When you arrive in Spain, touching down on the hot and dusty airport runway, you may not be thinking first of a scorching day out at the Bullfight. Higher on your list of priorities may be a cool sparkling drink, checking out the villa and pool, perhaps even a siesta to get in the swing of all things Spanish and prepare you for the late nights or holiday hangovers ahead.
But spare a thought for the Spaniards who are currently gearing up for the fiestas and tourists season. Villages across the Comunitat Valenciana will be decorating their streets with flags, banners and streamers and preparing the freshly-painted pastel-coloured ‘casas del pueblo’. Flowers will adorn every window. Parades of coiffed and bedecked girls in expensive costumes will follow the bands around winding streets and fireworks and rock bands will entertain into the wee hours. Not least among the celebrations will be the bull running which traditionally culminates the week-long patron saint fiestas.
However, in recent years the tide has turned somewhat on bullfighting with Animal Rights activists campaigning in Spain (their slogan stickers posted everywhere say ‘No mas torturas – toreros asesinos’ or No More Torture – Matador Murderers) and the younger Spanish are voicing some disapproval of the centuries old traditions. But the bullrings still seem as popular as ever and clearly serve a greater community purpose than foreigners might think.
“What do young men in England do to display their manliness? Get drunk and fight in bars or on the football field?” says Ernesto, a visiting Argentinian bullfight fan. “Is it worse that boys here test themselves against the bull? A proud creature with a big heart – the Spanish bull.” Other fans of the fight nod, declaring their conviction that it is better to have your day as a torero, than to fight in a foreign war or cause trouble marauding in the local villages. They declare that the bullfight is an Art not a Sport, and that you should try to perceive the honour and drama of the custom.
The bullring in Ondara was opened in 1901 but was almost completely destroyed during the Spanish civil war. In 1957, it was rebuilt in an arabesque style. Like most of the Valencian bullrings it has a museum attached where you can get information about the history of the local fights. The bullfight itself (known as a Corrida) starts with the paseillo when the matadors enter the ring and present themselves to the public. Two Alguacilillos on horseback direct themselves to the president and symbolically ask for the keys to the puerta de los toriles - the door to the bulls. When the door opens and the first bull enters the ring, the spectacle starts. It consists of three parts called Tercios, each signified by horn-signals. There are usually three toreros in a bullfight and each will have to fight two bulls. In the first tercio the bullfighter uses a large cloak of purple and yellow called the caplet. Two picadors enter on horseback, armed with a sort of lance. The second part of the spectacle is the Suerte de Banderillas. Three banderilleros have to stick a pair of spikes or banderillas into the bull's back. In the final tercio or Suerte Suprema the bullfighter uses the muleta, a small red rag. He must demonstrate his faena, his power to dominate the bull, and establish an ‘artistic symbiosis between man and beast’. The bullfight ends with the torero killing the bull by his sword.
Ondara’s bullring in the Avenida Dr. Fleming has had performances by many notable bullfighters in the past. Some of the greats began their careers at this small provincial arena. Now they also organize games involving bulls but this time the purpose is to have fun without killing the bull. Organiser José Lozano says “I have seen visitors in the past leaving the bullring in tears over the cruelty. But the aim of ‘Diversió Taurina’, a unique celebration in the Marina Alta, is to prove that not only atrocities take place in bullrings.”
The fun day involves inviting members of the audience to pick flowers from the bull’s ears, run across the ring wearing a rubber tyre and even fish eels out of a bucket, all without touching or being caught by the bull. The first fun days were so popular that they now use a whole swimming pool full of eels, scattered with euro coins to tempt participants, and the animals have rubber balls on their horns to avoid causing any injuries. A proportion of the money from these events is donated to charity (for instance 6000 euros was donated to help communities in the Marina Alta affected by recent floods) and visitors to Ondara seem more inclined to visit the bullfight on these days, to get a taste of the tradition. But, for the foreseeable future at least, La Tauromaquia (or bullfighting) is still the main fiesta.
Erica Jong, the American writer and feminist once said “Every country gets the circus it deserves. Spain gets bullfights. Italy gets the Catholic Church. America gets Hollywood.” But it is arguable that you cannot really understand the traditions of a culture unless you are born into it. Along with the charms of the Spanish language, its garlic-infused cuisine and its sun-drenched beaches, Spain has the provocative nature of its bullfights. The immense black bull statues advertising Osborne sherry on the hillsides are the unofficial national symbol of Spain and an echo of its long-standing obsession, described by Hemingway as “the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honor.” Hemingway hadn’t seen art by Damien Hirst or Banksy, of course!
As a tourist on these shores, we try paella, sangria or ‘agua de Valencia’. We admire art and architecture in Barcelona, walk on the exotic tiled floors of the Alhambra in Granada, and spend loud evenings in conversation over tapas in Madrid. It seems churlish not to experience a bullfight, witness the bull running in the local streets or talk to Spaniards about their fascination with this cultural icon. Perhaps your next visit to Spain will conclude with a day diving for Euro’s and dodging the bulls at the Plaça de Bous. It would certainly beat taking home the usual holiday snaps of your mates grinning over beach bars and handbag markets.
Ondara Bullring (Plaza del Toros/ Plaça de Bous) is located at Avinguda del Doctor Fleming and Avenida del General Bosch in the middle of Ondara, Alicante.
Further reading on Bullfighting: