Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would see a bullfight. Dangerous, inhumane, outdated… all those words come to mind. But after experiencing bullfighting and the world famous running of the bulls, I can also add exhilarating, emotional and symbolic. While bullfights have been banned in many countries, there’s no better place to see it than Pamplona and the Festival of San Fermin in July.
On this, our third trip to Spain in a year, we hopped on the train from Madrid, still jet lagged from our flight overseas. As we neared Pamplona, colorless clothing was swiftly exchanged for the traditional garb of white pants, shirts and red scarves. Within moments, we had sangria in hand, and joined the singing revellers in the streets.
Our bullfighting experience began with the running of the bulls from the corral to the bullring in the morning. My partner, Tom, had decided to join the throng, and at 7 am we joined thousands of adventurous souls jostling for position on the narrow street. The atmosphere was electric. Safety was paramount, with police keeping the onlookers behind strong wooden railings.
At 8 am, two cannons fired to mark the opening of the bullpen. Safe on a balcony above the street, my daughter and I watched as the crowd below us pulsed ahead. Six fighting bulls emerged from around the corner. Less-savvy runners were trapped in front of the bull’s sharp horns – there is an art and science to this, which is why so many do it every year. Luckily, Tom escaped with a few stitches, courtesy of an elbow to the eyebrow.
After the race, we relaxed in the square, enjoying delicious Spanish tapas. In the afternoon, bands emerged from the side streets and we began the journey to the bullring. When we entered the bullring, we found that our seats in the shade were so close to the matadors you could almost touch them. The crowd was loud and happy, singing and dancing to the music. The couple next to us shared their Bollinger champagne; it was truly a celebratory experience.
As the first bull ran into the corrida, the matadors stood in beaded jackets only a few feet away. Each matador has six assistants: two picadores mounted on horseback, three banderilleros and a sword servant. We, along with the crowd, became immersed in the passionate life and death battle. It was fascinating and dangerous – the stages of a bullfight follow a long-established ritual that generally end in the bull’s death. Six bulls entered the arena, with each encounter lasting about 15 minutes. The bulls are up to four years old, and weigh up to 1300 lbs.
Each bull was different. Would he have the vigor and stamina of the previous bull? Would he fight to the end? As we watched the dance between man and beast, we couldn’t help but appreciate the extraordinary honour and respect shown for the bull and the bullfighters. It’s sensory overload: you can feel the fear of the horses, are visually stunned by the bright pink of the cape, and the smell of the blood all become an indelible moment. The death of a bull is a highly symbolic act, recognized by the waving of white hankerchiefs as a sign of appreciation.
Whether you’re running with the bulls or packed among the crowds, a bullfight is an experience that you’ll never forget. It is part of the culture of Spain. Every move, every gesture has its own meaning.
But it can’t be taken lightly. Every year people are gored or injured, so you must take care as it is unquestionably dangerous to put your body in front of a bull. For me, being an observer was just as memorable and stimulating, and I came to appreciate Hemingway’s obsession: ‘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 honor.’