On a blisteringly hot day in Malaga in the summer of 2001 whilst away learning Spanish in the Andalusian city, I resolved to see my first bullfight. With my father being a long time Spanish teacher I had often heard about his trips to the bullfight with his students and I also had vague recollections of a television programme watched whilst on holiday in northern Spain commemorating the death of a matador – a horrific goring was a shocking sight to an eight year old boy and had left me with mixed feelings about ever going to a bullfight. Part of me attracted by the spectacle and what it symbolises in Spain’s cultural heritage, and part of me reviled slightly as a young man with a fairly weak stomach for gore and blood.
Tickets were secured early in the afternoon for a surprisingly large price. I discovered prices varied massively depending on whether you’re sitting in the sun or the shade with the latter obviously being the most coveted and therefore most costly. As the afternoon sun cast its light over half of the arena, I looked around and noticed that the bullring was by no means full as the first bull came skidding and pounding out of the enclosure. I was at once struck by the sheer size and power of the creature, specifically bred to be as aggressive and unpredictable as possible and weighing somewhere in the region of 600kg. Straight away the giant animal crashed into the wooden fencing surrounding the bullring, smashing a hole and rendering itself unfit to fight on account of it’s injuries. A replacement bull was sent out and the spectacle was underway at the second time of asking. I sat back with my bag of sunflower seeds and my beer (trying to look the part at least) to watch the drama unfold.
From conversations I have had since and from books that I’ve now read I realise how often North Europeans view the “Corrida” in the wrong light. Many have said to me that it’s a cruel sport where the bull is badly handicapped to let the matador take victory. Firstly, it is now apparent to me that bullfighting is by no means a sport; it’s as much a cultural display as the ballet or an opera where certain rules must be adhered to and conventions followed. If you look for news of the bullfight in a Spanish paper it will not appear in the sports pages, rather the culture section.
I cannot deny its cruelty towards the bull however, in the first act (the “Corrida” is broken into three “tercios”, literally “thirds”); the horse-mounted picadors drive their pikes into the bull’s neck muscles. In the next act, the “banderilleros” do likewise with their colourful, barbed darts. By this time the bull is bloodied and weary, its heavy horns were almost dragging in the dust as the matador appeared for the final “tercio” known as the “faena”. This is the culmination of the bullfight where the matador shows the audience his domination of the bull and the grace of his movements before delivering the final blow through the bull’s heart with his sword.
I recall reflecting on what I had just seen as the bull was dragged out of the arena, a smeared arc of blood tracing its route across the dusty floor, and realising that I’d been enthralled and appalled at the same. Clearly the bullfight will always be a divisive subject, even in Spain there are groups who call for it to be banned as it already has been in Catalonia. For me, it offers a visitor a chance to imbibe something that embodies Spain and its history – all may not like it, but it’s not necessarily a question of like and dislike; of winners and losers – rather a question of what it means to the Spanish people and their cultural heritage.
About the author
Mike McDougall has five years experience working as a travel writer and marketeer. He is currenlty working to provide additional content for http://www.babylon-idiomas.com/, a Spanish language school with an excellent presence in Spain and Latin America.
This work is licensed by a creative commons licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/uk/