We arrived at Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla in the evening hours. The summer sun was still blazing down, the stadium grand with elegant trimmings. It is Spain’s oldest bullring; its construction began in 1749.
There was anticipation in the air as merchants peddled striped seat cushions, cigars, frozen water, peanuts and candies. There were also hats and fans to shield spectators from the scorching sun. These trinkets would be vital for any attendees who had chosen the least-expensive seats, which would be directly within reach of the sun’s sizzling rays.
Faces from all corners of the world were in the darkened, tunnel-like passageways that formed the perimeter around the ring: middle-aged Asian tourists, backpacking American college students, and elegantly-dressed Spanish couples. Some fans sported bandanas on which their favorite matador’s image was emblazoned. I was surprised to see young Spanish children there as well. There was a young boy with his father’s hand resting on his shoulder in a reassuring manner, little girls clad in frilly dresses, hair ribbons and lacy, anklet socks. I’d earlier read that Spanish television channels had restricted the broadcasting of bullfights specifically to protect child viewers. Therefore, I was surprised to see children under the age of ten in attendance.
Upon entering the stadium, the colors were magnificent: the ring’s curry-colored dirt floor contrasted sharply with the flawless blue sky and stark-white architectural accents. Also, there was the mosaic-like jumble of clothing of attendees and the dark uniforms of official personnel.
Suddenly, lively snippets of music from Bizet’s Carmen commenced and out came the torero doing their signature prance, closely followed by a trailing legion of photographers. The costumes worn by men on horseback, as well as those worn by the torero, were stunning. The outfits were in crimson, purple and turquoise hues, with the primary matador’s cloth being woven with a thick gold embroidery. It’s no wonder why this outfit is known as a traje de luces or ‘suit of lights.’
I was impressed by this pageantry, initially. How swiftly my mood changed when the disoriented bull arrived into the ring and the two sharp banderillas (sticks with a sharp end) were brought out in the steady hands of a banderillero. To great pomp and circumstance, the first banderillas were plunged into the bull’s back and later its neck. Blood seeped from the bull’s wounds, leaving its now-crimson back radiating agony in the sun. I watched for a second, and then glanced away, using my Spanish fan to help block the scene.
The matador’s moves were refined and practiced and he was poised as he gracefully swayed the hot-pink cape past the aggravated 1,100-pound bull. The torero continued to pierce the animal with spears, risking their own harm to elicit gasps and cheers from the crowd. Despite their courage, I pondered what percentage of the Spanish citizenry actually reveres them for this practice. (A Gallup poll from 2006 indicated that only 8% of Spanish citizens consider themselves bullfighting fans. Yet, the Spanish king was once quoted as saying if the European Union were to ban bullfighting, then that would be the day Spain removes itself from the EU.)
With each approach of the bull, each twirl of the matador, each stab, the audience grew ever more enthralled. Old ladies stood up to cheer. Others sat in their seats with emotionless faces, their hands cloaking their mouths. Some children watched listlessly, while others played with their hand-held video games or mobile phones. Occasionally, the picadores (a pair of horsemen) rode into the ring to stab the bull with a long spear. The bull charged the two horses several times, causing the horses to get rammed into the wall. One horse was violently knocked to the ground.
After about thirty minutes, the bull was stared down by the three torero, while the matador repeatedly plunged a dagger into the bull’s neck in an effort to provoke him into a dramatic, final stand. We kept wishing that the matador would deliver an unceremonious blow to put the animal out of its misery, but he did not, allowing death to arrive slowly. Finally, the weakened, bloody animal tumbled to the ground, enabling the matador the opportunity to use his knife to deliver the fight’s end. Almost instantly, a troupe of men in dark uniforms rushed out into the ring. They strapped chain links onto the bull’s ankles and with the power of several horses, the bull’s now-lifeless carcass was hastily dragged out of the ring.
We gracefully exited from the stadium. The guard had a surprised look on his face since we were leaving prematurely. After nearly an hour of walking, decompressing on Sevilla’s streets at sunset, I told Shawn that I wanted to go back to the stadium. I wanted to talk to the people who chose to stay there. I wanted to see how much of the stands would still be occupied, two hours into the show. Shawn agreed to accompany me, but he remained on the stairs leading into the stadium. I went inside to speak to a guard. He seemed receptive to answer my questions, but asked me to remain where I was standing, so as not to distract the bull with my movement. He said that such movement could create danger for the torero.
Without a doubt, I had concluded that I now vehemently disagreed with the practice. Yet, I still wanted to understand the psyche of those who are ardent supporters of bullfighting. The responses the guard provided to me echoed those of the elderly man who’d sold us tickets the night before, who said, “The bull is raised for this. It is cultural.” The guard said he’d been working at the stadium for four years. I wondered how many hundreds or thousands of bulls he had probably seen die in a similar fashion over the course of his time working there. (Estimates indicate that 11,500 bulls are killed in official bullfights annually, yet it’s believed that the actual number is upwards of 30,000.)
Surprisingly, the man asked what I thought of the show. I guess I’d appeared so neutral that he didn’t know on which side of the fence I sat. I was reluctant to answer. This man had been kind and I did not wish to offend him, nor his culture. I paused. He now said, “It is a free country – you can say what you think. Did you like it?”
