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Bullfighting is still a tremendously popular sport amongst the Spanish today, even though it is always the subject of much debate in regard to animal cruelty in particular.

The low – lying sun floods the arena with heavy summer light from the west. There is a buzz as places fill. Families jostle for space with older, beret-bearing enthusiasts, their faces creased with years of farm toil, and bright young things sporting sky-blue sunglasses. Some clutch plastic cups of beer, others swig red wine from animal-hide botas.

All but those who have
paid for the comfort of real seats in the shade (sombra) have bought some kind of cushion: bare concrete or wooden slats can pull after a while on unprotected behinds.

Many have chosen to huddle on the cheap benches facing the unforgiving
midsummer sun (sol). At one end of the ring, high up in the top rows, a brass band strikes up a stirring paso doble, while on the opposite side the president of the fight and his adjutants await the arrival of the toros (bulls).

The corrida (bullfight) is a spectacle with a long history. It is not, as some suggest, simply a ghoulish alternative to the slaughterhouse (itself no pretty sight). Aficionados say the bull is better off dying at the hands of a matador (killer) than in the matadero (abattoir). The corrida is about many things – death, bravery, performance. No doubt, the fight is bloody and cruel. To witness it is not necessarily to understand it, but might give an insight into some of the thought and tradition behind it. Many Spaniards loathe the bullfight, but there is no doubting its overall popularity. If on a bar – room TV there is football on one channel and a corrida on another, the chances are high that football fever will cede to the fascination of the fiesta.

Contests of strength, skill and bravery between man and beast are no recent phenomenon. The ancient Etruscans liked a good bullfight, and the Romans caught on. Of course things got a little kinky under the Romans half the time there was no fight at all, merely the merciless butchery of Christians and other criminal fodder.

La lidia, as the art of bullfighting is also known, really took off in an organised fashion in Spain in the mid – 18th century. In the 1830s, Pedro Romero, the greatest torero (bullfighter) of the time, was at the age of 77 appointed director of Escuela de Tauromaquia de Sevilla, the country’s first bullfighter’s college. It was around this time too that breeders succeeded in creating the first reliable breeds of toro bravo (fighting bull).

El Matador & La Cuadrilla

Traditionally, young men have aspired to the ring of hope of fame and fortune, much as boxers have done. Most attain neither one nor the other. Only champion matadors make good money and some make a loss. For the matador must rent or buy his outfit and equipment, pay for the right to fight the ball and also pay his cuadrilla (team).

If you see a major fight, you will notice this team is made up of quite a few people. Firstly there are several peons, junior bullfighters under the orders of the main toreo, who is the matador. The peons come out to distract the bull with great capes, manoeuvre him into the desired position and so on.

Then come the horseback-mounted picadores. Charged by the bull, which tries to eviscerate the horse, the picador shoves his lance into the withers of the bull – an activity that weakens and angers the bull. Animal-lovers may take small consolation from the fact that since the 19th century the horses at least have been protected by heavy padding.

The peons then return to the scene to measure their courage against the (hopefully) charging bull. The picador is shortly followed by the banderilleros. At a given moment during the fight, one or two banderilleros will race towards the bull and attempt to plunge a pair of colourfully decorated banderilleros (short prods with harpoon- style ends) into the bull, again aiming for the withers. This has the effect of spurring the animal into action – the matador will then seek to use this to execute more fancy manoeuvres.

Then there is the matador himself. His dress could be that of a flamenco dancer. At its simplest, in country fiestas, it is generally a straight-forward combination of black trousers or tights, white shirt and black vest. At its most extravagant, the traje de luces (suit of lights) can be an extraordinary display of bright, spangly colour – name is apt.

All the toreros, with the occasional exception of the matadors, wear the black montera (the Mickey Mouse ears hat). The torero’s standard weapons are the estoque or espada (sword) and the heavy silk and percale capa (cape). You will notice, however, that the matador, and the matador alone, employs a different cape with the sword – a smaller piece of cloth held with a bar of wood called the muleta and used for a number of different passes.

To summarise all that takes place in one day of a corrida is no easy task. In many cases, corridas are held over several days, or even weeks, and the whole fiesta is known as the feria. The bulls are transported from their farms to a location near the ring, often days in advane. In Madrid, they are kept at an Andalucian-style ranch in the Casa de Campo know as Batan

In some
towns, the bulls are bought to another point in town from where they are let loose on the morning of the corrida to charge to the ring. The encierro, as it is known, in Pamplona was made famous by Earnest Hemminway, but score of towns across the country celebrate it. Barriers are set up along a route to the ring, and some people feel inclined to run with the bulls. It’s a dangerous business and people get hurt, sometimes mortally.

When the
bulls arrive, the cuadrillas, president and breeders get together to look over the animals and draw lots to see who is going to fight with which one. It depends a little on how many breeders are represented, how many matadors and teams there are and so on.

