This is officially my fourth venture to Espania, and I must say it's growing on me. I wouldn't have put it on my "must see" list when I was growing up, it really is quite amazing. My first trip was in 2001 to see DG while he was playing a little professional basketball in Madrid. In 2004 DG and I came back over to visit Oscar (a good friend who is still making a living playing ball). We spent two weeks driving around the south of Spain - Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Malaga... It was awesome. Most recently I came over in 2005 with Brad Mann's exhibition basketball team, called "Livin-the-Dream". As a Christian-based ministry, we came over to put on several camps and clinics for youth near Barcelona - and had a chance to play against some of the smaller professional teams in the surrounding areas.
Anyway, with that much time in Spain, it's nearly impossible not to be exposed to a bullfight or two. Now, while I'd never been to one in person, I'd seen several on television, and had a general idea for the premise. I wish someone would have taught me a few things before actually watching one. Pretty much the only knowledge I had came from Bugs Bunny cartoons.
The reality, of course, is a little different. The most important thing you need to understand is that the bull dies; and dies a pretty torturous death. Yeah - for those of you who were thinking otherwise, sorry. The bullfight is essentially the bull's last hurrah - a relatively unfair setting to make a last stand. But, it does offer the chance to catch an unsuspecting matador off guard. Which is what we were hoping for.
On to the story. Our little crew, inclusive of DG, Ern, Trent, JP, Angie and yours truly headed out to a local fight in Benidorm. We asked OG to come, but I guess if you are a native Spaniard, a local bullfight is probably about as exciting as going to a High School football game. We walked down to the beach and hopped on a local bus to the arena. True to form, we didn't know "exactly" where to get off. After getting some help from some overweight British ladies who apparently vacation here every year, we found our stop, and made a leisurely stroll to the gates. We paid as little as we could - 18 Euros for "Sol" seats, which basically means you are in the baking Spanish sun until it goes down. Ehh, who cares? It was about 7:30 - about an hour from sunset, and as it turns out, the arena was far from packed, and we ended up in the shade soon enough.
As we settled into our concrete benches, we learned from our programs that this bullfight would feature three different matadors - a middle-aged guy who looked to be in his mid-40's, a guy who appeared to be in his late 20's early 30's, and finally a young dude who looked to be in his early 20's. The interesting twist we then found out was that the matadors would be on horses. I'd never seen such a thing, and was pretty excited about it - how could it not be interesting? And, I was hoping this might add an extra level of difficulty (and with it the increased possibility of seeing the bull get in a shot or two), as I'm thinking the horse may not like the prospect of getting gored by a bull any more than a human.
After a few minutes of pre-game ceremony including some prancing horses, some flag waving and a stirring rendition of the Spanish national anthem, we were ready to rumble.
The first bullfighter entered the ring astride a gleaming white horse. He was the oldest of the contestants, and was wearing a maroon jacket and a straw-colored hat with a strap around his chin. He rode around the arena for a few seconds, waving to the crowd and apparently acclimating himself and his horse to the noisy arena.
A few seconds later, the trumpets sounded a triumphant entry tune, at which point wooden gates at the far side of the arena were thrown open, and huge, pissed-off mass of black muscle and horns charged out of the dark portal under the stadium. He sped out to the middle of the sun-filled ring and stopped, a cloud of dust following him. An absolutely magnificent creature - breathing hard, head attentively swinging left to right, taking in his surroundings and looking for something to run over. I wondered what was going through his head at that time - probably disoriented after being shoved from a dark pen into a dusty, bright circle surrounded by a big wall filled with row after row of yelling, screaming people. And, at this point, he would be completely unaware he was about to be tortured for the next five minutes until someone stabbed a sword through his heart. Hard not to root for the bull.
At four equidistant points around the arena sat wooden "shields" behind which hide matadors - some dressed in skin-tight pink and yellow. I realize it's traditional garb, but... damn. You'd think there might be a more masculine set of clothes available these days.
