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Yesterday we toured the bullfighting ring and went to its museum.

It's a beautiful building, here's a closeup of the main entrance:

Apparently someone once said that you can’t understand the Spanish people unless you understand bullfighting. Since I don’t understand bullfighting, I guess I’ll never know the Spanish people.

Not that the museum really helped me to understand bullfighting. I couldn’t help contrast this museum with the museum at Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is held. Of course, you get what you pay for – this museum was free.

When you walk into the Kentucky Derby Museum, the first thing you see is a huge video screen that shows very dramatic footage of the opening of the race. Horses that are larger than life size burst from the gates and run right at you. It really gives you a sense of the power and intensity of the horses and racing.

That museum has a video section, where you can watch (I think) every race – or at least the most famous ones. There was a lot about the history of the Kentucky Derby, famous horses, famous jockeys, what the race means to the people of Louisville, etc. And at the end, an extensive gift shop.

The bullfighting museum is totally different. There are paintings and busts of famous bullfighters, with plaques telling when they fought, what they were famous for, and how they died. There are displays of their capes, mantles, swords, pants, shoes – extensively decorated and very colorful (they weren’t afraid to wear purple, pink, light blue. One little girl, when she saw this bright pink cape, exclaimed, “Is this the princess bullfighter?”) There are mounted heads of some of the bulls who had killed bullfighters. There are paintings of bullfighting scenes. And finally, at the very very end, there is a short video, very impressionistic in style, which shows very short snippets of a bullfight. That video – for someone like me – was probably the most valuable part of the experience – but it was very short and could have been so much better. The museum was designed for fans, who already know something of the history of the sport, and not for novices. And it was very static – no interactivity.

And no gift shop.

The most interesting part of the tour was our tour guide. She was this petite, blonde British woman who spoke with passion and enthusiasm, and had an encyclopedic knowledge about bull fighting. I finally asked her if she could talk about herself, about what got her into bullfighting.

She said that her family used to come to Spain for holiday, and one year when she was 12 they decided to do something cultural instead of sitting on the beach, and went to a bullfight in Madrid. She still remembers where she was sitting. She has been fascinated with bullfighting every since. She majored in Spanish in university and wrote every paper on bullfighting. She came to Spain, worked in PR for bullfighters and for bullfighting magazines and websites, and recently got this job.

Rich and I were the only two people on the English-speaking tour, so I got to ask a lot of questions. She described bullfighting to us in detail, and tried to explain why the Spanish love it. Her enthusiasm certainly helped me appreciate the sport and the art.

And I do now understand better how this is both a sport and an art. Especially from watching the few seconds of the video that showed an actual bullfight. I understand that it is truly amazing that a man using a cape can direct a bull, who is determined to kill him, to move around him, just inches away from his body. There clearly is artistry, skill and bravery involved (and stupidity, one might argue). There are a variety of different cape moves, all with names, many created by famous toreadors.

A brief synopsis of what happens: After some ceremony and pageantry, the bulls enter the ring and run around, as the matadors observe them for the first time from behind a wall, trying to figure out the personality and quirks of each bull. Here's Rich behind the wall:

And a closeup of the damage done to the wall by the bull's horns:

First men on horses (picadors) and men on foot (banderilleros) thrust lances and pointed sticks into the bulls’ backs, which slow them down and make them less lethal. (At least they pad the horse now. According to Wikipedia, before the padding more horses than bulls died during matches.) Then the matadors enter. For 20 minutes or so they make the bulls do what they want, using cape maneuvers that they consider a fine art (the bull is color blind, so the red color of the cape is insignificant). Finally, they kill the bull.

The crowd then reacts, and judges the matador. It’s like American Idol. If enough people wave white handkerchiefs expressing their admiration, then the administration considers awarding the matador a very special prize – and allow him to cut off the bull’s ears. This high honor happens infrequently. There are two plaques at the stadium entrance with the names of matadors who have done this – there are definitely fewer than 100 – maybe 60?

According to our tour guide, the crowd respects and honors the bull as much as his vanquisher. And that it’s important to understand this respect to appreciate bullfighting and its importance to Spain.

This is where I fail to understand and appreciate bullfighting. Because I don’t understand why it is necessary to maim and kill the bull.

If the point of the match is to display a bullfighter’s ability to “tame” a bull, respecting its power and ferocity, then I can appreciate the beauty of watching 20 minutes of that spectacle. I can understand the excitement of always wondering if the bull will be intelligent enough to win, and then watch it go for the kill.

Our tour guide told us that the bull reacts to movement. If the cape moves, that’s what it goes after. But every now and then there is a bull who is really smart, who is able to perceive both the man and the cape and realize that the man is really what it wants to attack. She said that one of the recent really bad bullfighting incidents, the matador said he could see in the bull’s eyes that the bull could tell the difference between man and cape, and he knew at that moment that he was a goner.

She also told us that Spain’s most popular bullfighter takes enormous risks, and one of the reasons people like seeing him is because they assume that one day, he’ll die in the ring, and they want to be there to experience that. The best matadors are like our best athletes, their equivalent of Michael Jordan and Mickey Mantle.

What I don’t understand is, why after 20 minutes of this show, of making the bull run around the ring in sweeps and circles and seeing it just miss a still bullfighter who is flourishing his cape – why not stop there? Why not corral the bull and let it go home, live to fight another day – and another and another? If they truly respected those animals, wouldn’t they want to preserve them and respect them the way we do race horses, who race many times in their lifetime? It seems like a contradiction to me, to argue that the bull is considered a respected adversary, yet the goal of this event is to kill the bull painfully.

I’m glad I took the tour. The bullfight ring was much smaller than I thought – it only seats 24,000; it is an intimate experience, and I gather that in good matches there is an emotional connection made between audience and matadors.

Here's the inside:

There are doctors on call during every match, which has helped prevent deaths of matadors (the last death was in 1985). Somewhat amusing – there is a statue out front, of a matador thanking a bust of Dr. Alexander Fleming, the creator of penicillin, because that drug has saved so many matadors’ lives.

But I’m also very glad that we’re not here during bullfighting season.

And here I am, being a little silly:

And for Club Jaders, we took this picture:

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March 2012

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