My friend Lynn texted before we went to the bullfight one night in Madrid. “If you see a worthy bull, bet a few Euros on him for me.” I thought what I’d already told her more than once: You don’t understand. The bull never wins.

Bullfighting is, to put it plainly, animal torture for human entertainment. There’s really no way around it. A bull is turned loose in a ring and harassed, mentally and physically, for 20 minutes, at the end of which he is killed, more or less humanely, if you discount the previous 19 minutes and change.

However. I’ve never seen a real* bullfight, and neither had Alan. I was curious. Not going wouldn’t have saved the six bulls who died that night, and I’m not going to take PETA’s word for anything. Also, Culture. So we went to Las Ventas — the arena that is, to bullfighting, what Michigan Stadium/Ohio Stadium/the Rose Bowl is to college football. We were going at the tail end of the season, and the program indicated novillados. Novices, facing off with younger bulls, i.e. the minors. But that meant lower prices and thinner crowds. Fine with me.

The subway there was packed, mostly with older men, many carrying bags with seat cushions inside. Everybody got off at the Ventas stop, and we made our way to the ticket window. Rick Steves said choose section 8 or 9 for shade and the best view; the toreros tend to push the action to that side of the arena, to reward the premium seats. So we did, and found a stadium scene familiar to anyone who’s been to one, anywhere, but maybe more stripped down. The refreshments were beer and blanched almonds, sold by vendors in the stands (the fighting runs roughly 6-8 p.m., and no one eats dinner that early in Spain). We found we could rent seat cushions for 1.50 Euros, and good thing we did, because the seating was cold and hard:

Note: No railings. If you fall, you fall. People come here to see blood, and it might as well be yours.

There was some sort of hall of fame in the hallway leading to the seats. Don’t ask me whether these guys were notable sires, or just put up a hell of a fight; I’m a stranger here myself:

This was the crowd close to starting time. Not huge, but better than the Detroit Tigers did, many nights this season:

The show started at the stroke of 6 with the traditional parade of toreros, picadors, support staff and even the mules who will drag away the carcasses:

They make one lap of the arena, take their places, and the first bull is released. He’s already pissed off — I believe they stick him in his hump first to get him in a bad mood. The toreros work as a team, with half a dozen or so hassling him with bigger capes, to rile him up. These guys are matadors in training, so at this level, minor-minor. They show a little style, but they know their place, even though they’re all dressed the same:

The torture really starts when the picador comes out. This guy’s job is to draw the bull to attack his horse, and the first time this happened I gasped, but all the horses seemed prepared, and unharmed by it. Once the bull makes contact, the picador stabs him right in the hump. This wound gets the bull to lower his head for the rest of the fight, which is safer for the humans; makes a goring less likely. I’m adding a video; I hope it works for most of you, and if it doesn’t, I’m sorry. Enlarge it to fullscreen:

After the picadors come the banderilleros. Their job is to further inflame the animal, by placing twin picks in his hump (stylishly!). They face the animal, it charges, and they place the banderillas with a leap. This happens three times. If you see a classic bullfighting print, the sticks you see hanging from the bull’s shoulder? Banderillas.

Then the final act begins, at about the 10-minute mark. The matador comes out with a smaller, red cape — the muleta — and starts the tercio de muerte. The muleta is braced with a sword, but it’s just a prop. The matador’s job at this point is to tire the bull out, but do it fancy-like, showing his bravery. (We called our favorite, of the three guys who performed that night, Mick Jagger. He struck all the traditional poses, inching forward, leading with his pelvis, that stuff that gets the girls hot.) And then he exchanges his toy sword for a real one, comes back, sights down it dramatically, and charges in for the kill. In this stage, he needs to jump into the air, so the sword can come down between the shoulders, ideally to the hilt and severing the aorta or piercing the heart itself. Mick Jagger accomplished it on his first bull, but the second was kind of a disaster; he needed three tries, which was probably expected from a novillado.

At that point, the bull goes to his knees, theoretically, and a final guy comes in with a dagger and gives him a stab just behind his head, severing his spinal cord. The animal pitches over onto his side, dead. The end. Cue the mule team.

It’s pretty brutal, yes. But we watched the whole thing. Afterward, it was time to wave farewell to Las Ventas and have some dinner. Alice, let’s eat! Who wants a hamburger?

I’m glad we went. I eat meat, so I can’t claim any purity around killing bulls for human ends. I’m not sure an American slaughterhouse is a much less distressing way to go. In one of Jim Harrison’s many memorable turns of phrase, he described cattle as giant machines to turn grass into shit. But they feed us well in the end, so.

If you want to know more about all of the above, I suggest this post on Spanish Traveller, where I got a lot of the terminology, at least the Spanish phrases.

On and as for that *asterisk, above: This was actually my second trip to Spain. My mother took me to Malaga and the Costa del Sol for spring break when I was in…seventh grade, I think. It was March, but there was a “bullfight” put on for the tourists down there somewhere. It wasn’t even the season. Some steps were skipped — no picadors. I don’t know who the matadors were, maybe some waiters picking up extra coin. But the bulls were killed and, get this, ears were awarded. Even I could tell this was (sorry) bullshit staged for people who read James Michener’s “Iberia” and took it to heart. Getting an ear — cut from the dead bull and given to the matador for a superior performance, by order of the judge and seconded by the crowd, is an infrequent occurrence. Getting two ears is very rare. The highest honor — two ears and a tail — is even rarer. Here’s a funny note on the semiotics of this gesture. Needless to say, no ears were awarded the night we were there, not even to Mick Jagger.

