Until recently, the bullring was only open for spectators imbibing the sport of killing bulls. Today, Madrid's Plaza de Toros has opened its doors to tourists. With guided tours in several languages, the guide walks you through the stadium and onto the ground floor, explaining the ritual of bullfighting.
I braced myself for the smell of death. A blood-stained arena. Thankfully, I found neither. Plaza de Toros is a grand structure, beautiful in its own right. Inside, the stadium resembles many U.S. stadiums used for baseball and football. Seating is a tad archaic with cement tiers lined with numbers to correspond with spectator tickets--then again, it was built in 1929. A colorfully decorated section is offered for the president of the bullfight. From the spectator's viewpoint, there is little extravagance offered inside the stadium, seemingly symbolic of the sacrifices made in them--the sacrifice of death.
Sacrificing bulls is a practice dating back to pre-historic times. The sport as we know it today started in village squares and became a more formalized sport in the late 18th century. There are hundreds of bullrings throughout Spain (smaller towns offering 'portable' versions). The oldest stadium is in Ronda, a province in Andalucia (southern Spain).
According to our guide, six bulls and three matadores (bullfighters) are selected for each event. Each matador and his team of assistants parade across the arena in ceremony. Following the fanfare, the first bull is released. The first bullfighter's assistants engage the bull using large capes to see how the bull responds. If the crowd is not pleased (indicated by whistling), the bull will be removed and a replacement brought out.
Once a suitable bull is located, two picadores (lancers on horseback) enter the arena who maneuver around the bull piercing the bull's shoulders to agitate and weaken the animal. Then, it is time for the matador (literally meaning "killer") to enter. The matador will use his cape to encourage the bull to charge him, maintaining a rigid pose and guiding the bull around his body.
As the bull tires (through both blood loss and exertion), the matador will attempt to drive a sword through the shoulder blades and directly into the animal's heart, killing it. If, however, the matador fails in his attempt, his assistants move in to finish the job.
Following the killing of the bull, the crowd acts as judge by cheering. If seen as successful, the matador will be awarded with one of the bull's ears. Two ears is considered an ultimate award.
It is a brutal and gory sport. One that celebrates man's fear and triumph over death. It only comforts me a little to know that the dead animals are immediately removed from the arena and sold to area restaurants--at least their suffering is not totally in vain.
Every year 250,000 bulls die this slow and tortuous death for sheer entertainment. For all the "rich" culture throughout Spain, this is one ritual I cannot conceive. A tour of the bullring is as close as I will ever come to being a spectator of the sport. Thankfully, I am not alone. This summer, lawmakers in Catalonia (northeast Spain) banned the pageant starting in 2012. At this time, it is the only significant national movement to do away with bullfighting.
There's not much that a foreigner (such as myself) can do about changing this longstanding ritual. But for those desiring to make their voices heard on the subject, a petition in support of banning bullfighting can be signed. The deadline for signatures is January 1, 2011.