Last weekend in Madrid, I did the something I never thought I’d do: I attended a bullfight. Despite public outcry in recent years, bullfighting (or, Corrida del Toros, as Spaniards say), is still legal in all provinces of Spain except Catalonia, and quite popular. And so, there I was on a cloudy Saturday, at the last corrida of the Madrid season.
I had not planned this outright. Watching a bullfight was never on my list of Spanish to-dos. But I had just finished reading Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway, an English-language manifesto on bullfighting. The book was fascinating, depicting both bullfighting and Madrid in vibrant, Technicolor prose which the eighty years since its publication has done nothing to wither. I was hooked. I wanted to know more.
Emerging from the metro at Ventas, the stadium practically smacked me in the face. The Plaza de Toros de la Ventas, as large as a baseball stadium, and a million times more painstakingly crafted, stands as a beacon of a Spain old and regal. Its Spanish clay façade rises to the sky in a perfect circle, inlaid with colored tile. And so, bewitched, I strode up to the ticket office and for the price of 5.10 euros, found myself with a ticket in hand.
In his book, Hemingway talks about a great mis-understanding of bullfighting: that it isn’t a sport, but an art form. That the inevitable death of the bull is not a moment of joy, but of the tragedy of death up against the bravery of a man standing in a plaza with a pair of horns running in his direction. It’s something meaningful, beautiful; a reminder of the grandeur of life and how lucky and brave humans can be. As I walked into my first corrida, I was on the lookout for these things.
As I waltzed through the dramatic entry-arch and up the flights of stairs to my nosebleed seat, I couldn’t help but be impressed. Spanish music echoed through the corridors from a 12-piece band. Vendors rented worn-looking seat cushions while sucking on sunflower seeds and chatting to each other in loose-tongued Spanish. I suddenly regretted not buying popcorn, or a T-shirt from one of the vendors. Something, anything, to hold the event in my hand, to make it belong to me instead of this surreal space.
Instead I took a seat on a block of cement and stared out into the crowd. Spanish flags blew in the wind. And then the fan-fare began. Men on horses in feathered hats rode out into the ring. So did matadors and their assistants, doing a lazy lap around the ring. More music played.
But finally, the moment I hardly remembered we were waiting for arrived. A bull sauntered into stadium. Big. Black. Horned. Confused. A matador held out a pink and yellow cape. The bull went straight for the man instead. He went down. The bull ran at him, looking to trample. And so it began.
There are three parts of a bullfight. In the first, men on horseback face-off against the bull in a way that seems almost comical in its lack of intensity. The second part is a rather shocking display of violence, where men stick pointed pieces of metal (banderillas) into the bull. And then of course, the finale. As the matador stabbed his sword into the bull’s shoulders, I flinched. As dead bull’s body was horse-tied and driven out of the stadium, I turned away. As Spaniards stood, a silent sea waving white handkerchiefs, I rose too, but with a different purpose. Traditionally, 6 bulls are killed per fight. I don’t know if this was true that day, because I didn’t wait to find out. I walked out of the stadium amongst a sea of cheering faces, fanfare blaring behind me.
I understand what they say about bullfights now, about the beauty and the pain. I saw moments of terror in the goring of the first man, and of beauty in the carefully executed swoosh of a matador’s cape and the scarlet streak of blood on his white sleeve. However, for all my increased knowledge of Spanish traditions, I cannot say this is one I’d enthusiastically witness again. I left that day with a sense of morbid finality hanging in the air, and arrived home unsure whether to cry, or be satisfied.
Written by: Nicole Horowitz
Nicole Horowitz is a travel writer originally from Orange County, California. After graduating from New York University, Nicole got on the road to pursue her dream of traveling the world and writing about it along the way. She has been published in Forth Magazine, The Penny Hoarder and NYU’s Baedeker Magazine. Her favorite things to write about are city living on a dime and the sweet taste of Spanish paella. She currently lives in Madrid, Spain.
All photos by: Nicole Horowitz