After some city sightseeing we were ready to hit the beach in Spain’s Southern Coast. We planned the rest of our holiday along the coast, famously known as Costa de la Luz and Costa del Sol.
But “sunny Spain” it was not. While our friends were enjoying a heat wave in Paris, we were Costa del Rain. With not much else to do in these coastal towns under overcast skies, we made a pit stop in Jerez de la Frontera.
Jerez is the capital of sherry production and famous for its flamenco culture. We tried to visit one of the wine cellars, but they were either closed or fully booked. We landed in Jerez during yet another holiday.
Despite the closures, we immersed ourselves in Andalucian culture. Jerez was in the middle of its annual week-long Feria de Jerez, the May Horse Fair. And part of that festival included three nights of bullfighting. The first night was la Corrida de Rejones. Rejoneadors are bullfighters who fight the bull on horseback.
We have never seen a bullfight. And we were intrigued.
We walked around the bullring where people were buying tickets, hanging around and enjoying the brief sunny weather. Many people were trying to sell their tickets for that first night. I was skeptical but curious as to how much a ticket would cost. A young scalper approached us and I engaged in a half-Portuguese/half-Spanish conversation (with some French and English sprinkled in). Somehow I communicated enough to find out the price and ask why he wasn’t using his ‘season’s pass’ ticket. He said he had to work. I didn’t believe him.
We were weary of buying from a ticket scalper, but he suggested I take the tickets to the ticket booth to prove their validity. The official ticket booth guy said they were legit so we bought tickets to our first bullfight.
The bullring was open, so we casually walked in. We went to look for our seats and saw the various preparations for later that night. We saw the bulls being unloaded off the trucks into a pen while people took notes, evaluating them. Workers groomed the horses and prettied them up.
With a few hours to kill, we went to Cadiz to check into our hotel. When the rain started pouring down there wasn’t much to do but wait it out and relax before a long drive back to Jerez.
Later that night, the atmosphere was lively. Crowds of people gathered around, all very well dressed. Men in khakis, crisp striped shirts and suit jackets. Women were either in traditional flamenco dresses or dressed in their Sunday best. (It was Thursday.) We felt extremely out of place in our jeans, sweaters and down-stuffed jackets.
Outside the bullring, the rejoneadors were showing off their horses and taking pictures with their fans. Lea Vicens, the female French bullfighter, was on the ticket that night as well. Seemed like we were in for a real show with five bullfighters in total.
We entered the bullring and our tickets worked. We settled into our hard, uncomfortable wooden seats for the 3 hour event. We should have bought the seat cushions on sale outside the ring. The locals all had them. The seats were quite possibly one of the worst in the whole bullring but it was about the experience and the atmosphere. We had no idea what to expect or what we would see.
Guys selling almonds and bags of sunflower seeds came by. Workers prepared the bullring surface and patched up the muddy parts to avoid slips and slides. We were surrounded by Spanish speaking people. This was definitely not an event geared toward tourists.
If you are curious about the sequence of events within a bullfight, Wikipedia has that information. Out of respect, I have not posted pictures of dead or dying bulls. But here I’ll share my thoughts and impressions of the whole experience.
I can understand that people are against bullfighting. I personally hadn’t thought much of it myself until we were in the ring witnessing the controversial sport. I can’t deny that I admired the skill and control the bullfighters exuded with their horses. It was incredible to see the bull horns graze the horses’ legs and yet, they kept their composure and obeyed their rider. The horses were quick, agile and graceful. The bullfight isn’t just about killing the bull. Each bullfighter has his (or her) own style and they are there to put on a show for spectators. With the horses, that meant, getting them up on their hind legs or doing a little dance before the bull. One bullfighter got so close he touched his head to the bull’s head while the bull chased him. Others would put an elbow or a hand, thus showing courage and mastery over the horse and fearlessness in the face of the angry bull.
The bullfighters placed a number of banderillas, harpoon-pointed sticks, into the bull’s back. First a number of long ones, then shorter ones. There was a lot of blood. It ran off the bull’s back, glistening in the lights. After about 15 minutes, and three horse changes, the bullfighter prepared for the finale with the lance of death. The sword, that when accurately placed, would kill the bull instantaneously. The first bullfighter of the night did this final act of killing swiftly. Once the sword was in the bull’s neck, he jumped off his horse, stood just a meter or two in front of the bull and watched him collapse. He displayed a moment of bravado and clear joy, while the crowd cheered and waved white napkins. The purpose of these was to show the bullfight’s judge that the crowd was pleased and that the bullfighter deserves the prize: either one (or two) of the bull’s ears and the bull’s tail for a job well done.
I didn’t like the moment they cut off the ears and tail. My stomach turned at the bullfighter raised the prize up to show the crowd, blood running down his hands.
I also didn’t like the show given by two of the bullfighters that night. They didn’t place the sword correctly and the bulls did not die quickly. The bulls in those cases succumbed to what I image was blood loss and fatigue. While he slowly died, the picador, the bullfighter assistants, used a short blade to finally sever the bull’s nerves. Something about witnessing this didn’t sit right with us.
This experience prompted me to read up on bullfighting. I read many arguments for and against this practice. A bullfight isn’t something I would go watch again but I’m glad that I did. It was a real experience in the Spanish culture and it wasn’t just for tourists. Spanish families including children were there. To them, it’s a part of their heritage and tradition. I have a better understanding of the practice, the sportsmanship and courage of the bullfighter and both the horse and the bull. After being taunted and speared, the bull kept charging and kept fighting. It seemed to me the Spanish had just as much respect for the bull. All around the bullring were plaques commemorating some of the mightiest bulls to enter the ring.
Of course, seeing an animal killed isn’t pleasant. But growing up, during the summer in my grandparents’ home in Portugal, I saw the cows, pigs and chickens that I helped feed, be killed for us to eat. I am still a meat eater. And after the fight, I saw them butcher the bulls before they were taken away in refrigerated trucks… no doubt to end up on someone’s plate.
The main part of this festival was the Horse Show. And while we missed the horse parade and other activities during the day, we went to the fairgrounds at night. Women of all ages were dressed up in flamenco dresses. They danced to the music coming from the casetas, little restaurant- or business-sponsored tents where you could order some food or a drink. The drink of choice was sherry and cups of the fortified wine flowed freely. Rows of colourfully lit arches created the most impressive and magical sight. Loud and bright carnival games and rides entertained the young. We walked around the crowds, eating tapas and drinking sherry along with the locals. I wished I had a beautiful flamenco dress to wear myself.
Then it started to rain so we called it a night. Thus ending another great Spanish experience we won’t soon forget.