As with the Torre de Oro, we went on the bull ring tour with our eyes wide open, rather than romanticized by notions such as those set out in the famous opera Carmen.
We had attended a bullfight in Mazatlan, Mexico on Christmas Day, 1983. Frankly, Dec. 25 is such a high holy day in Mexico there wasn’t much else going on.
So, like so many locals, we bought tickets for an afternoon of five “exhibitions” (a euphemism if ever there was one).
The only truly entertaining part was the display of the crowds’ affection for the Matador, billed as El Pana. Rather than tossing roses into the ring per tradition, following the kill the fans showered El Pana with buns and baguettes. (We learned later that before he entered the ring he had worked as a baker. )
Even after that amusing interlude we couldn’t stomach the second bull fight - of the horseback sort- for long.
I was therefore pleased to learn we could experience Seville’s the historic Maestranza bullring without having to take in a performance.
The tour was excellent, as the audio guide explained not only what was before our eyes it included long-ago quotes from matadors, kings and literary giants to provide contemporary visitors with an appropriate historical context.
A key lesson was that bullfighting originated among the King’s knights. It started off as a means to develop and hone their horsemanship skills for battle.
As members of the public took an interest in the training sessions the soldiers, already inclined to compete among themselves, started really showing off. Practice days evolved into festivals, and it was only later that some fool started taunting the bulls on foot.
In 1761 construction of the magnificent Maestranza - also known as the Cathedral of Bullfighting - began, replacing a much older wooden bullring. It took 120 years and several architects to complete the 12,000=seat venue we were touring now, 375 years layer.
First, we entered a small museum. It featured 18th, 19th and 20th century paintings, sculptures and, in particular, a series of 12 etchings by Francisco de Goya. Most of the sculptures were of painted wood, which while not unique to Spain was certainly mastered there. Why so many of the displayed pieces are severed heads I have been unable to determine. Matadors who died in the ring, perhaps?
The best part, in my opinion, were the cases of jackets, trousers and capes belonging to famous bullfighters, a uniform otherwise known as a matador’s Suit of Lights. The cost of these exquisite garments - currently €1,800 to €4,000 for the suit and as much as €5,800 for a hat and cape - is so prohibitive that matadors, called toreros in Spain, usually start out by renting or buying second-hand attire.
After the museum we spent some time in the Teams Yard, where a matador and his supporting men and horses prepare for their event.
The final room before the ring itself is a small and somber chapel offering a matador peaceful to calm his nerves, take a final sip of water and puts his fate in the hands of God. Should words fail, there are even prayer/poems on the wall for reference.
In any case, the Maestranza also includes an infirmary because about one-fifth of the time the matador comes out of the ring needing emergency treatment. Which is more than one can say for the bull.
Coincidently, on the TV that night there was a first episode of a Spanish show called Wild Frank - Toros. It appears to be a Boudoin-esque Rick Steves-y kind of program.
Frank started off by interviewing bull-fight protesters outside the Madrid ring. Then he followed the lifecycle of one of the animals they were trying to protect.
Thus, the greater part of the TV show was spent with a farmer/breeder raising the majestic Spanish fighting bulls. It’s a nice life for a bull; five years of free-range accommodations, good food and top-notch healthcare. In contrast, beef cattle are slaughtered at 18 months old. At five, the bull enters the ring never having seen a man with a cape before. This is the root of the battle-the great beasts’ unpredictability.
Next was a play-play of the bullfight, after which Frank followed the deceased beast from the ring to the processing plant. Where it was skinned, butchered and vacuum packed.
My takeaway from this experience? In the end we’re all just flesh and bones, man & beast alike. It really is how we live that matters.