Authored By Brian

The Internet redeemed itself today. I posted yesterday on an expat website in Madrid looking for someone to go to with to the bullfights tonight at Las Ventas. A girl named Lena replied this afternoon and after a short IM conversation we set a time to meet and grab some food. I was pleasantly surprised by a short, dark-haired German girl who spoke English well and looked sane. She had a kind of punk-rock cuteness about her but more importantly seemed sane.

We grabbed some tapas and a coke before walking the two blocks (and over the M-30 highway) to Las Ventas. As soon as we start looking for the ticket counter, this short guy approaches us and starts blabbing away. Lena talked to him and he offered us two tickets in the lower seating section for 5€ each. No sooner had we agreed then he turned and whistled as loud as possible to his buddy who was across the plaza. I thought I had read that only the ticket office sells tickets and it’s forbidden for anyone else to do so. I read right. The guy said “policia” about twelve times during our 60 second conversation and was looking around like a ferret on PCP.

I was sure we were going to walk to the ticket taker and be told we had counterfeit tickets and, oh, by the way, welcome to jail. But no, we cruised on in and found some seats. Although the stadium is a perfect circle, about 80% of the people were crammed onto our third of the circle.

The bullfight itself is an interesting phenomenon. I had heard people say how cruel it is and how they expected something much different so I was prepared for the brutality of it. I was intrigued by the amount of procedure involved in each fight. They all follow the same pattern starting with the introduction of the bull, already wounded with a small lance stuck in its back, to the bullring. A bunch of guys, who would be rodeo clowns in the States, start out with very large fluorescent pink capes and make the bull run around the ring a few times getting him a bit out of breath. Then the actual bullfighter, or matador, starts doing his thing and gets the bull to run some around some more. Then a horn is played and in come the picadores on horseback. It became rapidly evident why our side was more popular: the picadore on our side of the ring was always the one who would stick his lance into the bull’s back.

Except things didn’t go quite as planned. In the first two bullfights, both times the bull came up and knocked down the horse! The crowd was very alarmed and it definitely did not seem like standard operating procedure. It was also often followed by shrill whistling, the European equivalent of booing, to let the picadore just what they thought of him. The horse is protected with a very thick and very complete set of armor that wraps around everything but its legs. In several of the fights, the bull charged the horse with no damage. One of the bulls tried to get up underneath the stomach area but that too is covered by this protection. Anyone who has spent one minute around a horse must be wondering how they get the thing to stand still. That’s easy – just blindfold it. I don’t mean blinders, I mean the kind of blindfold you put on fraternity pledges when transporting them to some secret location. Immediately after, three men come out striking a kung fu pose before playing a game of chicken with the charging bull and sticking two banderillas each into the bull’s back.

At this point, it’s down to just the matador and the bull. The bull is much slower now and less prone to charge. His tongue is hanging out of his mouth and he is carrying six banderillas still stuck in his back. You can see his sides contract and expand under heavy breathing while the blood is visibly running down his shoulders and legs to the ground. The matador is using only a small red cape now and very formally stands with one hand on his hip and arches his back as he holds out the cape. From time to time, he would perform a little stutter step or drag his feet a little bit to entice the bull to charge. One guy even got down on his knees for a few passes which got the crowd very excited.

The last part is pretty impressive. Once the bull is pretty weak, the matador is given a different sword by one of the rodeo clowns. He approaches the bull from head on leveling the sword at him and attempts to drive it all the way into his back. The sword is probably 3’ long and they aim right between the shoulder blades. I think 3 of the 5 fights we watched successfully landed the sword on the first try. They then harass the bull a little bit with the pink capes getting him to turn around a couple times before the grand finale. The matador brings out yet another sword and approaches the bull head-on again. He uses his red cape almost on the ground or pokes the bull in the face to get the bull to look down at the ground. With one swift motion, the matador plunges the sword into his head and the bull just collapses to the ground dead at once. The crowd cheers, the matador celebrates his “victory”, and then three horses come out to tow the dead bull out of the ring.

For one of the bullfighters, the crowd was waving their white handkerchiefs like crazy. Initially we thought this was the end of the night since the card had showed three names but it continued on. Two fights later, watching from the concrete bleacher seats, we decided we’d had enough and headed for the door.

The yearly San Isidro festival features bullfights every night for almost a month

It was a very interesting experience but I can’t imagine going during the San Isidro festival every day for nearly a month to watch the same thing over and over. I suppose with a deeper understanding there would be more subtle details to watch for and by which to judge the performance.

Definitely worth the 5€ and time spent meeting someone new. I’m not sure if I trust Lena 100%, but she told me she played on a national team in South America when she was younger. :o

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