When I discovered that the Fiesta de San Isidro, named for the patron saint of Madrid, took place around my husband’s birthday I decided to plan a trip there. The San Isidro on May 15 was the start of the bullfighting season and all the best toreadors would be there. Ted, who had only been to Madrid on business, had never seen a bullfight so we decided to go for full frontal Spain.
At the age of 16, my French penfriend’s family took me to a bullfight at Biarritz in the Basque country which borders on Spain. It was spectacular. I saw Antonio Ordenez, who was one of the best matadors of the time, and he was a consummate artist; twirling his cape in the various passes — veronicas and semi-veronicas — he swept the bull across his body within a hair’s breadth of his chest or his back to multiple ‘Oles’ from the enthusiastic crowd.
He maintained the statuesque pose and precision of movement, killing the bull at the first lunge and gaining the right to be offered both ears. I never thought of it as cruel but more as breathtakingly brave.
An ardent fan of Hemingway, I had read Death in the Afternoon where bullfighting and all the qualities and techniques of famous fighters were explained. I finally came to The Old Man and the Sea and realised that the essence of bullfighting was the eternal struggle between Man and Nature. I went to a few more bullfights over the years with Spanish friends and by osmosis learned to ‘Ole’ or jeer or throw my seat cushion with the best of them.
When I discovered that the grandson of Ordenez — Cayetano — was fighting in the ‘Corrida de la Prensa’ I spent hours on the internet trying to get the schedules. Buying a ticket for the San Isidro bullfest is quite difficult. The programmes are not set up until the week before (in case of death of a bullfighter) and for big fights people queue as for a Harrod’s sale, for days beforehand. They then sell the tickets on for a huge profit.
Tickets for Jose Tomas fights were re-selling for 3000 euros! People, who bought from ‘touts’ lost their money because Tomas (the best fighter at present) was gored in Mexico the week before. I paid 120 euros for seats in the gods through an eBay site.
Apparently, of the 30,000 seats in the Madrid bullring, the choicest are reserved year by year for the bull breeders and those rich families who earn lots of money from the sport — those who make the Traje de Luces or suit of lights which everyone, from bandilleros, picadors and toreadors, wears. The matador is the only one who has his suit of lights trimmed in gold braid. By the time the WAGS (commonly used term in Britain for Wives And Girlfriends, usually in reference to footballers wives) take their ritual places, the hoi-polloi have to be content with the left-over tickets.
We took our seats in the vertigo-inspiring seats (known as “the gods”) half and hour beforehand and watched the excited crowds arrive. They brought their tapas, wine and seat cushions. They all knew each other so there was lots of embracing, exchanging of gossip and comments on how the fights had been going. Everybody smoked.
I would like to say that silence fell as the first trumpet calls rang out but it wouldn’t be true. Mobile phones still rang and people continued chatting, chewing and slurping. If the bull didn’t rocket forth straight for the matador, the crowd would start to murmur its discontent.
As the matador judged the capacities of the bull so did the crowd. Experience told them if both were going to put up a good fight. There were three matadors, and a team of toreadors, picadors, bandilleros, and six bulls. None came up to the standard expected by the exigent Madrilenos so there were only two or three times that the crowd shouted ‘Ole’ but there was a lot of cushion throwing and whistling.
I was very disappointed.* I had wanted Ted to see a really good fight. However, he loved the spectacle anyway and said he felt like a Roman Emperor, seated in an amphitheatre watching man and animals battling it out. We came to the conclusion, however, that football had replaced the bull-fight in the popular psyche and that La Corrida was an old-fashioned ritual that was well past its prime. For all its splendour, pomp and circumstance, it was primitive and cruel — just a load of old bull, in fact.
* An update from Julia: “Just found on line a possible explanation for the lackadaisical attitude of the bullfighters when we were in Madrid. Check out the name of Julia Aparicio and look at the article on the Mail on line of 24 may – absolutely horrific. No wonder the toreadors hung back so much. Especially since Jose Tomas had just been badly gored in Mexico.
“The ritual entry procession, Las Ventas Bullring in Madrid 25 May 2010” © Julia Mclean
“Cayetano Ordonez” © Julia Mclean
“Sitting in “the gods”, 20 minutes before the start © Julia Mclean
“A load of old bull” © Julia Mclean