Like being in a Hemingway novel: that's how attending Las Ventas Plaza de Toros: Bullring of España feels. Although this cultural experience is now embroiled in sharp controversy - I had to go.
Madrid is a contemporary capital in an ancient empire. But despite the steady press of modernization, tradition still runs strong here on the Meseta plateau. Inspired by Roman gladiator games once held here, the Spanish improvised with bullfighting, becoming their national pastime for centuries.
Las Ventas is arguably the heart of bullfighting in Spain. Established in 1931, the venue hosts the Feria de San Isidro, running annually since the 1940s. Fortunately, my trip to Madrid coincided with this month-long festival. With a bit of trepidation, I made the 25 minutes metro ride out to this illustrious venue.
The Plaza de Toros is a modern-day coliseum. A massive circle of red brick with a squared tower at the forefront, it's all about the curves. Clearly, through its Arabic arches featuring rich, colorful tiling above, Las Ventas nods to Spain's Moorish history. Black, cast iron lighting hangs between each second-story arch, illuminating the large coves below that allow entry.
Many vendors have set up shops selling food, drink, and souvenirs to the many attendees on the plaza. I approached a small wooden taquilla to buy a seat, but I quickly learned that purchasing a ticket is more complicated than just handing over my Euros. And my poor Spanish-speaking skills only confused things further.
"Barrera? Palco? Tendido?" the ticket seller asked.
As I ran those words hopelessly through my limited Spanish vocabulary, the clerk squinted his eyes and then whipped out a seating chart and pointed to the three specific sections of the bullring.
"Ahh!" I exclaim as I begin to understand. "Tendidos, por favor." Half-way up.
"Sol y sombra?" he now proposed. Fortunately, I understood sol as the sun and realized I was asked if I preferred to sit in the sun or shade.
"Sol, por favor," I replied. He shook his head in mild disapproval, but it was a beautiful afternoon. I was unafraid of basking in the sun for the last of the day's rays.
With a ticket in hand, I approached one of the large arches where patrons were being admitted. Another employee tore a perforated stub from the paper and waved me on.
Immediately, I was approached by yet another clerk who thrust a brown, flat, worn-out leather cushion towards me. I was aware that the seating at Las Ventas is nothing more than rings of concrete surrounding the dirt arena. I handed over a few euros for the pillow, a leather strap for carrying hanging loosely from one side. Insurance for my backside!
Yet another employee took my ticket, gave it a quick look, and then pointed to his left and upward as he handed the paper back. I climbed the stairs.
As I walked out of the stairwell and into the open stadium, it all started to sink in. A broad earthen ring stretched out before me. The light brown earth of the arena was being prepared with a light mist to keep the dust down. The Spanish national flag hung regally from over the stairwells and as bunting along the stretch of balconies circling the top of Las Ventas.
I was early, and the crowd was sparse. I found my seat, put down the cushion, and tried to get comfy. Even with the pad, the concrete was brutal, but I made do. This was tradition. This was history. This was... uncomfortable!
The Spanish are not a punctual people. The arena filled to capacity on this gorgeous May evening, but not until the last possible minute. And as more customers filed in, my space on the concrete bench shrank until I found myself sitting shoulder to shoulder with my fellow witnesses.
To my left was a full band that played ceremoniously throughout the evening. Before and between each bullfight, they would blast their setlist, announcing each act of the corrida de toros. To my right, the Presidential Box filled with dignitaries and Bullfight officials.
At last, the blare of trumpets announced the beginning of the contest. It IS a contest, but not between the bulls and the matadors. The bulls are surely going to lose.
This contest, of sorts, is between the three matadors themselves. Who can deliver the most exciting, daring, and ritualistically pure performance of the evening. Here, at Las Ventas Plaza de Toros: Bullring of España.
To Be Continued...
All photos are by the author using iPhone 7.