Posted at 10:00 pm in Same ol' same ol' |

16 responses to “Toro.”

  1. alex said on October 17, 2022 at 11:03 pm

    Ears and tails may be the bullfighter’s prize, but the dicks end up in the hands of the wealthy — as riding crops and dog chews.

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  2. basset said on October 18, 2022 at 12:16 am

    Damn, Alex… I coulda gone all day without thinking about that.

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  3. Dexter Friend said on October 18, 2022 at 2:19 am

    Jeezuss H. Kreist!

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  4. Dorothy said on October 18, 2022 at 5:50 am

    I’m too squeamish to even think about clicking on the video, and your description was enough to explain everything to us. My stomach churned just thinking about all of it. I’m sure I could never watch this in person.

    I kept comparing it to the time in Ireland when we were driving from Dublin to our next stop and we came across the remains of an old church. We parked to walk around it and see if there were signs explaining what it was. And lo and behold there was a field of black and fawn colored cows next door. I took a lot of pictures and Mike talked to them as if they were an audience of kindergarteners, assembled for story hour.

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  5. Robert said on October 18, 2022 at 8:52 am

    Dear Nancy – I attended a bullfight at Las Ventas almost 20 years ago – I share your sentiments entirely.

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  6. Icarus said on October 18, 2022 at 10:09 am

    When Nancy said the Bull never wins, I thought of this*:

    A big Texan cowboy stopped at a local restaurant following a day of drinking and roaming around in Mexico. While sipping his tequila, he noticed a sizzling, scrumptious looking platter being served at the next table. Not only did it look good, but the smell was wonderful..

    He asked the waiter, “What is that you just served?” The waiter replied, “Ah Senor, you have excellent taste! Those are bull’s testicles from the bullfight this morning. A delicacy!”

    The cowboy, undaunted, said, “What the heck, I’m on vacation, I’ll have some!” The waiter replied, “I am so sorry Senor. There is only one serving per day because there is only one bullfight each morning. If you place your order now, we will be sure to save you this delicacy for tomorrow”

    The cowboy placed the order and the next evening he was served the one and only special delicacy of the day. After a few bites, and inspecting the contents of his platter, he called to the waiter and said, “These are delicious, but they are much smaller than the ones I saw you serve yesterday”

    The waiter shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Si, Senor … sometimes the bull wins.”

    *I’ve heard various versions of this joke but this is the first one that came up.

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  7. Jenine said on October 18, 2022 at 10:14 am

    The ritual of it reminds me of Minoan art depicting bull dancers/acrobats. I’m thinking those bulls were killed as offerings as well. Really interesting to hear your description. I remember the terminology (picadors, etc.) from Ferdinand the Bull who did not want to be a big fierce hero of the arena and ruined the show.

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  8. Julie Robinson said on October 18, 2022 at 10:36 am

    Dorothy, I’m with you.

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  9. susan said on October 18, 2022 at 10:55 am

    Ya, first the sadomasochistic jeebus, and then the cruelty of Spanish bullfights. Ugh. Well, maybe Spain doesn’t have mass-killings by men with guns, so there’s that.

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  10. Suzanne said on October 18, 2022 at 11:44 am

    I have no interest in seeing a bullfight. None. It’s football season and I watch it some but enjoying it less and less. What’s wrong with people that violence brings joy, be it controlled violence like a football game or a metal band mosh pit or a bullfight. I don’t get it and never will.

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  11. Heather said on October 18, 2022 at 12:04 pm

    I dunno, what those bulls go through seems less awful than what animals experience on your average industrial farm and slaughterhouse.

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  12. Peter said on October 18, 2022 at 1:11 pm

    Icarus – that joke’s a keeper.

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  13. tajalli said on October 18, 2022 at 3:35 pm

    I’m sure Nancy has more than just gruesome pictures, so I’ll just wait for those.

    Spain also has the Camino de Santiago, about a month’s long walk on a variety of routes through the countryside and little towns that ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Santiago. Apparently, there are also routes that include portions of Portugal and France.

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  14. Deborah said on October 18, 2022 at 3:44 pm

    Yeah, our trip in France is tame compared to Nancy’s in Spain. The only thing even marginally comparable is driving on the narrow winding roads between villages when a truck is barreling down coming our way with no shoulder to pull over on. Somehow we’ve always managed to pass. I will be happy when we return our rental car at the train station in Avignon. Also, I found out the gas shortage supposedly has nothing to do with Russia but is the result of a strike of French petrol workers.

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  15. Jeff Gill said on October 18, 2022 at 4:10 pm

    Death in the afternoon, if you call 6 pm that but if supper is at 10 pm, why not. Anyhow, Hemingway’s take was published 90 years ago, and it sounds as if little has changed. Thank you for the Nallian version of corrida.

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  16. Julie Robinson said on October 18, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    A couple of friends walked the Camino and said it tested every single part of them. In other words, they loved it.

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