The selected balls are later huddled into darkened corrals, where they await their moment.

bullfight generally begins at 6 pm, hence the title of Hemingway’s manual on the subject, Death in the Afternoon. As a rule six toros and three matadors are on the day’s card. If any bulls are considered not up to scratch, they are booed off (at this point the president will display a green handkerchief) and replacements brought on. Each fight takes about 10 to 15 minutes

When the fateful moment comes, the corral is opened. Light gushes in and the bull charges out, sensing a chance to escape. You wonder if it feels disappointed as it barrels out into the ring to be confronted by the peons, darting about and flashing their rose-and-yellow coloured capes at the heaving beast. The matador then appears and executes his faens (moves) with the bull. To go into the complexities of what constitutes a fine faena would require a book.

Suffice to say, the more closely and calmly the toreo works with the bull, pivoting and dancing before the bull’s horns, the greater will be the crowds approbation. After a little of this, the matador strides off and leaves the stage first to the picadores, then the banderilleros, before retuning for another session. At various moments during the fight, the brass band will hit some stirring notes, adding to the air of grand spectacle. The moves must be carried out in certain parts of ring, which is divided into three parts: the medios (centre); trecios (an intermediate, chalked-off ring); and tablas (the outer ring).

When the bull seems tired out and unlikely to give a lot more, matador chooses his moment for the kill. Placing himself head-on, he aims to sink the sword cleanly into the animal’s neck (estocada) for an instant kill. It’s easier said than done.

A good performance followed by a clean kill will have the crowd on its feet waving handkerchiefs in the air in clear appeal to the president to award the matador an oreja (ear) of the animal. The president usually waits to assess the crowd’s enthusiasm before flopping a white handkerchief onto his balcony. If the fight was exceptional, the matador might cortar dos orejas – cut two ears off. On rare occasions the matador may be awarded the tail as well. What he does with them when he gets home is anyone’s guess.

The sad carcass is meanwhile dragged out by a team of
dray-horses and the sand raked about in preparation for the next bull. The meat ends up in the butchers.

When and Where

Corridas are mainly a spring and summer activity, but it is occasionally possible to see at other times. The season begins more or less officially in the first week of February with the fiestas of Valdemorillo and Ajalvir, near Madrid, to mark the feast day of San Blas. Virtually all encierros and corridas are organised as part of the town’s fiesta or other.

In the
Comunidad de Madrid, for instance, therre are any number of local fiestas and the encierros can be a wild and unpredictable affair. In many towns the plaza mayor serves a makeshift bullring. Often, the small-town fights are amateurish affairs known as capeas.

The most prestigious feria in the world is that held in Madrid over four weeks from mid-May as part of the Fiesta de San isidro.

Bullfighting magazines such as the weekly 6 Toros 6 carry full details of who’s fighting, where and when. When fights are coming up locally, gaudy posters advertise the fact and give ticket information. In addition to the top corridas, which attract the `name’ matadors and big crowds, there are plenty of lesser ones in the cities, towns and villages. These are often novilleras, in which immature bulls (novillos) are fought by junior matadors (novilleros). In small places the plaza mayor may serve as a makeshift bullring.

If you are spoiling for a fight, look out for the big names. They are no guarantee you’ll see a high-quality corrida, as that depends in no small measure on the animals themselves, but it is a good sign. The last true star of the fiesta, Luis Miguel Dominguin, a hero of the 1940s and 50s, died in 1996. Another maestro was Rafael Ortega (1921-97). Their present-day successors count among their number some fine performers, but perhaps none of their stature.

Names to look for include: Jesulin de Ubrique, a true macho whose attitudes to woman don’t go down well with everyone; Enrique Ponce, a serious class act; Joselito (Jose Miguel Arroyo); Rivera Ordoñez; Julian ‘El Juli’Lopez’, a recently-arrived teenage sensation; Curro Romero, born in the 1920s and still fighting; Jose Tomas; and Manuel ‘El Cordobes’ Diaz, one of the biggest names, although for some, of his style boarders on mocking the animal and is considered unnecessarily cruel. He is not the only one to go by the name El Cordobes. One of the older hands to use it is Manuel Benitez, who at 63 years of age, decided to get back into the ring in 2000 just for the fun of it!

Is the bullfight ‘right’? Passions are frequently inflamed by the subject. Many people feel ill at the sight of the kill, although merciful relief and surly no worse than being lined up for the production - line kill in an abattoir. The preceding 10 or so minutes of torture are cruel. The animal frightened and in pain. Let there be no doubt about that. Aficionados will say, however, that these bulls have been bred for conflict and that their lives before this fateful day are better than those of farm animals. Toros bravos are treated like Kings. To other western cultures-and to many Spaniards too – the bullfight is ‘uncivilised’, yet there is something about this direct confrontation with death that invites reflection. As an integral part of Spanish culture, it deserves to be experienced; there is nothing to say that anyone should also like it.

Source: Lonely Planet

Bullfighting was banned in the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia by a vote of the Catalan Parliament in July 2010. The ban came into effect on 1 January 2012. The last bullfight in the region took place in Barcelona in September 2011.

The ban, which ended a centuries-old tradition in the region, was supported by animal rights activists but opposed by some, who saw it as motivated by political nationalism rather than animal welfare.

There is a movement to revoke the ban in the Spanish congress, citing the value of bullfighting as "cultural heritage". The proposal is backed by the majority of parliamentarians.

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