Festival of Death
Spain's top bullfighters gather for Seville's April's Fair

The glories of Spain's festivals are well known to seasoned travelers. Seville's April's fair, held two weeks after Easter is widely regarded as one of the best. The fiesta features a variety of processions, horse parades, flamenco dancers and a huge amusement park.

But the Feria de Abril -- as the festival is known locally -- also hosts the country's top bullfighters. This year about four dozen gathered to test 120 bulls, in Seville's Plaza de Toros Real Maestranza, best described as the Radio City Music Hall of bullfighting.

Other rings such as one in Mexico City, hold more people, (55,000), or can earn a bullfighter more money (such as Madrid's Las Ventas). But only by performing well before Seville's demanding public, can a matador be considered to have brought the art of bullfighting to its highest level.

Most Canadians would be surprised to hear bullfighting -- an appalling cruel spectacle -- described as an art. But the shear skill, beauty and precision that a good matador brings to his work leave few better words to describe it.

In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway's 1936 treatise on bullfighting, the author explained his initial fascination with the spectacle, by saying any good writer would sooner or later have to deal with the subject of death, and if he is to write about it, he ought to have witnessed it. But -- with the end of World War One,-- the bullring was one of the few places where you could still witness death.

Hemingway's advice could be extended to all Canadians. Since we watch Hollywood's definition of death every night on television, in movies, and read about it in novels, comic books and newspapers, there is a good case to be made that we ought to witness it live,-- at least once -- to see what it really looks like.

The bullring remains a great place to start. Sure they only kill bulls, not humans. But bulls have four limbs, a head, heart, ribs, vertebrae and a brain that is just a tad brighter that in some of our dumber humans. So watching a bull being sliced up, gives a pretty good idea, of what it would be like to see a man killed.

In fact to see how much modern bullfighting was influenced by the killing of humans, the student of death need go no further than a dozen or so kilometers west of Seville to visit Italica, site of the ruins one of the largest amphitheaters in the Roman empire. There gladiators battled before 20,000 spectators in a coliseum, whose design and seating bears an uncanny resemblance to the Maestranza, built 1,500 years later.

Despite its English name, (they are called Corridas de Toros in Spanish or "running of the bulls") a bullfight isn't really a fair fight. During the matches this correspondent witnessed, matadors out-pointed bulls 24-0. So either the bulls are on a pretty bad losing streak, or the odds are stacked against them.

In fact the matador holds all the cards. While most have scrimmaged with hundreds of bulls, many starting from when they were children, the bull only fights once. If he were to fight again the bull would learn from his mistakes and seriously endanger the matador. Even in those rare instances where he survives the fight, the bull is almost always killed immediately after leaving the ring.

The bull does have a weight advantage over the matador, but the matador is protected by at least a half dozen assistants, who accompany him into the ring to distract the animal if he ever gets dangerous.

The contest is divided into three parts, called tercios. In the first, a mounted horseman (picador) gets the bull to charge him, and while he does, he stabs the bull in the back of the neck a couple of times with a huge spear. This weakens the bull for the following two acts.

In the second tercio, six two-and-a-half foot darts, called banderillos, are jabbed (placed, in bullfighter-speak) in the back of the bull's neck, to anger him so that he will charge with vigor when the matador waves his cape.

By the time the matador -- who combines the graceful appearance and dexterity of a ballerina, with the cruelty of a prison camp interrogator and the heart of a ruthless killer -- makes his appearance in the final tercio, the bull has been considerably weakened and is drenched in blood. His chest is heaving, and his huge neck muscles-- weakened by the spear and banderillos -- have forced his head to drop considerably.

The matador's work is to tire the bull by making him repeatedly charge a red cape in a series of passes, bringing the bull closer and closer to his body. It is this cape work, that is considered the high art of bullfighting, and is what the Seville fans have come to see. The closer the bull comes to his body, the greater the danger to the matador, and the more enthusiastically he is received by the crowd.

When the bull is exhausted, the matador gets his sword from an assistant and lines him up for the kill. If the sword penetrates deeply and the bull dies quickly, it is considered a good kill and the crowd rewards the matador with its approval.

Probably the most incredible thing about watching death is how blazé everyone is about it. After one or two events, the bull's suffering does not seem nearly as important as your desire to get something to drink, or to remedy the effects of the cement seats on your aching buttocks.

In days you are not watching the fights or visiting the ruins at Italica, you can round out your study of bullfighting, with visits to Alamillo Park, where students from the Maestranza's bullfighting school hold their practice sessions.

In addition, farms such as Dehasa la Calera, located in Gerena, 45 minutes from Seville offer tourist groups the opportunity to witness the Tentadero, in which female bulls are tested for their fighting potential. Although female bulls never enter the ring, if they test well, they will be chosen to mate with stud bulls to produce the next generation of fighting bulls.

If you are the type of person who likes his main vacation concern to be how to best elbow your way to the front of the buffet line on a cruise ship, -- then watching a bullfight may not be for you. But if you are interested in witnessing the true nature of man, and getting a glimpse of how he developed a mastery over all other species, than check out the bullfights at Seville's April's Fair.



Photo captions: The bullfighter lines up the bull for the kill (photo #1), which he accomplishes by plunging his sword into the back of the bull's neck (photo #2).

Photo captions: Seville's Plaza de Toros Real Maestranza de Toros (photo#3) is the Radio City Music Hall of bullfighting -- when matadors have performed well there, they have really arrived. The Maestranza bears a stunning resemblance to the Roman coliseum of Italica, (photo #4) -- where gladiators fought more than 1,500 years ago -- whose ruins are located just outside Seville.


Photo Credit: #1, #2, #3 Peter Diekmeyer, #4, Junta de Andalusia.


If you go:

Spain's three main bullfighting fairs: Seville's Feria de Abril, Madrid's Feria de San Isodoro which takes place in May and Pamplona's Feria de San Fermin (July), -- made popular in Hemingway's The Sun also Rises -- are immensely popular. Hotel and bullfight tickets are reserved months, and sometimes a year in advance.

There are more than 300 bull rings in Spain, many of which feature bullfights throughout the summer months, but schedules vary so call in advance. Be prepared to deal with scalpers and to pay several times face value for your tickets. By the way, it's considered bad manners to cheer for the bull.


E-mail can be sent to Diekmeyer at: peter@peterdiekmeyer.com




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