It was the last day of the San Isidro festival in Madrid and I took a train from central Madrid out to Las Ventas. Las Ventas is in an eastern area of Madrid and home to the city’s premier bull ring. It’s the kind of place that has tapas bars dedicated to bullfighting and where the atmosphere is imbued with tradition. The second you leave the station you know you’re in the right place as the Plaza de Toros towers over you in the arid heat of the sun.
Never having gone to a corrida, I wasn’t quite sure how to purchase tickets. There are numerous ticket vendors lining the outside of the arena, but the best deal appears to be to just buy them directly from the ticketing office attached to the arena.
It was there I ran into a fellow American man, also looking in to attending one of the bullfights. After helping him with the Spanish for purchasing tickets and what kinds of views we could expect, we both settled on mid-tier seats in the sun. The Sol seats, as they are called, are cheaper than the Sombra ones, in the shade, and you could get a decent seat for about 15 euro on this particular day.
After purchasing our tickets, we decided to both head to a bar for a drink as we were both solo that day. Neither of us had been to a bullfight but shared a similar viewpoint on it: open minded but with a slight reservation on whether or not we were contributing to a practice that should cease.
The 25,000 person stadium capacity means you arrive in the atmosphere akin to a professional sports event. It’s a stadium complete with food and drink vendors.
You don’t have to be an aficionado to quickly realize that there is a very clearly defined order to how things should unfold. Trumpets blaring introduce the various phases of the fights, begining with the first phase known as tercio de varas.
The start of the fights are full of excitement. The bull is at its strongest in this phase. At this point in the fight, the banderilleros will use their capes to test the bull and understand the bull’s preferences and tendencies. It appears that the bull and matador truly are partaking in a sort of dance together as they induce the bull to charge through their capes in series’ of passes known as veronicas.
As the phase progresses, though, the bull is weakened slowly by the picadors (the horsemen with long lances that jab at the muscle of the bull). This concludes the first stage.
It is a bit shocking when it first happens, especially as the bull will frequently charge the horse that the picador is riding. The horses are somewhat protected with a sort of shield and are rather indifferent to the charges of the bull. It’s apparently a rather recent development to shield the horses, as in the old days of bullfighting it would often be the case that the horse could be gored in this portion of the corrida.
After the bull is jabbed things begin to slow down. The second stage, known as the tercio de banderillas , begins. In this stage, the banderillero will then stick the banderillas (colorful little harpoon like objects) into the shoulder of the bull to further weaken it.
In the final step, the tercio de muerte, the matador demonstrates his control over the bull by having it run several final passes through his now-red cape until the bull loses its energy and the matador has to end it with a quick stab. The crowd will get restless if this does not come soon after the bull becomes weakened. The shouts of ‘matalo ya!’, encouraging the matador to end it, can be heard throughout the arena.
The goal of the corrida is clearly not meant to be a sadistic exhibition as much as to showcase man’s control over a raging beast and how he can gracefully control it until it comes to an end and the bull submits to its fate. Luckily the ones we witnessed ended immediately with the single final blow. I’ve read of occasions where the matador does not end it with one stab and unfortunately results in the bulls death being prolonged.
Should You Visit
There is some visible blood but the events were not overly gory from what I saw. If you are a meat eater to begin with, it’s worth noting that the animals on factory farms endure arguably much more stress in their life than these bulls, who are given full reign of wide open fields until the bullfight. Whether or not a spectacle should be made of their death is another story though and one you have to come to an answer with on your own terms.
The bullfights last 20 minutes at a time over the course of about 2 hours. Would I go again? I’m not sure – I don’t think I would go out of my way to do so unless it were a major event like Running of the Bulls where the spectacle happened more outside of the ring than in. There is something to be said about the preservation of tradition, however there is also a strong argument tradition doesn’t necessitate tolerance.