Anyway, the purpose of these guys is not unlike the rodeo clowns of the North American rodeos. They are essentially distractions. At appropriate times, they run out from behind their hiding places and waive their pink cloaks at the bull, inciting him to charge. Some are better than others - playing with the bull by waving their capes, standing still while the 1200 lb bull charges, then side-stepping at the last minute. If done in a couple times in succession, the crowd will start yelling "Ole!" Yeah, just like the cartoons. Pretty cool.
And so it begins. The bullfighter begins to ride around the arena, baiting the bull to follow. At this point, the bull is at full strength, and is quite an adversary. He's really fast, and still pretty angry. The fighter keeps his horse at a pretty good run, stopping to bait the bull, then moving at the last minute, causing the bull to give chase.
At a certain point, the nearest foot-matador jumps out from the wall and distracts the bull while the bullfighter swings by the wall to grab a two-foot spear, called a banderilla, the shaft of which is covered with colorful decorations which almost look like flowers.
The fighter then returns to the action again dancing with the bull until baiting it into just the right movement at which point he jabs the banderilla into the mound of muscle on the bull's back. The spear is built like a little hooked arrow, and once jammed into the flesh, stays in, leaving the adorned shaft hanging to the side.
The dance continues, with the bullfighter's goal to stick three or four more banderillas into the bull. While definitely for show, there is a definite purpose to the lancing - the corresponding blood loss of the bull tires it out and begins to relax the super-tough muscles of the neck, making it easier to kill. Of course, this does get pretty bloody, and for those with weak stomachs, pretty disturbing.
Interestingly, during this period of the fight, the matadors behind the walls jumped out to distract the bull while the bullfighter disappeared through the gates he came in from. 30 seconds later he reappeared with a different horse. This happened two or three times during each fight. It was like watching a bowler switch balls for picking up a spare.
At about the 2/3 point in the fight (about five minutes into it), the bullfighter spears the bull with two short dagger-size banderillas, which brings about copious applause. Once this is done, you can feel the end is near. The bull is getting tired, and isn't charging nearly as hard as it was. It's covered in blood, and has five or six spears hanging out from its back.
Appropriately, the trumpets blow again, this time playing a somber tune giving a sense of finality. The bullfighter cruises by the wall again, and this time picks up a three foot gleaming steel sword. After doing a quick tour of the arena to incite the crowd a little further, he goes to work on the bull. He baits it into a charge two or three more times - you can tell the bull is just about done. One last time - the bull makes a charge at the bullfighter and in one lightning-quick motion, the sword is stabbed right through the back of the bull, down into its heart.
Once the kill-shot is administered, it then becomes a waiting game. The bull kicks a few times, and even charges once more. The crowd cheers wildly. The matadors come out from their hiding places and attempt to incite any final charges the bull has left in him.
The bull slows down to a walk, and eventually stops, breathing violently hard, and bleeding profusely. About 15 seconds later, the once proud bull drops to its knees, and falls in a cloud of dust on its left side.
The crowd goes wild, standing up to cheer. The matador, now off his horse, raises his right hand in triumph.
It was a hell of a sensation. I didn't really know what to feel. Everyone seemed so happy for the matador. I looked at the members of my little posse. Everyone was just sitting there, wide eyed, with a slightly disturbed look on their faces. We weren't clapping.
The statements were pretty simple: "Hmm." "Yeah." "Ok." "Gross."
However, the party wasn't over. Many in the crowd started grabbing white handkerchiefs and waving them in the air. I noticed most of the people were directing their attention to a booth high above the ring in the upper level. Apparently the "Mayor" of the bullfight (or at least someone with some ceremonial power) sat in this booth, watching the action from above. A few seconds later, the individual in question draped one handkerchief over the edge of the windowsill. The crowd went crazy again.
Everyone turned their attention to the bull, where a young woman with a knife standing over the carcass proceeded to hack off one of the bull's ears. Once in her hand, she stood up and walked it over to the triumphant matador, who accepted it humbly, then raised it above his head for all to see. The crowd goes crazy.
