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Bullfights at Nimes – blood, death and glory in the arena

Juan Jose Padilla faces off with 530 kg of Spanish fighting bull

On a warm bright day in May I’m sitting high in the stands of an ancient Roman arena watching a man –  the one-eyed matadore de toro Juan Jose Padilla weighing in at 80 kilograms dripping wet – kneel before and eyeball 530 kilograms of wild Spanish fighting bull that stands before him bloodied and weakened but no less dangerous for that.

A death-stare to die for.

Thirteen thousand people hold their breath.

With a snap of horn and head, a golden blur and flash of Juan Jose’s capeto the tercio de muerte ”the third of death” resumes.

Fifteen minutes earlier the bull had rushed into the Arena de Nimes – on the last day but one of a week of bullfighting that is a large part of the Feria De Nimes in this southern French city. He came in all wild-eyed furious and full of the running, aggression, rat-cunning and stamina that Spanish fighting bulls are bred for.

In another 15 minutes or so he will be dead – struck through the heart with the estoque, the long thin sword that once plunged between the bull’s shoulders will sever the aorta and render a quick death.

Bull-fighting is a horrible and bloody show that almost always results in the death of a huge and beautifully dumb animal in terrible circumstances – but all that is countered – to some degree at least – by the elegance, artistry, skill and sheer crazy-bravery of the performers and long tradition of the highly ritualised corrida.

Arenes de Nimes

On this Saturday I saw two corrida de toros, literally the “running of the bulls”, at Nimes.

The first was a traditional format of three matadores, each facing two bulls.The latter was an evening with a single matadore and six bulls. But he and they deserve a post of their own so more later on Javier Castano’s efforts.

Just being in the arena at Nimes is worth the price of entry. You wander through the dark corridors that ring the arena at ground level then climb stone steps high into the light. The arena opens out before you and you cannot avoid the two thousand years of  history you share with the millions that have gathered here since the arena was built by the Romans in about 70 AD.

The crowd settles into their seats of stone and steel as the arena rings to the sounds of the brass band tuning up and the cries “Chapeau! Chapeau!” of men wandering through the crowd with hats and snacks stacked high. The band belts out a few tunes and all of a moment a thousand and more in the cheap seats on high clamber down into the better seats below and we settle for the coming performances.

What is remarkable – for someone used to the highly controlled nature of sporting fixtures in Australia, all PA’s blaring martial music, calls of the play and advertisements – is the total lack of technology at the corrida.

There is no public address system, no advertising banners, no master of ceremonies. Stages in the corrida are signalled by the Presidente’s waved handkerchief, a musical riff, a pause by the matadore or just the popular acclaim by the crowd. The acoustics here are perfect – when all are silent you feel you can hear a pin – or banderillo – drop – but when we are in full voice our voices rise as one high and loud to the pure blue sky above.

The Presidente waves a white handkerchief, drums roll and a trumpet fanfare herald the arrival of the first bull.

Spanish fighting bull

He bursts from the race into the arena full of running and blind fury. Now to prop and stare dumbly at the strange sights, sounds and smells around him, then just to focus on the yellow sandy ground at his feet. Banderilleros – readily distinguished from the more exalted gold-suited matadores de toro - taunt and test the bull.

This first of three  parts of this highly ritualised dance of skilful death is known as the tercio de varas, “the lancing third”. All, especially the matadores de toro, who will face and kill the bull alone, watch closely for the bull’s reactions to the banderilleros and their large magenta and gold capotes.

Does this bull favour his left, is he quick on his hooves, does he lead low or high?

Is he a good bull for this day?

Banderilleros - "toreros de plata" - testing the bull

Another trumpet fanfare signals the start of the second tercio, the tercio de banderillas, the “third of flags” and the entry into the arena of two mounted picadors each armed with a vara or lance. The picador sits high upon a massive blindfolded horse, its lower body and legs shrouded in a peto for protection.

The picador’s task is to stab the tip of his vara into the bull’s neck and shoulder muscles, the morillo, to weaken the bull and release the streams of blood that will pour down the bull’s forequarters.

Lancing a bull at speed is no easy thing, with the bull often charging at full force and speed at the picador with power enough to lift the horse and picador high off the ground, or, as here, driving horse and rider (almost) to the ground.

