As we've had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here's a reminder of the fun that awaits us in Europe at the other end of this crisis.
Packed onto the subway with Spaniards heading for Plaza de Toros, I was wondering how I'd react to seeing another bullfight. I hadn't been to one in five years. At the last stop, everyone piled out and the escalator pumped us up directly to the looming facade of Madrid's arena — the biggest in Spain.
Like going to a baseball game, it was all peanuts and crackerjacks (actually pistachios and corn nuts). Tickets were only $8 because the three bullfighters were just novices. Each would fight two bulls, totaling six fights…two hours of medieval man vs. beast madness. The man in front of me in the ticket line negotiated aggressively for a good seat. I simply said, "Uno, por favor," and ended up sitting right next to him. The ramshackle band seemed to be directed by the cymbal player who clapped a relentless rhythm.
This summer, with the hottest temperatures in memory, fights were starting at 9 p.m.…later than in past years. And things are punctual. At 9:00 sharp, 500 kilos of angry, disoriented bull charged into the arena. Old men sat attentively like season-pass holders, while girls fluttered their fans as if aroused by the prancing men. Many Spanish women consider bullfighting sexy, and swoon at the dashing matadors who are literally dressed to kill in the traditional tight pants (with their partas nobles — noble parts — usually organized to one side, farthest from the bull). It was easy to tell who was local and who wasn't. Tourists uselessly discharged flashes on their cameras. With each kill, local men croaked "Olé" like old goats and Spanish women waved their white hankies.
In Spain, the standard bullfight consists of six bulls, and each ritual killing lasts 20 minutes. Then another bull romps into the arena. You're not likely to see much human blood spilled. Over the last 200 years of bullfighting in Spain, only a handful of matadors have been killed. If a bull does kill a fighter, the next matador comes in to kill the bull. Historically, even the bull's mother is killed, since the evil qualities are assumed to have come from her.
With this latest visit, the killing seemed to me more pathetic and cruel than ever, and the audience, though mostly Spanish, seemed to include more tourists than ever. After two bulls, I left, feeling a bit wimpy as I passed the ushers at the door. Walking from the arena back to the subway, I realized I was among a select little crowd…the lightest of the lightweights in the stadium…about 20 people out of several thousand, leaving after only a third of the action. We were all tourists, including several American families. At the subway platform, I stood next to a Midwest family — mom holding daughter's hand and dad holding son's hand. I asked, "Two bulls enough?" The parents nodded. The 12-year-old boy summed it up in three words: "That was nasty."
It was nasty. The Spanish 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 culture. But it also makes a spectacle out of the cruel killing of an animal. Should tourists boycott bullfights? I don't know. Of course, even attending a bullfight is controversial among animal rights enthusiasts. I've always been ambivalent about the spectacle, thinking that as a travel writer, I need to report on what exists, rather than judge it and support a boycott. When the event is kept alive by the patronage of tourists, I'll reconsider my reporting.
Portugal has its own version of bullfighting. The biggest difference is what I think of as Toro's Revenge: The matador is brutalized along with the bull.
In Act I of a Portuguese tourada, the horseman (cavaleiro) skillfully plants four beribboned barbs in the bull's back while trying to avoid the leather-padded horns. The horses are the short, stocky Lusitano breed, with excellent balance. In Act II, a colorfully clad eight-man suicide squad (called forçados) enters the ring and lines up single file facing the bull. With testosterone sloshing everywhere, the leader taunts the bull — slapping his knees and yelling, "touro!" — then braces himself for a collision that can be heard all the way up in the cheap seats. As he hangs onto the bull's head, his buddies pile on, trying to wrestle the bull to a standstill. Finally, one guy hangs on to o touro's tail and "water-skis" behind him. (In Act III, the ambulância arrives.)
Unlike the Spanish corrida de toros, the bull is not killed in front of the crowd at the Portuguese tourada…but it is killed later. (Some brave bulls with only superficial wounds are spared to fight another day.) Spanish aficionados insist that Portuguese fights are actually crueler, since they humiliate the bull, rather than fight him as a fellow warrior.
In Spain, bullfights are held on most Sundays evenings, Easter through October. Serious fights with adult matadors are called corridas de toros. These are most expensive and often sold out in advance. Summer fights are often novillada, with cheaper tickets, younger bulls, and teenage novices doing the killing. There are no bad seats; paying more gets you in the shade and/or closer to the gore. The action often intentionally occurs in the shade to reward the expensive-ticket holders.
To get a dose of Spanish bullfight "culture" without actually going to a bullfight, pop into a bull bar. Throughout Spain, bars are busy on bullfight nights with the action blaring on the TV and the neighborhood gang gathered. But they have a unique ambience any time.
My favorite bull bar is right on Madrid's Plaza Mayor (main square), the Torre del Oro. Its interior is a temple to bullfighting, festooned with gory decor. The breathtaking action is captured in a bloody bloopers photographic hall of fame lining the wall. For many people, a quick sangria or beer in a bar like this is more than enough nasty for their Spanish vacation.