Despite most people’s impression of bullfighting as being unique to only the whitewashed villages of Ronda, in Andalusia, Malaga and Seville (though not villages, are also in Andalusia), are all truly great places to see a bullfight, along with Madrid.
Ronda is the original place where modern bullfighting began, thus the Ronda bullring is held in very high regard among aficionados. However Ronda tucked away in the mountains and its bullring is not that accessible for true, genuine bullfighting fans. There are very few bullfights actually staged in Ronda, perhaps to not only preserve Ronda’s status as the original and genuine home of bullfighting but also to not allow this quint little village to become another tourist trap.
Spain’s bullfighting roots can be traced to prehistoric bull worship and sacrifice. Many link bullfighting to Rome where many animal and even human events were held. Theories exist that bullfighting was introduced into Hispania by the Emperor Claudius, being a substitute for gladiators during a time when a short-lived ban on gladiatorial combat was enforced.
Originally a sport for aristocrats, bullfighting got its start in 711 AD during the celebration of the crowning coronation of King Alfonso VII. Religious festivities and royal weddings were celebrated by bullfights in the local plaza, where noblemen would ride competing for royal favor, and the general population spectators enjoyed the excitement. At that time bullfights were fought on horseback, using the “toro bravo,” a species of bull that has been conserved from an ancient line, found only in Spain, and still used to this day.
King Felipe V detested the sport, saying it set a bad example for the public and banned the it for the aristocracy in 1724. However, commoners loved the sport. Because the common people could not afford horses, the Spanish introduced bullfighting with matadors on foot. Generally regarded as having been the first to do this was Francisco Romero who initiated the rules for this new sport. The Spaniards quickly became true professionals in the practice of dodging the bulls, unharmed, on foot.
Now a part of Spanish culture and tradition, bullfighting is actually considered a form of art and, without question, a national past-time. Although the pitting of man against beast is the end point of bullfighting, the Fiesta is highly ritualized. Bullfighting is also big business in modern Spain.
The bullfighting season runs from April to October. Bullfighting is certainly one of the most well-known as well as the most controversial Spanish customs. A bullfight is also one of the places that the Spanish people truly come together as one mind and one heart to proudly celebrate their heritage. Today several thousand Spaniards seek out the thrill of celebrating a bullfight, the most traditional of the Spanish Fiestas. It is said that the total number of people watching Spanish bullfights are easily over one million per year.
Vista Alegre and La Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas are the two bullrings in Madrid. Each has a capacity of 20,000. La Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas is the more important of the two and is where the majority of the city’s bullfights take place. The most noted of the two Spanish bullrings is La Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas that has been in use since 1931. One can find Plaza de Toros Las Ventas on Calle Arenal # 237. If you are going by metro take the metro Ventas. Also, Vista Alegre has, in recent years, been used more as a concert and sports venue.
Bullfights are every Sunday at 7 pm from mid-May (during the San Isidro festival) until October. Some of the best bullfighters can be seen during these times.
Something important to know and remember when you purchase your tickets is the fact that La Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas is an open-air bullring. Tickets can be purchased in the section that provides shade to the spectators. Remember, it can get very hot in the sunny, open-air area, without shade protection. Naturally, the shaded area is going to cost more money. At the time of this writing open-air tickets were selling for $44.03 USD and the shaded areas for $56.60 USD. Prices are subject to change and only adult tickets are sold. Bullfights are not recommended for children under the age of 14 years, as advised by Madrid’s Children Commissioner.
The smaller La Maestranza bullring in Seville offers 12,500 seats and is one of the most popular arenas, attracting the best bullfighters in Spain. La Ronda’s bullring was built in 1785 and is one of the oldest in the country.
As it is practiced today, a “toreros,” or matador executes various moves and movement which is derived from the bullfighter’s personal style and personality as well as from the school where he learned and perfected the sport.
All bullfighting Matadors derive inspiration and sharpen their artistic abilities by not only the sheer practice of bullfighting, but also the seeking of an emotional connection with the crowd that is always transmitted through the bull. The Matadors maneuvers are always performed at close range, which places the bullfighter at great and grave risk of being gored or trampled.
A bullfight is a show – it is a dance with death; one wrong move and the Matador could become impaled on the horns of the bull. It is the Matador’s job to make this dance dramatic and enjoyable for the audience. A bullfight is most definitely not for the faint of heart!
Matadors wear “Suit of Lights,” an intricately designed beaded and embroidered costumes. A parade of the “paseillo,” or participants, all well choreographed, some riding well protected and decorated horses that circle the arena prior to the release of the bull. High drama at its controversial best is this three-part ritual as old as the sport itself go forth as everybody involved in the bullfight presents themselves to the president of the event and spectators. Two alguacilillos on horseback look up to the president’s box and symbolically ask for the keys to the puerta de los toriles. All of this pomp and circumstance drama is then followed by “corridas de toros,” the actual bullfight.
A bull is then let into the ring as the Matador, the top bullfighter, watches his chief assistant wave a bright yellow and magenta cape in front of the bull. This act is intended to make the bull charge. The Matador watches intently to determine the bull’s qualities and mood, before taking over himself.
A trumpet is then sounded and other several fighters, called Picadores, weaken the bull by placing spears into it. All of this takes about 10 minutes.
Then another trumpet is sounded. The Matador now removes his black winged hat and dedicates the death of the bull to the president or perhaps to the crowd prior to beginning his faena.
The faena, where the matador proves his courage and artistry. It is, without a doubt, the most beautiful and skillful portion of the fight. The faena consists of a running, carrying a muleta, that is held in either the left or right hand, all with the intention of making the bull charge, and when it charges, the muleta is then swung across and away from the matador’s body hopefully taking the bull with it. Always held in the right hand is the espada, the killing sword. The faena continues until the Matador has demonstrated his superiority over the bull. Once this is achieved the bull is ready to be killed.
The matador keeps the bull fixated on the muleta from a distance of about ten feet. At the right moment the matador rushes and attacks the bull, pushing the espada over the horns and deep between the shoulder blades. If the sword hits its intended mark it is an estocada. However, if there is a miss and it hits bone it is a pinchazo or media-estocada. An estocada usually results in the bull dropping immediately to its knees and dying. However, but if the bull fails to die the matador may take a sword with a short cross-piece at the end, called a descabello, and uses it to stab into the bull’s neck severing the spinal cord. The fight is over.
If the matador has moderately pleased the crowd he would normally be awarded an ear of the bull. If pleased with himself as well as the crowd the matador would receive both ears of the bull and possibly it’s tail too.
Most rarely, if the public or the matador believe that the bull has fought extremely bravely, they may petition the president of the event to grant the bull an “indulto,” or a pardon. If the pardon is granted the bull’s life is spared and it is allowed to leave the ring alive and return to the ranch where it came from. At that point the bull then becomes a stud bull for the rest of his life.
As previously mentioned, watching a bullfight is not for the faint of heart. When you visit Spain if you do not think a bullfight is something that you would like to take home as a lifetime memory then choose an alternative, such as a great and wonderful Flemenco!