Picador, horse, bull and vara

Three banderilleros then each attempt to plant two banderillas - sharply barbed sticks – into the bull‘s shoulders. These banderillas further weaken the bull but can also provike more ferocious charges.

Sometimes, as with Juan Jose Padilla last Saturday, the matadore places his own banderillas.

Juan Jose Padilla displays the banderillas ...

... prepares for the raging, racing bull ...

... leaps high ...

... and as the bull closes ...

... drives home the banderillas into the bull's morillo.

The fight next moves to the tercio de muerte, ”the third of death”.

The matadore returns with a red cape, a muleta, in one hand and a short sword in the other.  He performs a series of tanda, different passes of the muleta, each with specific names that make up the faena.

Juan Bautista places the estoque de verdad

The end of the faena is signalled by a series of passes in which the matadore attempts to maneuver the bull into a position to perform the surgical eloquence that is the estocada – the placing of the estoque de verdad sword between the bull‘s shoulder blades, aiming to drive the estoque through the heart to pierce the aorta and hasten the bull’s death.

On this day most bulls died within twenty seconds to a minute after the administration of the estocada.

This is perhaps the most dangerous and elegant element of the bullfight.

Notwithstanding that the bull is significantly weakened by injuries inflicted by the picadors and the banderilleros and by chasing about the arena in pursuit of its tormentors, the matadore here comes closest to his own mortality and the essence of the corrida.

Juan Jose Padilla salutes the crowd

And the bull leaves the arena towed behind two old horses.

The bull dragged out of the arena.

More rituals follow the death of the bull. If the Presidente – and the crowd – consider the matadore’s performance worthy he will be awarded one or both of the bull’s ears to parade around the arena. And the final tribute – if the bull’s performance warrants – is for a tour of the stadium to the standing ovation of all present as he leaves the arena dragged behind two horses.

There is much to dislike at the corrida – and many of you will be disgusted by this post and for that I can give no apology. I had many moments of moral vacillation on this day and there is no glory in much of the treatment of these dumb animals. But there is also much to like that you will see nowhere else.

Would I go again? Of course.

Will I still feel the same mix of revulsion and horror at the treatment of these majestic animals? Most likely.

But I will also appreciate the skill, bravery and undeniable beauty of the spectacle that is the modern corrida.

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  • 1
    peter
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Nice one Bob. Great pics. I relate entirely to the mix of emotions one can feel. I enjoyed being a part of the atmosphere you describe so well. Half expecting lions and Roman slaves instead of Bulls. Still, the two examples I saw years ago in Spain left me in no doubt that it was a completely mis-matched, one sided affair. Yes there is elegance and cock aplenty, but I question the skill hidden behind it and have no doubt Rodeo Clowns have more skill and more balls.-Just less bullshit. Would I go again? Behind my camera-Yes.

  • 2
    wilful
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Great post, photos and explanation. Just like my experience in a southern Spanish town many years ago.

    Still, Hemingway said it best didn’t he?

  • 3
    Andrew L
    Posted June 9, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Bloke goes into a cafe in southern Spain and orders the specialty of the house without knowing what it is. He gets a bowl of delicious soup with two large dumpling-like thingys in it. After he finishes he thanks the owner and asks what was in it. “It is the testicles of the bull from the bullfight”. He is a bit shocked but it was delicious so all is well.

    A few days later he comes back into the cafe and orders the same dish. This time the dumplings are small and horribly salty. He asks if they are sure it is the same dish and they assure him it is. He asks why it is so different and the cafe owner answers: “Sometimes the bull wins”.

  • 4
    Bob Gosford
    Posted June 9, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Peter for your kind words. I wouldn’t agree that rodeo-riders have more kill or balls but that is my own view. Wilful – I reckon the big H may have (at least in English) said it best – certainly better than I can. Andrew – love the irony!
    Thanks all for your thoughts – more please!

  • 5
    Posted June 10, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    ANDREW: Only you…..!!! Although I think I’d heard it a long time ago.

    ………………………………

    I wonder if the people who see the art in bullfighting might also see the art in water boarding? Dress the inquisitors in the same sort of togs as a banderillero, or a torero; actually the gear of a picador would be closer to the mark. Hold the event in a boxing ring and charge equivalent rates.