We asked a couple people about this little ceremony. Through broken Spanish, we learned that apparently if the matador sucks, he gets nothing. If he's good, he'll get an ear. If he's really good, he'll get both ears. If he's frickin awesome, he'll get both ears and the tail.
About that time, a set of gates opened to our right, where a pair of horses tethered together with a small yoke between them were led out by three or four guys who looked exactly like your stereotypical overweight New York cab drivers, complete with white button-up shirts (not buttoned all the way and chest hair sticking out), funny hats and cigarettes in their mouths. They pulled the horses up to the bull, and then proceeded to wrap a set of chains around the bull's horns. Once the crowd noise died down, the cab driver in charge slapped one of the horses, at which point they dragged the bull out of the arena, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. The remaining cab drivers had some rakes and other tools to smooth out the dirt, which when finished, looked like new.
A couple minutes later, the next matador proudly entered the arena to the exuberant cheers of the growing and increasingly intoxicated crowd. 30 seconds later, the trumpets announced the eminent entry of the bull. The gates opened, and out stormed the big black toro.
And so it went. Each of the three fighters had their turn, battling their respective bulls to the death. Then, after a short intermission, they started the process again, each fighter doing battle with one more bull each.
Each fight was essentially the same, though round two was definitely a little flashier than the first. Much like the NBA dunk contest, round one pretty well sucks. Bread-and-butter stuff at best. It's round two and three that offer the Vince Carter between the legs deal.
In the same vein, the second round involved a little more showmanship. At times the fighters would stab two banderillas in at once. At one point the youngest of the three fighters leaned off of his horse in mid-run to put his elbow on the pursuing bull's nose. Pretty damn impressive.
Perhaps most impressive were the horses. It was truly amazing to see these creatures under full control of their masters. They would dance, prance, side step, reverse, and in some cases do 360-degree turns right in front of a charging bull. And, they didn't have blinders on. They saw as well as the rider what was coming for them. It was amazing.
In the second round, the second bullfighter guy rode an absolutely gorgeous pewter-grey Arabian. It was calm and elegant - looking like it had been performing in bullfights for years. It was graceful and powerful - moving at the last second to barely avoid the oncoming horns. It seemed to enjoy the show as much as the rider. Its execution of three consecutive 360 spins in front of a hard charging bull early in the fight was as truly remarkable. The crowd loved it, and nearly gave him a standing ovation in the middle of the fight.
The bummer of Round 2 was the death of the final bull by the young bullfighter. Normally, a good bullfighter can administer the death stroke in one shot. One quick movement of the long sword into the heart, and the bull goes down in a few seconds. On this occasion, the kid missed the kill shot twice. The bull was in pain, but not ready to go down. The matadors had to corral it a bit while the bullfighter dismounted and used a special sword designed to sever the spinal cord to try to put the creature out of its misery. He apparently needs to go back to matador school, because he missed FIVE times. The crowd started jeering him quite a bit. Had he not put on such a good show earlier they probably would have thrown stuff at him. On the sixth try, he connected, and the bull dropped to the ground. It was disturbing to say the least.
And that was it. My first bullfight in the books. On the way back, we discussed the whole thing, including the fact that throughout the contest, we were all hoping for the bull to catch at least one of the little pink and gold matadors. We would have paid to see one of them get butted into the stands. We also discussed how there's apparently no "official" competition between the fighters. No one wins or loses - except for the bull of course. However, we did manage to keep score on our own:
|Round 1||Official Result|
|Older guy:||1 Ear|
|Middle-age guy:||2 Ears - This seemed a little generous. Not sure it was a 2 ear performance|
|Young guy:||2 Ears - not sure where this came from. It was worth 1 ear max. Makes me question the legitimacy of the judges.|
|Round 2||Official Result|
|Older guy:||1 ear - could have argued for 2|
|Middle-age guy:||1 ear - a travesty- he got screwed. It was a 2 ear performance if I've ever seen one.|
|Young guy:||0 ears - deservedly so.|
Spanish bullfights. Something to experience to be sure. Something America will never have. Something to make you glad you aren't a bull.