“I did not like it,” I replied. “Why must they kill the bull and do so in such a slow manner?” I asked. He smiled faintly and his expression was one of being defeated, disappointed. I sensed that he found me to be a woman of faint spirit who couldn’t handle blood and gore in general. We respectfully parted ways and I again joined Shawn.
A Spanish woman in her twenties or thirties also chose to remove herself from the stadium; she was standing in the stairwell leading into the opening of the stadium. I asked her if it was her first time attending a bullfight. She indicated that it was and that she had reluctantly attended with her boyfriend who was still in the stands.
“I don’t understand the traditions enough,” she said, “but I don’t like this. I cannot watch it anymore.”
As we left the stadium, I overheard another young woman say to her hosts, “Thank you! It was such a lovely evening!” Another attendee, in a sentence plentiful with expletives, said that he liked the third bull appearance the best, because the matador had just “gored the (stuff) out of it.
Even though we had not eaten in hours, and it was rather late in the night, Shawn and I were not hungry. My stomach twisted and turned with that rare sensation that only comes when I’m distressed emotionally. Many refer to the spectacle of bullfighting as an elegant dance. I agree that the matadors’ moves were refined, practice and smooth. I, however, was utterly unable to separate the dance from the death.
We meandered through streets filled with happy bodega-goers, pondering the political incorrectness that one could be accused of should they oppose another’s cultural tradition. We concluded that just because a practice is deeply rooted in culture, it should not be supported or condoned if the tradition somehow infringes upon the rights of another living being or causes an individual or animal undue suffering. I had been reassured to hear that the bull meat would be swiftly taken to a butcher shop for processing. But why did those animals have to suffer so much before being processed for diners’ plates?
Certainly, there are individuals who will be visiting Spain who will ponder the same question that we did prior to our visit to Sevilla – is attending a bullfight a component of Spanish culture that should not be left off of the Spanish travel itinerary?
At its very core, the practice showcases beautiful customs. The sheer fact that men go into a ring with a 1,100+ pound animal is striking. Yet, this cultural ‘dance’ should be one where one of the partners does not suffer. I would certainly never go to such an event again. Whereas I regret that our ticket costs contributed to the bullfighting industry, I feel that I am now in a position to fervently oppose the practice because I witnessed bullfighting first-hand.
Some Spanish provinces, such as the Canary Islands and Catalonia, have banned bullfighting entirely. (Catalonia was the first mainland region of Spain to do so, while the Canary Islands banned it in 1991.)
In other countries, bloodless bullfighting has become increasingly popular. In bloodless bullfights, bulls are not gored nor killed, rather the matador endangers himself by trying to retrieve a rosette that’s been attached to the bull’s back. The matador is unable to use weapons and instead must use his skills to distract the bull as he reaches between the bull’s deadly horns. Bloodless bullfights are criticized by many animal rights activists for exploiting the bulls.
The day following the bullfight, Shawn and I were eager to revisit elegant and quaint corners of Sevilla, plentiful with Old World charm and grace. We wanted to put the events of the previous evening out of our mind, but it was difficult, because the image of the bull is so pervasive in Spanish culture. We saw the silhouetted sticker of a bull on scooters and cars. The beloved bull was also emblazoned on men’s ties and souvenir aprons or spray-painted on walls.
As we walked past Sevilla’s Catedral de Santa María de la Sede, the world’s third-largest church, we happened upon a well-groomed white horse tethered to one of many chic carriages. Marguerita’s handler summoned her to take us out on a tour through the old city. From our perch on the carriage’s creamy-leather seats, we rode past impressive buildings from when Seville hosted the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair in 1929. Marguerita also took us past the ceramic-adorned Plaza de España and along a boulevard leading to a neighboring park where trees cloaked us from the day’s hot sun.
“Marguerita,” our driver explained, in simple English, “is special. She is my family.” Marguerita’s hooves danced over the cobblestones for about 30 minutes before we were whisked back to the fountain-adorned square where we had first met her. The trusty horse was rewarded with two buckets of water and gentle strokes of the bridge of her nose and mane.
Shawn and I wrapped up the afternoon in the imposing Alcazar Palace, once a Moorish fort. Snippets of the film Lawrence of Arabia were filmed in this fortress’ high-ceilinged rooms, most of which featured delicate wood and plaster archways as well as bright tile work. Once inside Alcazar’s expansive garden complex, we paused to admire the wet canvases of artists in the open air, as well as twisted tree trunks, sweet-smelling orange trees, ornate fountains and benches, chatty mallard ducks and a friendly cat. Wishing we could stay longer, we reluctantly left so that we could hurry to Los Gallos to take in a flamenco show. As anticipated, male and female dancers struck the wooden stage with thunderous blows, while their faces wore strong emotions as the guitarists strummed away.
Indeed, we experienced a mélange of emotions during our three days in Sevilla. What we most fondly remember now are the serene moments and sensations: strolls through cobbled lanes, the clip-clop of horse hooves, the aroma of orange blossoms, and tasty tapas. These memories best represent a fine and rich Andalusian culture.