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Bullfighting in Spain

Devotees declare it's an art form rather than a sport – an intensely spiritual experience representing man's struggle against nature and his own internal demons. Millions of Spaniards see the bull fight as nothing more or less than a great day out. And animal rights activists both in Spain and around the globe condemn it as an abomination which dehumanises any so-called civilised society.

In 2004 the Catalonian capital Barcelona declared itself to be an anti bullfighting city. The regional government won widespread popular support for its campaign to ban the sport on the grounds that it stained its image as one of the great cultural centres of Europe.

The ban bullfighting campaign has gathered momentum in recent years but the sport still attracts a vast army of followers for whom abolition of this age-old and time-honoured tradition is unthinkable.

Men have pitted their wits, skill and physical strength against bulls since ancient times. Most of us are familiar with the Minoan images from ancient Crete in which young athletes are depicted leaping and somersaulting over the backs of charging bulls. During the same period, 4,000 years ago, Spain's early Iberian settlers slaughtered bulls in ritual sacrifices to their gods.

It's thought that the Moors introduced some form of bullfighting in Andalucia after they invaded Spain in the 8 th century. And one of Spain's greatest heroes, El Cid (Right), is widely acclaimed to have been the first man to have slain a bull in an organised fight in the 11 th century.

In medieval times the Spanish aristocracy developed a past time of bull jousting on horseback. But it was the poor peasant people who developed the concept of a man on foot versus a fighting bull and in the 18 th century bull rings and formal bull fights as we know them today became an integral part of Spanish culture.

Bullfighting and Hemingway

In the early part of the 20th century American journalist and novelist Ernest Hemingway developed a passion for bullfighting and stayed in a Pamplona pension frequented by local bull fighters. He put the Spanish bull fight on the world stage and immortalised what he saw as man's ultimate challenge in best selling novels such as The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon.

In 1959 Hemingway turned down an invitation to the Soviet Union at a time when most writers with a taste for adventure would have given their eye teeth for a glimpse behind the iron curtain. Hemingway's response was: “Why should I go to Russia when there is bullfighting in Spain?”

It's against this historical back drop that Spain's enduring passion for bullfighting must be viewed, if not condoned. Every city and nearly every small town throughout Spain has its own bull ring and the bull fight is the focal point of hundreds of national and local fiestas which take place during the year.

Bulls from an ancient bloodline are specially bred to fight and Spain is now the only country in the world to preserve this particular species of “toro bravo”.

Normally six of these fighting bulls are slain in an afternoon or evening fight (known as a corrida). The fight involves three matadors with their band of helpers – the picador horsemen who lance the bulls and the banderillos who stab them with barbed spikes.

The final act of the three-part corrida involves a series of intricate moves and daredevil passes by the matador before he makes his final lethal thrust between the bull's shoulder blades. These are the moves Hemingway likened to a richly choreographed ballet. If the spectators approve of the matador's performance they wave white handkerchiefs to signal to the fight's president that he should reward their hero with a trophy – one or both of the bull's ears and/or its tail.

Because of increasing pressure from animal welfare groups, many bull rings these days hire a local vet who decides when the bull has suffered enough. It's not something that's widely known, even among the Spanish, but the vet tells the president or local official who in turn signals to the matador to finish the fight with a fatal stab.

If you're a foreigner thinking of attending a bull fight for the first time remember to take a cushion with you because the benches can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. The most expensive seats are in the shade and if you opt for a cheap seat in the sun it's advisable to go armed with a hat and sun glasses.