Whether you love or despise bullfighting, the corrida is impossible to ignore. In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The bullfight is not a sport in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word; that is, it is not an equal contest or an attempt at an equal contest between a bull and a man. Rather it is a tragedy: the death of the bull, which is played, more or less well, by the bull and the man involved and in which there is danger for the man but certain death for the bull.”

We’re more conflicted about bullfights than Papa was. In Spain, lithe matadors have all the celebrity of rock stars—and we love a good spectacle. But as animal lovers, we’ve never attended a bullfight in person because we know that no matter how skillful and graceful the matador, we couldn’t stomach the baiting, wounding, and eventual killing of the bull. And, yes, we know that the animal is respected in death, and that some of its meat is even distributed to the poor.

Many Spaniards, including the queen, dislike (or simply have no interest in) the sport, and the autonomous region of Catalunya has banned it altogether. But the corrida persists as an element of Spanish identity. If you’d like to grapple with your own feelings about this confluence of culture and cruelty, the corrida season lasts from early spring to around mid-October. Fights are held in a plaza de toros (bullring), including the oldest ring in remote Ronda and one of the most beautiful in Sevilla. Madrid’s Las Ventas is arguably the most important in Spain. The best bullfighters face the best bulls here—and the fans who pack the stands are among the sport’s most passionate and knowledgeable.

The corrida begins with a parade featuring all the bullfighters clad in their trajes de luces (suits of lights). The fight itself is divided in thirds (tercios). In the tercio de capa (cape), the matador tests the bull with passes and gets acquainted with the animal. The second portion, the tercio de varas (sticks), begins with the lance-carrying picadores on horseback, who weaken the bull by jabbing him in the shoulder area. The picadores are followed by the banderilleros, whose job it is to puncture the bull with pairs of boldly colored darts.

In the final tercio de muleta, the action narrows down to one lone fighter and the bull. Gone are the fancy capes. Instead, using a small red cloth (muleta) as a lure, the matador wraps the bull around himself in various passes. After a number of passes, the time comes for the kill, the moment of truth.

The bullfighter’s greatest honor is to be awarded two orejas, or ears. The matador can claim the first by killing the bull with one thrust. The second is awarded by the crowd, with the consent of bullfight officials, for style and showmanship. In Madrid, those so honored are carried through the Grand Portal of Las Ventas by jubilant fans. “It opens the doors of all the bullrings in the world,” a guide told us on our last tour of the bullring. A top bullfighter can earn 5–6 [euro] million a year. “It’s like winning an Oscar in Hollywood—only much more dangerous.”

A good alternative to attending a bullfight is to watch one in a neighborhood bar. We were once drinking happily in a small-town bar when the broadcast of a bullfight began on TV. Surrounded by intense fans, we found it impossible not to watch, and the whole event played out on the small screen and was simultaneously moving and unsettling. Then again, the best travel experiences make you think—and sometimes make you uncomfortable.

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