Whoever is against bullfighting, is against Spanish culture, as far as Soraya Belinchón García is concerned. As an inhabitant of Madrid and tour guide at the Las Ventas bullfighting ring, she regularly watches the fights. “My favorite part is at the end, where the Matador stands as close as possible to the bull. It is like they are dancing, there is elegance and heroism.”
We are in the basement of the bull fighting museum, where a movie shows all the stages of a good fight, from drawing out the animal with a heavy pink cape, followed by stabbing the bull with colorful spears, according to Belinchón García to calm it down. And then is the turn of the Matador, who puts himself next to the body of the bull and waves a red cloth in front of its eyes. It does look like a spectacle, the Matador in his gold covered outfit, dancing with a bleeding, wild beast.
While some forms of bullfighting are controversial and considered to be a blood sport, here in Madrid, it is defined as an art form or cultural event. The aesthetic of bullfighting is based on the interaction of the man and the bull. Rather than a competitive sport, the bullfight is more of a ritual of ancient origin, which is judged by fans based on artistic impression and command. Here at the Las Ventas bullring, a beautiful building from the 1930’s, is where the San Isidro bullfight festival takes place in May and June, bringing together the best fighters, bulls and aficionados. The festival, which has fights every day for 20 days is called the national festival.
In the museum, which is next to the ring, both the fighters and the bulls are presented as heroes. There are oil painted portraits of the matadors and their clothes, sometimes still covered in blood, are on display. The famous bulls, who rarely survive a fight, have their heads mounted on the wall. And with this interesting collection there are posters that show how important bullfighting has been to the Spanish. Bullfighting traces its roots to prehistoric bull worship and sacrifice in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean region. All through history, religious festivities and royal weddings were celebrated by fights in the local plaza, where noblemen would ride competing for royal favor, and the populace enjoyed the excitement.
The modern style of Spanish bullfighting is credited to Juan Belmonte, generally considered the greatest matador of all time. Belmonte introduced a daring and revolutionary style, in which he stayed within a few centimeters of the bull throughout the fight. Although extremely dangerous, Belmonte was gored on many occasions, his style is still seen by most matadors as the ideal. In the old days, fighters didn’t live long. “Penicillin was a great invention for the matadors, as they were often hurt by the horns of the bulls, and these contained many bacteria. So if they didn’t die of their wounds, they would die of infection,” Belinchón García told hiEurope. With the discovery of antibiotics and advances in surgical techniques, fatalities are now rare, although over the past three centuries 534 professional bullfighters have died in the ring or from injuries sustained there, most recently matador Victor Barrio on 10 July 2016, whose death was broadcast on live TV. Just to be sure, the bullring has a chapel where a matador can pray before the fight, and where a priest can be found in case a sacrament is needed.
Festival for Kings
While in Rome the Colosseum stands as a ruin and gladiators fighting wild beasts are a thing of the past, in Madrid bullfighting is still very much alive. The fights are not only watched by the common people, international celebrities and the Spanish royals often join too. The Spanish Royal Family is said to be divided on the issue. While Queen Sofía does not hide her dislike for bullfights, King Juan Carlos occasionally presides over one from the royal box as part of his official duties. Their daughter, Princess Elena is well known for her liking of bullfights and often accompanies the king in the presiding box.
While in winter the matadors travel to South America, the season for fights starts in Madrid in spring. Cattle breeders from all over Spain come to deliver their bulls to the ring at Las Ventas. Each season, around 300 animals fight here, Belinchón García says, their bodies brought strait to the slaughter and the meat sold immediately after the fight.
Another movie at the ring shows the happy life of these bulls. The Spanish Fighting Bulls are a particular breed of cattle and must be bred on large ranches, in conditions as similar as possible to the way they would behave in the wild. Unlike cattle that is bred for meat, these bulls live happy, free lives, until it is time to fight and die. Meat from fighting bulls is by some considered to be the most ecological bovine meat produced anywhere in the world, and special recipes exist on how to prepare it. Very rarely, if the public or the matador believe that the bull has fought extremely bravely, the event's president may be petitioned to grant the bull a pardon. It then leaves the ring alive and is returned to its home ranch where it will be a stud for the rest of its life. Belinchón García remembers one such occasion. “The bull had stayed so focused and concentrated, and had been so courageous, that no one wanted to see it die.”