Everything You Need to Know About Bullfighting in Madrid
Bullfighting in Madrid is not as popular as you might think.
Only 1 in 10 Spaniards has ever been to a bullfighting event. The movement against this tradition is ever so strong.
But still, bullfighting is one of the first things that come to mind when you think Spanish culture. One might wonder how this extreme polarity came about. And more importantly, how have they not banned it yet. So before I give you the practical info on bullfighting in Madrid, let’s examine what bullfighting is and why is it still so important to Spaniards.
A bullfight is known as corrida de toros, or even just toros. The corridas originate from Spain but are now practiced in many Latin American countries, as well as in some parts of France. However, Spain is still where the biggest, most impressive, and most popular bullfighting events take place.
History Of Bullfighting
Funnily enough, the history of bullfighting takes us back to the worship of the bull, a.k.a. the Sacred Bull that some might remember is mentioned in the Bible. Different cultures have their own take on the spiritual significance of the bull but anyhow bull sacrifices were a common occurrence in the Ancient world. Then the Roman Empire came about and along with sacrificing bulls Romans figured they could use them for entertainment.
Rome was notorious for its’ man-against-animal or man-against-man fights many of which included gladiators. The most widely accepted theory of the origin of bullfighting is Rome. Romans conquered the Iberian Peninsula and they brought the bulls. Of course, in those early times, there was nothing like the elegant and extremely ritualized event that bullfighting is today.
On came the Middle Ages and Arabs invaded the Iberian lands. Then the famous Reconquista took place. Christians reclaimed their lands. This was a rather… bloody endeavor. Bullfighting became what jousting was to knights in other European countries. A sport befitting a noble and brave warrior. It was mostly about showing strength and obviously about demonstrating wealth, too. It was not cheap to train those bulls.
The Corrida As We Know It Today
The corrida as we know it today originates in the 18th century.
It was then when Francisco Romero introduced the two arguably most recognizable features of the bullfight. The red cape and the sword. Why is the cape so important? Well, up until that moment the nobility only fought the bull on horseback.
Romero stood against the bull only ‘protected’ by a red cape. The idea of man against beast soon became very popular. This was also, ironically enough, what the Romans liked to see back in their day when they first introduced bullfighting.
What A Bullfight Is Like
Whether you see bullfighting in Madrid or elsewhere, a modern-day corrida is separated in three acts.
The first is where the matador gets to know the bull if you will. Bullfighters train for years and learn to recognize patterns in the behavior of the bull. Next, you will see two men on horses enter the arena. They are known as the picadores.
The horses are always blindfolded. Otherwise, they would not do as much as set foot in a closed space with an enraged bull inside. Not so long ago there used to be no armor for the horses. The bull almost always seems more interested in them. By interested I mean he tries to attack them first. With the heavy armor, there are much fewer horses killed during bullfights and also relatively less gore.
The picadores weaken the bull by stabbing it in the neck. Depending on the blow the injury would usually mean that the bull keeps it’s head and horns lower from here on.
Then you hear the horn and the first part is over. In the second part, the banderillos try to stab the bull in the shoulders. This further weakens the animal. The sticks are usually decorated with colorful flags, but if the bull seems too weak and too uninterested in the fight black flags can be used. This is seen as a disgrace to the breeder that raised the animal.
How Are Fighting Bulls Trained
This would be as good a time as any to tell you a bit more about those breeders.
Fighting bulls are selected to be aggressive, muscular, and with longer horns than usual. The ranches specialize only in the fighting breed. A bull spends the first two years of its life in the ranch and then it is sent to testing. The tests mainly look into how aggressive they are toward horses (the bull is never tested against a human until it enters the rink).
If deemed unsuitable for fights or breeding they will be slaughtered. Once a bull reaches 3 years of age it can participate in novilladas.
Younger bullfighters participate in these fights, while the best (read most aggressive) bulls are left to reach at least 4 years and they participate in an actual corrida. There is a law determining how big and how old a fighting bull should be.
The Part Of The Death
Back to the corrida, it is now time for the final part. The tercio de la muerte, part of the death.
The matador enters once again, equipped only with a sword and a cape.
Bulls are color blind so it isn’t the red color of the cape that irritates them, but rather the movement. Bullfighters do intricate sets of steps and movements often getting very close to the bull.
The sword should then be thrust — quickly and cleanly. If the first blow was clumsy the matador has to use the second sword he carries to cut the bull’s spinal cord. This is usually frowned upon as the skill of a matador should be to give swift, ‘merciful’ death.
Can The Bull Survive?
Very rarely the crowd would ask for a bull to be pardoned.
They do so by waving their handkerchiefs. The ‘president’ will then decide if the animal is to be spared. Such bulls return to their ranches and are used for breeding.
Bullfighting in Madrid — Practical Tips
To Spaniards, bullfighting is not always a welcome topic. The aficionados insist that bullfighting is much more than a sport.
To be fair, pieces on bullfighting appear in the culture section of Spanish newspapers, while sports is reserved for the Spaniard’s never-ending love for soccer. The Spanish word for bullfighting toreo has a meaning closer to art than to battle.
It is worth noting though, that the overwhelming majority of Spaniards is against bullfighting. Try to be considerate with both groups of people. Whether you decide to attend bullfighting in Madrid or not, do not treat it as a mere tourist attraction. Above all, though, consider if you want to support bullfighting and what your reasoning behind this is. Cultural appropriation, y’all.
Where To See Bullfighting in Madrid?
The bullring of Madrid is known as Las Ventas (close to a metro station by the same name). The season runs from March to October, but arguably the best time to see a bullfight is during the San Isidoro festival. It takes place in May and June and brings the best bullfighters in the world.
You can get the tickets online from an agency but there is really no need for that. You can simply go to the ticket office in the five days following up to the fight you want to see. Bigger bullfights are usually sold out within the first day, but novilladas are not and they are also cheaper. I would advise you to start with a novillada since if you hate it at least you wouldn’t have wasted hundreds of euro for the tickets.
It is worth paying extra for seating in the shade, as the sun is pretty strong even in May. A corrida usually lasts around 2 hours, if not longer and you would really not want to be stuck under the blazing Spanish sun for that long.
The Spectators During a Bullfight
One of the arguments for bullfighting not being a sport is that there is no winner or loser. Rather the public decides whether a matador has performed well. As a rule, people around you will get really into the show, especially locals. There will be claps and boos, and Olé’s. At the end of the fight, the spectators decide whether the matador deserves to be awarded a trophy for his performance.
What would that trophy be? The ear of the bull.
If you think the bullfighter has fought well wave your handkerchief. If more than half of the public does that the ‘president’ of the fight will award the matador with the ear. There is a second ear, of course, which the presiding figure might decide to award as well, at his own discretion. If the fighter gets two ears, he will be carried out of the bullring on the shoulders of his fans. This is the highest achievement a bullfighter can have.
There is one thing that could help you understand bullfighting in Madrid better.
And that is understanding the language. A great place for a beginner to learn the language is Rocket Languages.
As someone who has spent years trying to master Spanish, I could not recommend Rocket Languages enough. I could only imagine the time it would have saved me if I knew about it back when I was starting out.
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