors (each with his own team of picadors and banderilleros) fighting two bulls each. For a closer look at bullfighting by an American aficionado, read Ernest Hemingway's classic, Death in the Afternoon.