Yesterday I experienced the death of six staggeringly powerful bulls, slaughtered in the beautiful ‘plaza de toros’ in Ronda.
I had been invited to the ‘Rejones’; bullfighting with fighters on horseback. The experience was overwhelming in some ways – I’m not wanting to be too dramatic, but it was an extraordinary and shocking experience.
It may sound terrible to some, but much of it I found truly appealing; the majesty and beauty of Ronda’s ancient bull ring; the spectacle of the ‘Damas Goyesca’ in the Royal Box, dressed with their iconic lace head shawls; the orchestra playing beautiful ‘pasodobles’; the exceptional horsemanship of the fighters (the ‘rejoneadores’) who skilfully controlled their brave horses and fought the bulls; the elegance and prowess of the thoroughbred horses; and the animation and passion of the crowd.
Yet, of course the spectacle is about the death of the bull, a huge powerful animal weighting more than 7 men that is tortured and killed for sport, art, entertainment. During the rejones’ there were two fighters, each facing three fights. It was intense and tragic; seeing a determined, powerful animal slain with harpoons, darts and swords.
At first, when the bull enters the ring, it is tested for ferocity by men with capes, ‘banderilleros’ who run up to the bull, provoke it and then run back to behind wooded screens. This allows the fighter to assess it’s manner and movements. We were sitting on the wall that is just behind the barrier. At this close range the true power of the bulls is evident as they charge and butt the screens. One even managed to mount the barrier, getting inside the walkway behind the wall of the arena, causing photographers, staff and spectators to run for their lives!
Yet despite the action, and the artistic presentation, there is no getting away from the fact that however creative and amazing the spectacle is, blood spills down the flanks of the dying bulls and the deep yellow sand of the arena is stained red. I don’t want to get into the complex debate on bullfighting, but I did want to write a few travel notes on this experience as bullfighting is so much part of the Spanish and Andalusian culture.
Ronda is undoubtedly one of the most quintessentially Andalusian towns, and attracts visitors from across the world. Yet there is more to Ronda’s charming cobbled streets, and burgeoning food and wine scene.
Horse and Carriage Shows
The town has a profound horse culture that encompasses horse and carriages shows and bullfighting on horseback. Ronda’s spectacular annual feria, the Feria de Pedro Romero is one of the best times of the year to really get a flavour of the history of Andalusia’s and Ronda’s equine culture. The last day of the feria, Sunday (yesterday) sees an extraordinary extravaganza of finery, sportsmanship and horsemanship. In the morning the ‘Real Club de Enganches de Andalucía’ and the ‘Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda’ Royal clubs have a competition for the finest horse and carriage – the ‘Concurso Exhibicion de Enganches de Ronda’. The participants pass through town to Ronda’s historic bull ring to perform circuits, showcasing their immaculate carriages and beautiful animals against the rich yellow sand of the arena. The iconic ‘Damas Goyesca’ of the Ronda feria are often passengers, whilst the drivers are also in period costume.
The competition includes all classes of carriage from the simple single horse ‘limonera’ carriage to the ‘Gran potencia’ six horse teams. The quality is exceptional and illustrated the profound part horses play in Andalusian culture. The Rondeños are proud of most of their history and their feria is their moment to celebrate it and share it with the world.
In the afternoon, the civilised show of horses and carriages gives way to something far more dramatic and passionate; the ‘rejones’ – the bullfighting on horseback. The killing of bulls is alien to me. BUt I was invited to attend and I wanted to try and understand to some degree the appeal of bullfighting – and the idea of the toreros being on horseback seemed extraordinary.
Ronda is famous in Spanish bullfighting history for a number of reasons. Firstly, the town’s ‘plaza de toros’ the ‘Real Maestranza’ is said to be the oldest in Spain. In addition, Pedro Romero an 18th Century Ronda bullfighter is credited with creating the present day style of bull fighting. He adopted many of the poetic and cultural aspects of the noble style of fighting on horseback with the more modest style on foot. Before, fighting as man against animal was little more than a grotesque battle. Yet Pedro Romero supposedly was the father of the more artistic style, where the fighters on foot that we are now familiar with, follow artistic ad creative rituals, using an established vocabulary of movement and style.
I am sure that many people, like the bulls, fail to see the significance though.
However in Spain, bullfighting is embedded in the psyche of many of the people; it is something truly cultural. It is reported in the culture sections of the newspapers, and is seen as part of the artistic fabric of the nation. Clearly attitudes towards animal welfare and notions of animal cruelty are changing, but in my experience in Andalucía there is still an immense appetite for bullfighting. The toreros (in Spain they rarely use the word ‘matador’ as we do in English, which simply means ‘killer’ and instead adopt a more elevated name) are dressed in elaborate suits, called ‘trajes de luces’ or suits of lights, embroidered in gold or silver – beautiful tight fitting costumes that are like fabric armour.
The bullfights or ‘corridas de toros (running of bulls) follow a ritualised structure. The rejones which I witnessed followed the same three distinct stages or ‘tercios’, each introduced by a trumpet, where the fighter changed horses each time depending of the speed and style of the fight.
Firstly the fighter thrusted two lances into the bull’s back, the first time this releases a flag on the lance that depicts the horse breeder.
The second stage is where the fighter thrusted six decorated, harpooned shaped ‘banderillas’ into the bulls back.
The final stage is when the bull was killed with a sword. The death is not instant, but seems to take a minute or so. The bull falls and is finished off with a small sword into the neck.
During the different stages the fighter demonstrated a number of skills and tricks with the movement of the horse – the most popular torero was a great showman and entertainer.
Once the bull was killed, the crowd erupted with cries as they waved white handkerchiefs, encouraging the President to recognise the torero for his performace.
Tradition dictates that for a ‘good’ performance and kill he gets one ear of the bull, a very skilled performace gets two ears, and an exceptional performance and clean kill is recognised with both ears and the bulls tail.
During one of the performances, the torero threw an ear into the crowd, much to everyone’s excitement – but blood was splashed on our faces and shirts! Can you imagine that in any other event? I couldn’t help think how the Roman culture of fighting practiced in Spain for centuries, must have had some impact on present day culture!
The whole experience was pretty intense and brutal – despite the bravery of the beautiful horses, the power of the bull and the skill of the fighter.
I just can’t help but wish there was a way to retain the drama, bravery, action and skill of the rejones without the brutal slaughtering of the bull.