Bullfighting in Spain

History, season and tickets

A book about Spain wouldn’t be complete without a ‘few’ words about bullfighting ( la lidia), commonly referred to as the fiesta nacional. Foreigners love or loathe bullfights and it provokes controversy even among Spaniards. To many it’s a barbaric and sadistic blood sport with no merit whatsoever and should be banned.

It’s claimed by those opposed to bullfighting that over 80 per cent of Spaniards are against it, although it remains highly popular with over 40m paying spectators a year and top fights being shown live on television. It is, however, banned in the Canary Islands and in a few areas in mainland Spain, including Barcelona, which joined the anti-bullfighting league in 2004 much to the surprise of many in Spain.

If you’re opposed to bullfighting on moral and ethical grounds, it’s best not to go, as you certainly won’t enjoy it and may well be distressed. If you feel you ought to watch it at least once, it’s advisable to watch a bullfight on TV before deciding whether to see one in the flesh. If you decide to go to a fight, you should never cheer for the bull, particularly if it has gored the bullfighter ( matador or toreros), otherwise you can expect to be the object of some hostility from the crowd.

Bullfighting isn’t considered a sport in Spain, but an art (the art of tauromachy), and is reported in the arts and culture section of newspapers. It’s certainly not a contest, as there can be only one ‘winner’, although bullfighters can and do get killed every year (in addition to some 8,000 bulls) and even some spectators ( espontáneos) who jump into the ring to try their hand. Aficionados hail it as a spectacle encompassing colour, tradition, excitement, pageantry, beauty, danger, bravery, skill, blood and high drama. It’s an essential part of Spain’s heritage and culture and has probably had more influence on Spanish consciousness than any other phenomenon in the last few centuries.

History

Andalusia is the birthplace of bullfighting, where Ronda is regarded as the cradle of modern bullfighting, and many of Spain’s top bullfighters come from this region. Pedro Romero (immortalised by Goya in his painting Tauromaquia), who developed the classical style used today, is considered the father of modern bullfighting and ended his career in the 1820s at the aged of 72, having killed over 5,500 bulls without once being gored.

Throughout the last two centuries there have been many famous bullfighters, including Rafael Gómez ( El Gallo), Manolete (Manuel Rodríquez Sánchez), Joselito, Espartero and Juan Belmonte. Many bullfighters have been hailed by their supporters as the greatest who ever lived, including Manolete, Joselito and Belmonte. Among modern bullfighters, one of the most famous was Manuel Benítez (El Cordobés), who made his name in the ’60s and ’70s. Over the years, there has been a few American and English bullfighters and even women are beginning to make their mark in the ring.

However, women find it hard to gain acceptance in what is the world’s most macho ( machista) ‘profession’, and some of Spain’s top male bullfighters refused to share a bill with Cristina Sánchez, Spain’s leading female bullfighter (now retired).

Season

The official season runs from 19th March until 12th October. The most popular day is Sunday, but bullfights are also held on public holidays and during festivals. The most famous bullfighting fiestas are staged during Valencia’s fallas (March); in Seville during the April Fair; San Isidro in Madrid (May) with 23 consecutive days of fighting; Granada’s Corpus Christi celebrations (June); San Fermín in Pamplona (July); Bilbao’s Semana Grande (August) and Zaragossa’s Feria de Pilar (October).

Bullrings

There are some 500 permanent bullrings in Spain. The most famous, which are usually exactly circular, are Madrid’s Las Ventas, Seville’s La Maestranza and Pamplona, followed by Bilbao and Valencia. There are also rings in many smaller towns, including the resort towns of Benidorm, Marbella and Torremolinos. Apart from Madrid, other towns holding over ten bullfights ( corridas) per year include Malaga, Seville, Valencia and Zaragossa.

A bullfight is held between 4 and 6pm or 5 and 7pm depending on the heat and time of the year, and is one of the few things in Spain that starts on time. Sometimes two fights are held on the same day. Bullfights are announced by posters stating whether it’s a full bullfight with senior bullfighters and mature bulls, or a novice bullfight with younger bulls and junior bullfighters (a novillada, gran novillada or corrida de novillos). Matadors are listed on posters in order of seniority. Note that posters sold outside bullrings as souvenirs rarely advertise the current fight and most feature famous dead or retired bullfighters.

Tickets

Ticket ( billetes) prices vary considerably with the bullring, the bullfighters and the occasion. Tickets for top fights may be sold by touts (scalpers) for up to ten times their face value. Seats are usually designated as being in the shade ( sombra) or the sun ( sol), with shaded seats being more expensive. Sun and shade ( sol y sombra) seats are those that become shaded as the fight progresses. The closer you are to the action, the more expensive the seat, with ringside barrier ( barrera) seats in the shade being the most expensive. Some rings have seats designated as contrabarrera which are the next rows to the barrier seats.

The seats behind the ringside seats are called tendidos and may be divided into high ( alto) and low ( bajo) areas. The cheapest seats in the highest rows at the back are gradas or simply filas. Cushions ( almohadillas) can be rented for around €1 and are essential, as the ‘seats’ are usually stone or concrete. Children aren’t admitted to bullfights.

Tickets show the section name and number (e.g. tendido 10), the row ( fila) and the seat ( asiento) number. It’s best to purchase tickets from the box office ( taquilla) at the bullring or at an official ticket office. Tickets sold by agents usually have a high surcharge. You should avoid buying tickets from touts.

Live bullfights are shown on Spanish TV almost daily throughout the season and recorded fights are screened twice weekly in the off-season. Scores of books about bullfighting are published each year and magazines and newspapers devote many pages to it. Among the many books written about bullfighting are Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway (Grafton), Or I’ll Dress You in Mourning by Larry Collins (Weidenfeld & N) and Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting by Timothy Mitchell (University of Pennsylvania Press).

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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