    As with bullfighting, a sack of cement dropped onto the kidneys can do wonders for slowing down the victim’s reflexes. And, in the case of a bull, it adds to the fun to shave the point of one horn wrecking the animal’s ability to line up its sights. All good clean fun but sport it ain’t.

  • 6
    Posted June 10, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    And who, in the civilized world, would send a horse into a bullring?

  • 7
    Posted June 10, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    GLORY? Well, if the Matadors would swap their trajes de luces for a clapped out pair of jeans and a t-shirt that should take care of the ‘glory’.

    BRAVERY? If the toreros were armed only with a camera, mounted with a wide angle lens, I would be dead impressed. BTW, real French bullfighting involves no death and consists merely of trying to hang a bell on the horns of a fighting bull. The animal has no open wounds. And no horses have their ribs broken nor their guts ripped out. The toreros who tackle a fighting bull armed only with a small leather loop with a bell on it restore decency to the word BRAVERY.

    BRAVERY? If the matadors had true guts they would do the whole corrida armed only with a camera having a wide angle lens. Now that would be bravery. And,

  • 8
    Posted June 10, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Erratum: Last two lines = an error.

  • 9
    Bob Gosford
    Posted June 11, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    A far-better written piece than mine on a first experience at a bullfight – here at Madrid – by Shawn Moksvold in the Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shawn-moksvold/elaborate-slaughter-madrid-bullfight_b_1580244.html#s=1071443

    “After a few minutes, the second bull now seems to have given up; it gasps in heavy, uneven breaths, the flowery banderillas hanging from its neck. And even though a bull is not easily personified, like a furry meerkat or a baby grizzly bear, still, I feel terrible. When it moves, it simply trots in slow circles. Its vigor has been taken. The matador approaches closely and taunts the bull. But even at this moment, surely, behind the sweaty face of the matador is a fear of tripping, of being condemned by the fickle crowd, of being gored to death. He raises his sword for the final kill, and it is difficult to watch.
    I suspect it is the deliberate spectacle that is so appalling about the bullfight. The haughty show of killing an animal so easily provokes contempt and protest. But it is the show that most come to watch.”

  • 10
    Moksvold Shawn
    Posted June 12, 2012 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    You’re very kind. You’ve got a great perspective and some awesome shots. Interesting to see Padilla out there after all he went through!
    Thanks again for the link and the compliments.

  • 11
    Posted June 12, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    BOB GOSFORD: My comments re your shots were not idle spats at you. They are not bad shots, (and I stupidly used the words ‘moral point.’) But think how much better they would have been had you thought out what it was you wanted to say.

    Instead of trying to describe my point I’ll lead you to a shot of a camel where the photographer is looking at the camel, and the camel is looking at the photographer and each participant knows exactly what the other one is thinking. Go to Back in a Bit and the list of countries on the right hand side. Under Middle East look for Oman. Click onto it and you will find what I’m talking about.

    Here endth the lecture.

  • 12
    Hendy Jane
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    What evil ignorant rubbish you write. The “dumb” (why do you keep repeating this word?) bull has been tortured before he ever hits the arena. Grease rubbed into his eyes, splinters of wood between his toes (imgine a splinter up your fingernail), as someone has already noted a sack of cement dropped on his back), his horns shaved in a process called the affetado. This is an act of barbarity in itself. The bull is immobilised in a kind of brace, the ends of his sensitive horns shaved off, think being at the dentist without novocaine. Losing the ends of his horns means his spatial judgment is impaired. Oh, I almost forgot: the laxatives, to weaken him further. The corrida is not a sport, it’s just torture. Everything is weighted against the bull. Maybe you need glasses, but if you had looked closely you would have noticed that the banderilles are actually harpoons. Do you have any imagination to conjure up the pain that causes? They are also ripped out while the bull is still alive, by the way. Do you believe the stuff about bulls not feeling pain? The corrida is called bullfighting in English, as a throwback to the bull-baiting combats with dogs in the 16th century. The modern Spanish corrida is as much about fighting as was torture inflicted in Franco’s prisons. It is unfair oppression of an unwilling victim.

  • 13
    Hendy Jane
    Posted September 14, 2012 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    The person called Wilful says “Hemingway said it best”. I became anti-corrida at the age of 17 when I read The Sun also Rises, where you may find the most sordid descriptions of animal torture in literature. It was the horse walking on his own intestines that got me. Hemingway was such a pervert that he actively campaigned to stop the Spanish authorities making it obligatory for the picadors’ poor old horses to have protective padding. It has been obligatory since about 1932, but as you can see in the pretty-pretty photos of this deluded blogger, the picadors’ horses still get zapped by the bull. The corrida is definitely not a mainstream activity, and not many aficionados will admit to their twisted passion.

