The banderillero swaggered across the dry yellow sand, knelt in front of the bullgate, crossed himself – slowly, carefully – and spread out his pink cape. He was perhaps my age, probably younger. From our cheap seat, near the top of the Plaza de Toros, Claire and I could not see or hear the gate open. We saw only a blur of brown muscle, the flash of a cape, their meeting, melting, and then the banderillero rolling to the side, away.
The bull paused, sniffing. It was the second of six: blood had already been spilt in the ring. Its head oscillated, eyes acknowledging the crowd and, perhaps, its circumstances at the centre of a confusing spectacle. Again it charged.
The youngster played with the fresh bull. He treated it with mock disdain while approaching and then, when it leapt, with an urgent respect. Each strut was deliberate, proof that he had the skill, and the balls, to be a matador.
Two other banderilleros, both older, joined him. They danced between the bull and their barricades, tiring it. Trumpets sounded. The picadors entered, sitting arrogantly astride armoured and blindfolded horses. Monosabios, the grooms, trotted alongside, wearing blue overalls, carrying sharpened sticks, looking proud and silly. The picadors kept close to the edge of the ring, near its walls, where they could not be toppled.
The bull struck hard against one of the impassive animals, twisted its horns amongst the armour. It drove the horse into the wall.
The picador drew back his short spear and thrust it into the knot of muscle on the bull’s neck. It did not flinch. He turned the spear slowly, one way, then the next. The bull pushed harder, horns writhing. Blood had begun to pour down its flanks, soaking the
animal’s dark coat. It dripped down and sank into the sand below.
Trumpets sounded, the picadors retreated. The banderilleros appeared again. Two carried their capes, the other carried only two banderillos: harpoons mounted on a short stick, colourful, confetti like flags dangling from them.
The bull was kept distracted, attacking air and the walls, by the constant wave of a cape. The harpoon carrying banderillero waited, his back gradually stiffening. Erect, he ran at the bull. It saw him, pawed the earth, and charged.
Almost between the horns – banderillos raised above his head, ready – the banderillero jumped with both feet to the side. He pushed the harpoons firmly into the bull’s back as it passed.
One by one, the banderilleros harpooned the bull. It now had six banderillos dangling brightly from its sides, moving as it moved. These small flag bearing sticks gave this third of the fight, now over, its name.
The matador entered, threw his hat down in the centre of the ring (he hoped to collect it later), and the third and final stage of the fight began: the tercio de muerte, or death third.
The bull was by now breathing heavily. Its charges were frantic, but shorter, in a close circle around the matador. He danced aglitter through its lunges, a blur of pink and yellow sequins reflecting the flash of a stiff crimson cape.
The heat of a sultry day faded and floodlights came on. This was the last dance: the matador had 15 minutes to kill the bull or it would be returned to its pen.
The brush of bodies continued. The matador was suddenly knocked to the floor. He rolled desperately between the bull’s horns and hooves and the banderilleros returned, urgently trying to distract the bull. It reluctantly moved away from the helpless target and stood frustrated, dazzled by the return of three forgotten capes.
The matador stood. He had lost one of his shoes. It was small and dainty, for dancing. Furiously, he cast away the other and ordered the banderilleros off the ring. He stomped petulantly towards his opponent, in pink stockings, and continued the fight.
There was no extravagance now. He made a series of quick passes, readied his sword and launched himself at the animal, which was standing still now, resigned and exhausted. The sword pierced the bull’s back. It was aimed down, towards the heart and lungs, but stopped halfway to the hilt.
The crowd started to twitter. The kill was not clean. The matador would now have to use a shorter weapon, to sever the bull’s spinal chord. And he must do so quickly, staying clear of the animal’s still upturned horns.
He made an ugly and bloody mess of this too. After two failed attempts the crowd started to boo. After the third failure an Italian sitting near me ejected a long and loud stream of insults. The bull died after the fourth attempt, at last collapsing under its enormous weight, blood streaming from its numerous wounds. The matador slunk from the ring.
The crowd now turned, shouting illegibly, to focus their attention on the Italian. He haggled for a while, waving his arms about in consternation, but was eventually removed by a disapproving security guard.
I had watched the ugly conclusion of a bullfight on a hostel television while in Madrid. The parade of gore and machismo were offputting and the inevitable conclusion – the bull always dies – made the sport seem meaningless. I was still dimly attracted by Hemingway’s fervent descriptions in “Fiesta”, but decided that the expensive pleasure of attending a bullfight was probably not for me.
