Location: Salamanca, Central Spain
‘ Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the
degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor ‘
Hemmingway – ‘Death in the afternoon’
In the autonomy of Castilla y León, close to Salamanca, a black beast stands on a hillock on a thick, golden carpet of grain. The beast is 15 feet high and weighs 50 tonnes; it stands motionless – watching. It sees the cities of Madrid and Salamanca and the towns and villages between, the black tarmacadem scar slicing through the golden grain, the River Tormes as it flows under the ancient Roman bridge at Salamanca and the roughly hewn stone statue of an ancestor guarding the bridge.
The beast is one of ‘Los toros de Osborne’ (The Osborne bulls). One of ninety-three billboards in the shape of a bull that evolved from an advertisement for sherry into a national heritage and the ancient stone statue is a sculpted bull as old as the bridge it guards.
The bull (el toro) and the spectacle of bullfighting are an integral part of Spanish culture. Since the first historic bullfight (la corrida) in 1133, bullfighting has inspired some of the Worlds greatest artists (Dalí, Picasso, Goya) and writers (Lorca, Hemmingway). It has also provoked much controversy. In fact it was banned by Papal decree during the reign of King Philip II. However, the decree had to be recanted in later years. As Fray Luis de León, an advisor to the recanting Pope, Pope Gregory VIII, said ‘ the bullfights are in the blood of the Spanish people, and they cannot be stopped without facing grave consequences’.
Ciudad Rodrigo is a quiet town lying 30 km from the Portuguese frontier. Like every small town not much happens, but once a year in February the town awakens. Its population swells ten-fold and madness spreads like a virus among the people.
El carnaval – one of the earliest events in the bullfighting calender is celebrated here.
During el carnaval the beautiful Roman cathedral, normally a tourist attraction, lies forgotten. The grand attraction on this day stands newly erected in the plaza mayor – a huge wooden ring structure – la plaza de toro – the bullring. By early afternoon la plaza de toro is bulging with people. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, with an edge of anticipation.
In 2003 I took a years sabbatical and went to live and study in Salamanca. In February, I went to see el carnaval in Ciudad Rodrigo. I watched bullrunning in the morning and a bullfight in the afternoon – three matadors, six bulls.
The first bull charges. I feel nauseous and am unable to watch. I wonder what I am doing here. Time drags. An age later I see the dead bull dragged from the ring to the applause of the crowd.
The second matador strides in, the crowd give him a warm welcome – he is a local boy. He salutes the crowd and the president, then he struts arrogantly to the centre of the ring and throws his montera (hat) over his shoulder for luck, it lands upside down – a sign of bad luck. He shrugs nochantly and taking his capote (magenta and yellow cape) struts towards the edge of the ring. A few metres from the gate he kneels. The crowd is silent; the gate is thrown open, the thud of hooves resonates around the ring. I close my eyes.
The evening sun is dying. It is the fifth bull, and the matador is the local boy again. He has performed well. Three banderillas have pierced the bull’s flanks; the blood from the wounds has already dried. The bull’s sides are heaving, he is tiring. The matador exchanges his capote for the red cape (muleta). In the next ten minutes he will kill the bull. The bull charges. Gracefully almost like a dancer the matador arches his body. He reaches out and touches the bull, an intimate gesture. For a moment man and beast are one. But this is a dance of death. The bull turns quickly. The matador is off-balance and one of the horns gores him, he is knocked to the ground. He scrambles to his feet . The bull charges again. The matador makes no mistakes this time and moves fluidly out of the way. ‘Olé !’.
He takes the sword from a helper. This is the brutal end of the dance. He stands, poised, his arm outstretched. Suddenly he runs towards the bull, the bull charges. The dance has reached its conclusion. The bull is dead. The crowd are on their feet applauding. I am too. I feel exhilarated. I enjoyed it. I also feel shame.
Sara Woods studies at don Quijote in Salamanca. For more information about don Quijote, visitDon Quijote
Text © Sara Woods, all rights reserved
Read Sara’s Spanish diary Part 1
Read Sara’s Spanish diary Part 2
Read Sara’s Spanish diary Part 3
Read Sara’s Spanish diary Part 4