  • 14
    Valenza Mario
    Posted September 14, 2012 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    Comment osez-vous faire l’apologie de ce massacre sanglant, la corrida? Vous ne connaissez rien ou faites semblant de ne pas savoir.
    La corrida c’est la mise à mort d’un animal à qui on n’a rien demandé et il est là pour satisfaire une poignée de malades mentaux avides de sang.
    Abstenez-vous d’encenser ces assassins autorisés par une loi injuste. Nous allons l’abolir dans très peu de temps.
    J’ai vu une publicité sur votre site pour le WSPA! Comment, il y aurait des animaux à sauver et d’autres qu’on peut faire souffrir?
    reprenez-vous, messieurs, vous êtes en plein délire….

  • 15
    Bob Gosford
    Posted September 14, 2012 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    All – my French s pretty poor so here is the French translation of Valenza Mario’s post – from Google translate. Please feel free to correct this translation if it is wrong.

    “How dare you make an apology for this bloody massacre, the bullfight? You do not know or pretend not to know.
    Bullfighting is the killing of an animal which we did not ask and he is there to meet a handful of insane bloodthirsty.
    Refrain from praising the murderers authorized by an unjust law. We will abolish it in very little time.
    I saw an ad on your site for WSPA! How it would save animals and others that may suffer? Repeat, gentlemen, you are delusional ….

  • 16
    Valenza Mario
    Posted September 14, 2012 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    I will comment in english, i beg your pardon for my faults.
    Look what takes place when normal people prevent the torturers from taking their morbid pleasure:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmOJJa_6n2I&feature=related&noredirect=1

    The barbarians at work!! Ashame for our society.

  • 17
    DINH JEGAUT Milena
    Posted September 14, 2012 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    Glory?? Do psychopaths deserve glory?? I don’t think so…. Were you blinded by the pink, sparkled outfit?? The whole “corrida” thing is based on illusions and lies, there’s nothing to appreciate there!! The fact is that a living being is tortured and killed for pleasure and THIS is unacceptable!!!

  • 18
    patricia guille
    Posted September 14, 2012 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    the bullfight is only one folklore of torture and cruelty!!! how one glorified of the acts can also cruel and sanguinary!! in France and also in Spain much of people fights for the abolition of this barbarian and primitive tradition, much of suffering for these bulls and these horses!!! it is not acceptable any more at the 21st century of left men tortured in all impunity!!! cruelty and violence should not be put any more under silencebecause much of people are revolted about that !!!!

  • 19
    SOUILLART Yvette
    Posted September 14, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    In advance, I also beg your pardon for my bad English.
    I am obliged to react and to inform you that the bullfight is not appreciated by all French, quite to the contrary! More than 2/3 of the population and many associations ask abolition.
    In the minutes which precede its entry in the arena, the bull undergoes all a preparation, aiming at decreasing it physically all while making it still more aggressive.
    Its horns are filed; the bull receives several drugs aiming at weakening it (or a nerve sedative to stupefy it)
    Others practices have sometimes course, like dropping on several occasions from the sand bags of 100 kg on the kidneys of the animal, to coat its eyes of petroleum jelly to scramble its sight, to plant needles broken in its testicles, to insert cotton in its nostrils, to whitewash its spirits legs of turpentine what causes burns so that the bull seems wild in its step, to file its shoes and to insert wood corners between its let us onglons.
    The bull lowers the head because the muscles of its neck are divided.
    The banderillas aim making suffer the bull and at making him lose the most possible blood
    The setting with dead is generally not caused by the sword of the matador but by many stabs on the animal with ground
    The “trophies” (ears and tail) are often distinct on the still alive bull
    The cheatings preliminary to the spectacle are thus an established fact, constituent of not to doubt an ill-treatment moreover in the sad life of these pseudo fighting bulls … Selected, studied, arranged, they can enter the arena…
    The bulls which refuse the combat are also killed
    The “pardoned” bulls do not survive either, nor the horses transpierced by the horns…
    In the bullfight, separately the torment and died of the bull, all is only illusion, cheating, put in scene…
    If you think that none of these facts seems to you in contradiction with your design of the festival, art, the nobility or bravery, and even if their detailed description delights you and desire gives you should see bullfights, then you are an “aficionado”.
    If you think that only one of these facts is unworthy, unacceptable or revolting, you resemble 72% of French who wish the final abolition of the bullfight, recognized like an animal torture by the French law since 1850, punished two years of prison and of 30000€ of fine for those which practice it, but however authorized since 1951 per emergency regulation in a dozen departments of the south of the country.
    “I am absolutely contrary with the bullfights, which are spectacles whose idiotic cruelty is, for crowd, an education of blood and mud.” Zola
    http://www.veterinaires-anticorrida.fr/
    “In as long as veterinary surgeons, we declare ourselves opposite with the bullfight. This practice, which consists supplicer the bulls on public, must disappear from our society.
    The suffering which it makes endure with these animals is unjustifiable. The evolution of scientific knowledge, as well as the evolution of mentalities, returns from now on necessary the implementation of measures aiming at removing such spectacles “.
    http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opposition_%C3%A0_la_corrida
    http://www.midilibre.fr/2011/10/11/quand-une-action-anti-corrida-degenere-dans-les-arenes-de-rodilhan,400850.php
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xs6ylg_tragique-fin-du-cheval-xelim-et-du-taureau-durant-la-corrida-de-rui-fernandes-a-sevilles_news

