Bull fighting, is it a sport or is it a tragedy acted out through stages from entrance to exit and ultimately death?
Hemingway said “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honour".
After four years of visiting Pamplona and seeing the festival of San Fermin first hand which culminates each day at 8am with the infamous running of the bulls; I decided it was time to see a bull fight for myself.
I wanted to see how I would feel seeing an animal die in front of cheering thousands. I wanted to know how I would react. Would I see it as a sport, an art or even a pantomime?
We entered the famous Bull ring in the centre of Pamplona on the 7th of July. That morning we had already run with the bulls and been in that very ring dodging steers with taped horns.
Our seats were the very last ones, row z with our backs to the wall. However the view was stunning and you could see everything.
Then it started. Not one but six bull fights which all culminated with everyone invading the bull ring in the end and many clutching the blood stained sand.
The music blares and everyone cheers, flags and neckerchiefs are waved and the sun shines down on each person who looks fantastic all in white.
The procession enters, armoured horses, people on foot and the colours on display are dazzling. This is all sounded by the blast of a trumpet.
The three stages are:
Stage 1 - Tercio de Varas ("third of lances")
The bull enters the ring and is tested by the matador and banderilleros.
Next, two picadores enter the arena armed with a long lance or varas and mounted on large heavily padded and blindfolded horses.
The bull sees these horses and makes a massive charge at them. The poor horse suddenly jolts as the bull blows in to the padding, the picadore simply moves his legs out of the way and slams a lance into the bulls back to weaken it. The picadore stabs at a mound of muscle behind the bulls neck.
At the time the matador, the star of the show is observing the bull and seeing what the bulls caging preferences are and he starts to make a game plan as it were.
The bull should in effect be weakened by the exertion of charging and lifting the horse and the lance. This will make the bull have a lower charging position as its neck is weakened.
I watched as the bull charges full throttle into the unsuspecting horse which judders violently before a lance is plunged into the bull.
The crowd cheers and cerveza sellers come up to us to offer cheap local beers.
The atmosphere is one of jubilation and not a single protest can be seen.
In my previous years in Pamplona I have seen many animal cruelty protests but not this year. Not a single one was I able to spot.
Stage 2 - Tercio de banderillas (“third of flags”)
This stage the three banderilleros each attempt to plant two banderillas, Which is a sharp stick, into the bull's shoulders.
This will weaken the bull but it also angers it and makes the charges more furious. You can see the bull trying to decide which banderillos to charge. Soon the blood starts to pour down the bulls shoulders.
Stage 3 - Tercio de Muerte ("third of death")
The matador enters looking resplendent in his shining attire. We saw some in white, some blue, some pink and many variation of clashing colours. He enters strutting jaw thrusting out into the sky and a look of arrogance on his face.
His cocksure manliness and arrogance can be seen by all but at the same time he struts and doesn’t walk. Bull fighting is incredibly manly and masculine and ridiculously brave, but it is also incredibly camp. The costumes and the strutting and the hand gestures are so dramatic and thespian that it adds an air of showmanship and pantomime to the whole experience.
The red cape which the matador carries is called a Muleta and it is carried over a wooden stick or a dowel.
What I didn’t realise is that from the moment the matador is first charged by the bloodied, angry and weakened bull he has only 15 minutes to kill it.
If he does not successfully kill it or cleanly kill it the crowd whistle their discontent.
This happened on more than one occasion as the bull finally collapsed but was still sitting up right. Soon a knife was smashed repeatedly into the dying bulls skull until its massive bulky frame lay motionless bleeding out onto the sand ready to be pulled away by the team of horses.
After a series of passes where the matador agile and nimbly darts away from the horns in an effortless motion he gets ready to kill the tiring bull.
The horns whistle by his body as he in one swift motion seems to swerve through time and effortlessly receives a huge cheer and applause from the crowd.
The bull is lumbering and tiring from blood loss, the crowd sense a kill and the matador draws his sword.
His sword is called a estocada and to end the esctocada the sword is thrust between the shoulders of the bull and severing the spine and ultimately the aim is through the heart.
While we sat here open mouthed thinking what we were seeing was art yet brutal art the faena which is the entire 15 minutes to kill process ended roughly and the crowd whistled and booed.
One matador did it with one blow. The sword was thrust as he leapt into the air as the bull charged and it came down slicing through the bulls shoulders.
The bull staggered and in one breath hit the sand with a thud. Other attempts were not as successful as the bull seemed to carry on and the matador had to have another go to the annoyance of the crowd.
To the Spanish this is more than a sport; it is a part of their lives, culture, heritage and soul.
One matador was the epitome of a showman. The bull was tired, panting heavily and bleeding profusely. He looked beaten, his horns aimed down. The matador walked up to the bull and in a display of arrogance, bravery, showmanship and art slapped his chest with his fist, raised his palm to the bull and turned his back on it and strutted off.
The bull tired just stared at him and didn’t move. The matador; a good matador knew the bull wouldn’t charge, he was too tired and that he was defeated.
The unsuccessful kill with the sword leads to a thing called a descabell. This is where the sword is used to sever the spine rather than piece the heart.
If the bull is still going then the dagger to the head which we brutally saw is called puntillero.
The last of the bulls lay motionless on the sand, blood seeping from his wounds. The team of horses attached ropes and unceremoniously drags him out. His life over, bred to run and fight, bred not for entertainment but for a battle between man and animal and a battle where so many times pictures of matadors coming second best have been seen but wasn’t seen today.
Today the bull ring at Pamplona exploded in cheers, applause and singing. People climbed down over the seats and threw the seat covers into the air as they invaded the ring. They ran and cheered and were joined by brass bands from the seats. The scene was of pure celebration.
The Spanish don’t hate bulls and don't fight them for torture. A bull’s death should be with honour and quick. That’s why the whistles sound if a death is slow and clumsy. They regard the animals with admiration and the local papers are full of pictures of the bulls with their vital statistics.
They regard the bulls with honour.
While we were there the bull was paraded around the ring twice or three times and I later learnt that this meant that bull was a good fight and the dignitaries were impressed with it.
The crowds were surging forward and we joined them in the ring. The scene wasn’t chaos but fun, people were chatting and laughing and you suddenly forget that you just saw six bulls die.
It is strange to watch it and I have to be honest and say that even though I am an animal lover I enjoyed the whole experience. The pomp and splendour and the utter camp heroic machismo of the event was stunning.
You forget that you have seen death and drank several beers throughout because they are so cheap, you forget you need the toilet; you just are in the moment.
You are in the ring dancing with people you have never met before chatting to your new Australian friends who you only met on the bus over and are at the same camp site.
The bull fight was an experience, one I will never forget and with the way the world is going may soon be a thing of the past. Therefore I am glad I have seen, no not seen one; experienced one.
Because the experience is not like anything else at all.