It is impossible to believe the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure, classic beauty that can be produced by a man, an animal, and a piece of scarlet serge draped over a stick.
Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
A traveler visits a foreign country to experience a different culture, to see exotic flora and fauna, and sample strange cuisine. And some of us travel to be challenged, to broaden our perspectives, and to see how the rest of the world lives. I can think of few experiences that can be more challenging to a vegetarian nature- lover than attending a corrida at the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas on an Easter Sunday afternoon in Madrid. Why did I attend such an event? I have had an obsession with bulls and matadors from an early age.
It all started with reading The Story Ferdinand written by Murio Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson. This 1936 classic is about a young bull that gets chosen for the bullfights in Madrid because of his supposed bravery and ferociousness, in reality he sat on a bumble bee. Ferdinand really just wants to sit under a cork oak and smell the flowers, instead of charging the matador. Once in the ring, he smells the flowers in all the ladies hair and he could care less with participating in the ancient and brutal art form. The Story of Ferdinand was banned in Spain for its overt pacifist message in a time of brutal world aggression. But as a child I loved the simple black line illustrations and the simple but powerful tale.
A corrida is a odd mix of the strange and familiar. The trumpet sounds and the paseo enters the ring led by the two Alguacils dressed in costumes of the reign of Philip II. The three matadors follow in their suits of light sparkling in the Madrid afternoon sun followed by their Cuadrilla. The Matadors doff their hats to the directors box, and spectacle is ready to begin.
The paseo at Las Ventas, Madrid, the most famous bullring in the world.
The bull that came out of the toril gate on that Easter afternoon was no Ferdinand. This bull was willing to charge the cape and could care less about the few flowers that adorned ladies hair.
The toro charged around the ring and the first matador came out holding his cape in both hands. The bull turned for a pass. The toro caught the matador with his horns and raised him into the air. He landed on his side and bull lowered his head and gored the matador. Toro: 1, Matador: 0. But in this traditional dance of death, the toro seldom wins. And this corrida was no different.
Many of the villages in the Spanish countryside have a Plaza de Toros such as the ring in Trujillo which was opened in 1848 and closed in 1998. This bullring now provides a habit for a nesting colony for the lesser kestrel. As this agile predator stilled above the red tiled roof of the ring, I reflected on this very different dance of death.
Corvidsketcher, sketching the Plaza de Toros La Piedad in Trijillo, with lesser kestrels flying above.