Bullfights and suckling pig in a wet Madrid


Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore/London

Gallery: Bull-Fighting - At the Bull Ring

Gallery: Bull-Fighting - A Cafe with a Theme

Gallery: Old & Alternative Madrid

Luis, the matador (bullfighter, as he is popularly known to the uninitiated), raises the sword, preparing to drive it into the bull’s shoulder blades.  He has to sever the bull’s aorta, if not drive another one to sever its spinal cord.  The clock is clicking away, 3 minutes have passed, another 7 minutes to go.  If he doesn’t make it, a warning would be given and the crowd can petition the judge to let the bull go if they sympathise with the bull.  However, this seldom happens.  Seldom does a bull emerge alive from a faena (session), which usually lasts 15 minutes.  The bullfight is often romantically as a battle to death in which either participant, man or bull, may die.  The fact is that, the bull has hardly any chances at all. 

 At this point, indeed, the three-year-old bull, which appears to be so violently fierce and energetic to a casual observer, is a seriously injured and deeply confused creature.  Its neck muscles and back were already broken from the start of the faena, when assistants of the matador – junior guys called picadors – rode in on horseback and speared its neck and back repeatedly, so as to prevent it from raising its head too high.  In fact, the very act of raising its head causes unbearable pain.  This was followed by five banderilleros, another group of sidekicks commanded by the matador, who waved pink flags to distract the bull, and stabbed it repeatedly with colourful daggers – perhaps they were trying to give it a disneyesque feel.  By now, the bull has at least four daggers stuck to its bloodstained back.  Occasionally, it mastered the strength to charge at its attackers, but they inevitably ran behind tough wooden barriers, leaving the bull goring helplessly at the barriers, while getting it exposed to further attacks by other banderilleros from behind.  I wonder if this is a fair battle.  Given the injuries, even if the matador does not perform the final act, death for the bull is only a matter of time. 

 By then, Luis, the star matador, whose fans rival that of superstars, has to perform more than a mere butcher’s job.  He’s an artist, or at least perceived as such, and he has to kill the bull in such grace and fashion that will please the crowds.  As Ernest Hemingway had said in “Death in the Afternoon”, the bull is not the place for skill without risk.  According to the New York Times 25th September 1932, Hemingway was once disgusted with a matador who kills by a trick stroke “bulls that he is supposed to expose his body to in killing with the sword.” If the finishing thrust is properly put in, the matador must always be in such a position that if a gust of wind comes at the wrong time or if the bull suddenly raises his head the man will be gored.

 The right moment came, and Luis drove the sword into the bull – it jerked and turned round, blood spurting from its broken artery.  The giant, or rather, what’s left of it after multiple mob stabbings, sank to the ground.  The crowd stood up, cheering their hero – the matador of course, waving fervently white handkerchiefs in the air.  The audience had petitioned for an award for the their hero, and the judge had to acknowledge by granting Luis the bull’s ear, a coveted prize for all matadors. Luis stepped forward, cut one of the bull’s ears, and held it high to present it to his admirers – no different from an Olympic champion honouring his fans shortly after receiving his trophy.  The crowd roared and clapped.  A group of workmen came forward with a pair of elegant horses, whose eyes were covered lest they saw the ghastly sight, attached the dead creature to the horses, and then had the horses dragged round the ring and finally out of the ring altogether.  The crowd clapped wildly.

<Click here for a gallery of bull fighting photos>


 I arrived in Madrid late on Friday night.  The Iberia flight was 45 minutes late and I took the taxi straight to Botin, a restaurant where I was supposed to meet B., my colleague in Madrid.  He had made a reservation at this famous restaurant, founded in 1625, and listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest.  Wooden-beamed dining rooms and cast-iron ovens.  Goya was supposed to have worked here and Hemingway loved the food.  The ambience was great and the roast suckling pig was heavenly.  After dinner, we went bar-hopping in Madrid.  The Madrid of today is a far cry from what it was 30 years ago during the strict Catholic days of Franco.  The Spain of today is liberal, hip and fun-loving – some of the public advertising posters would have raised the ire of public authorities in USA or the UK.  Madrid has become, in the words of tourism brochure, the party town of Europe.  Franco must be turning in his grave. 

 I woke up at 9:30am, considered late by my normal travel schedule, and wandered around the old town.  Bumped into a cool American scientist and we explored the Old Madrid together.  Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Plaza de la Villa – all old squares that reminded one of the old Moorish Spain, the Catholic Spain, the imperial Spain as well as the revolutionary Spain… We had wonderful Paella Valenciana and then proceeded to the Prado, a great treasure trove of European art across the ages.   Enough of art and then nice Café Americano at the ornate Puerta de Alcala, which was somehow covered with thousands of books wrapped in plastic bags in a crude attempt at modern art.  OK, maybe I just simply do not understand art.

 As the skies started drizzling with gentle summer rains, we had a plate of wonderful calamari at a tapas bar (NOT topless bar), and then rushed to the Plaza de Toros (i.e., bull ring) for the grand finale of the San Isidro bullfight season.  It’s my first and perhaps last time at a bull-fight (OK – don’t hold me to it, I’m known to be promiscuous in the way I change my travel plans or habits).  I am not a fan of bull-fighting.  Personally I think it’s cruel and too much of a bloodbath for me.  However, as a connoisseur of shark fins, bird nests and other fine Chinese delicacies that turn most species endangered, I have no moral authority to preach against bullfighting.  In fact, I think any meat eater has no right whatsoever to rile against it.  To the Spanish people, bull-fighting is too much a national symbol to give up.  It seems that most of the opponents are Anglo-Saxons, who, as a Spanish friend puts it, all seem to be members of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  What is perhaps a manifestation of cultural double standards is that the Anglo-Saxons are also great practitioners of industrial animal farming, the abuse of which have probably led to foot and mouth, and the infamous mad cow diseases.  Which is more cruel ?  I suppose there is no answer.  The world gets a lot more complicated when one attempts to analyse matters from different cultural and political perspectives, rather than simply in pure black-and-white basis.

 Sunday was a slow day for me in Madrid.  Another late night the previous day meant another slow get-up.  I strolled along the streets of old Madrid, have breakfast at a nice café, followed by a visit to the Royal Palace.  Amazing exuberance and glories of Spain… perhaps built from the blood and souls of the people of the Americas.  No wonder after the empire collapsed, the mother country struggled from one civil war to another in the 19th and 20th centuries.   Nearby was Plaza de Espana, with the statues of Cervantes, Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza.  I stood there, contemplating the reflection of the statues onto the calm algae-filled waters, and wondered about the state of the New World Order a la George W. Bush.  Nearby, crowds were demonstrating against the new master of the Universe who would be visiting the following day.  The Texan had come to power with less than half the votes, bombed the Iraqis almost immediately, offended the S. Korean allies, declared the Chinese enemies, and pissed off everybody else by tearing environmental treaties apart.  I’m not sure who’s Don Quixote and who’s his invisible enemies, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is more trouble to come.

 OK, enough said.  Madrid is great, and in September I will be back to the wonderland that is Spain.  In the mean time, take care and hear from me again in 2 weeks’ time, from the Channel Islands.



Caveat :

Click here to send your comments to Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore

Click here to visit the author's homepage, Nomadic Tales