In Seville, Claire and I decided that a tour of the city’s bullring, one of the world’s oldest, would be a reasonable substitute. A miniscule woman, with an only slightly larger voice, led us quickly past the deathly still, carefully swept sand at the centre of the Plaza de Toros and into the stadium’s bowels. She commented on the bull pen, two stables and a terrifyingly well equipped infirmary as we passed, first in Spanish and then in faintly accented English. The Spaniards in our party lost patience and started chatting soon after the English commentary had begun, forcing us to huddle ever closer to the petite woman.
The tour ended at a small museum. Its most prized possession, a portrait of a matador who died in the ring, by Velázquez, was in a dark corner. Velázquez painted on a dark canvas, from which it is difficult to distinguish anything of the black bull but its horns. The shadow slowly envelops the matador. He looks out with a pale face, full of horror.
The heads of a few bulls had been stuffed and mounted on the walls. These were apparently brave bulls, who deserved remembrance. The head of a cow had, oddly I thought, also been placed on the wall. I asked, and was told that she had been slaughtered and stuffed for mothering a killer bull.
Claire and I emerged more curious. A poster on the wall outside – black and white, silhouettes, a matador facing a bull – advertised a corrida happening the following evening. We weighed our reluctance, and bought tickets.
The description at the top of this post describes the fate of one of the six bulls we saw fall at the corrida. Anibal Ruiz, the matador who battled so much with his first opponent, received a standing ovation, the wave of white handkerchiefs, a number of hats (all thrown back to their owners) and a bottle of wine for handling his second bull far better. I do not know how many trophies – the animal’s ears, awarded individually, and its tail – he received, if any.
Seville, although perhaps best known for producing the bitter oranges used to make marmalade, is the capital of Andalusia, the province responsible for many ordinary conceptions of Spain. Moorish palaces, bullfights, paella, gypsies and flamenco are most at home in this large chunk of south west Iberia, where Europe briefly skirts Africa.
I knew little about the region until Claire handed me a book at Christmas, titled “Andalus”. The author, Jason Webster – who thinks the Spanish too easily locate their origins in the proto-Christian settlements of Rome – set out on an often erratic attempt to uncover what remains of the country’s Moorish past.
The Moors held Andalusia long after the rest of the country had been surrendered to the new Kings and Queens of the Christian Reconquista. Granada, the last city to fall, was only surrendered in 1492, more than 700 years after the start of the campaign.
Little remains but the palaces, now tourist overrun museums. We visited the Alcázar in Seville, and in Granada, our only other stop in Andalusia, the Alhambra.
The Alcázar, considered the Alhambra’s poor relative, was begun in 913. It is a wonder of intricate shapes. Every arch, tile and rafter was carefully crafted to echo the whole. Islamic art, because the religion prohibits representations of the human form, pays greater attention to detail. This combines with a refined sense of geometry: the Moors had absorbed and advanced the teachings of Ancient Greece and Rome when Europeans were still fumbling their way through the dark ages.
Our guidebook suggested buying tickets for the Alhambra in advance, due to increasing demand. It did not, unfortunately, mention how far in advance. We tried hopelessly to get tickets a few days before arriving, using both the phone number (0034 915 379 178 outside Spain, 902 224 360 within) and the website, www.alhambratickets.com. The earliest tickets were available for a week later.
Instead, we wound our way uphill to the Alhambra at sunrise, trying to beat the large queue every local promised would develop. A few people were also making their way up to the palace through the dawn. We strode ahead, mentally edging our way to the front, and arrived at the gates an hour before they opened.
People were huddling drowsily in sleeping bags near the entrance. Others, just behind, jumped up and down, rubbing their hands, to fend off the cold air blowing down from the Sierra Nevada. A few clutched coffees, obtained from an already busy café nearby. Claire and I filed past them and then, regretfully, past a snaking queue without any visible end. Once at the back, beyond view of the palace, we watched the arrival of other bemused tourists. The Alhambra was obviously the rock god of palaces.
Three hours later, some progress had been made. We now hovered at what would have been the queues halfway point. The occasional crackle of a loudspeaker announced how many tickets remained, for both the morning and afternoon sessions. There was no hope of making it in that morning, but we hoped to enter that afternoon and have enough time to explore before our long train journey to Geneva.
An hour on, a young woman – fluent in French, English and Spanish, according to the flags pinned to her lapel – moved slowly through the queue. She reached us, smiled cordially, and explained that we would probably not make it into the palace that day. We stood there for a few minutes, disbelieving, but eventually admitted defeat and skulked reluctantly into town.
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