    Marion and Len if perhaps you read me, Big kiss of France !

  • 20
    SOUILLART Yvette
    Posted September 14, 2012 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Sorry, one more : http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xlk9jx_rassemblement-anti-corrida-arene-rodilhan-08-10-11_news

  • 21
    SOUILLART Yvette
    Posted September 14, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    You can also see what some calls a wild beast, a sanguinary monster… and which is only one peaceful ruminant… FADJEN is the mascot of the fight anti-bullfight
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Brzl0AwAp3U
    Isn’t more beautiful?

  • 22
    Claudia
    Posted September 15, 2012 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    Just a new video, to make a change from the ” wonderful” picture of the corrida shown up there by Mr Gosford; it was especially made for, and sent to a political person in France, who LOOOOOVES bullfighting. As to me, I just couldn’t watch it up . It will make you understand how hard and unfair the reality of this ” show” is. When you love animals, no matter how nice the show looks; you shouln’t even have to choose between selfish satisfaction and sympathy
    http://lastus.free.fr/aficionados/video.html

  • 23
    Saber
    Posted September 16, 2012 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    Ferias can well exist with no bullfighting.
    Most of people are against barbary.
    Of course there are no advertisements, companies refuse animal torture.
    By exemple : Afflelou.

    http://animalonestmal.over-blog.com/article-corrida-crac-europe-alain-afflelou-pas-d-argent-pour-la-torture-108173327.html

    Many artistes can not support animal torture today in 2012.
    Bullfighting is deficit, not the feria.

    Do you really know what is bullfighting ?
    I think you were sitting a “little” too much higher in the stands to know it.
    Bullfighting = a quick death ??? It’s a joke ?
    Bulls are suffering for more than 15 minutes.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7GEpyomY8s

    Do you know that you don’t feel pain with a needle only if you DON’T move ?
    Physiology of bulls is the same as the physiology of a human being, they are very sensitive – skin, nerves, muscles, …
    And people are introducing banderillas into the skin, nerves and muscles of a moving bull ? Can you imagine its pain ?
    (veterinarian source)

    Yes, bull-fighting is a horrible and bloody show and there is no beauty and no excuse in cruelty against animals.
    It’s horrible and that’s all.
    +++Fifteen minutes earlier the bull had rushed into the Arena+++ ??? No, they are obliged by people to rush.

    Bulls are not fighting. There is no fight, it’s only defense, bulls are terrified, awfully hurt and their defense is to push anyone and anything.
    Bull doesn’t know it has to go away (where ?) not to have pain.
    Of course they have no endurance, that’s the reason for the bull is killed after 15/20 minutes of suffering.
    Bullfighting/ mistreatment animal’s show is inhumane.

  • 24
    Hendy Jane
    Posted September 19, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=284154971689834&set=a.198216906950308.35284.196695307102468&type=1&theater

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