Understandably, there are a huge number of people who do not agree with bullfighting. It is a bloody sport, comes across as very cruel to the average American spectator. However, you would be missing out on an exciting, truly Spanish cultural tradition if you pass up the opportunity to grab a seat at the largest bullring in Spain.
Even if you can't bring yourself to buy a ticket, do yourself the favor of taking the Metro to the Las Ventas stop and emerge from below ground to the beautiful sight of Madrid's bullring. Called Las Ventas, the bullring was completed in 1929 and inaugurated in 1931. Having seen several other bullrings throughout Spain, I must say this one is breathtaking. Even a stop during the fights and a walk around will help you understand the excitement and energy that go on during this cultural event.
For those of you who are willing to take a peek, you will be happy to know that tickets are dirt cheap. Generally you will want to buy your tickets a couple days in advance at Las Ventas itself. Make sure you go to the ticket windows in the bullring; the stands out front will mark up the prices by about eight Euros. Don't worry too much about your Spanish speaking abilities. Even in Madrid which is less "English friendly" than say Barcelona, the people at the window are very helpful. I have been told countless times that tickets sell out quickly, but have never had a problem getting them the day before – just purchase them on the Friday or Saturday you get into Madrid for a Sunday fight. You should be fine.
If worst comes to worst, by law the ticket office must hold a percentage of tickets for the day of the fight. Get there early and everything should work out. The office opens at 10:00 a.m. and closes at 2:00 p.m., reopens from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. Prices will vary depending on seat location. Sol and Sombre mean sun and shade; you will pay more to sit in the sun. Realistically however, the fights start around 7o'clock. That means the sun will not be a problem for half the time. When I was there last, I bought a sol ticket; it happened that I sat under an overhang which worked perfectly at blocking the sun the whole time.
Expect to pay around 10 to 20 Euros for the cheapest seat and these will be fine. Trust me, you won't miss any of the action even with the inexpensive seats. One word of caution, however: the seats are essentially concrete so when you walk into Las Ventas and someone holds a cushion up to you to rent, PAY THE EURO AND TAKE THE CUSHION. Your butt will thank you. Likewise, the beer and whiskey prices (yes, some guy will come around selling whiskey shots like peanuts at a baseball game) are probably the best you will ever find in Madrid. But this never stops locals from bringing a couple bottles of wine, bread and cheese to snack on during the fight. To save money, you might do the same.
The bullfighting season runs from March through October, a fight can usually be seen every Sunday night. May and June are the best months. This is when the festival of San Isidro takes place. The best bullfighters and bulls are in Madrid for an event every day for 20 days (during this time you can buy your tickets any day for fights within the next five days). Plan your Madrid visit so that you are there on a Sunday; you'll catch a good fight. Not all the fight at nights are what you would typically expect as a traditional bullfight. The ticket office can help you pick the right night.
Some evenings the fights are done completely from horses, rejones, which seems to take some of the excitement out of it. You will want to see the bullfighter standing in the ring facing down the bull and the crowd cheering Toro, as the grumpy old Spanish man next to you complains about the matador's technique. I've asked several Madrid locals and they all agree: the traditional Sunday night fights are the most exciting and it’s likely Las Ventas will be packed, providing a surreal experience only Madrid offers.
The whole experience lasts around two hours. Each of the three matadores (they have gold trim on their suits) gets two bulls to fight at different sessions throughout the night. The fight begins with a matador enticing the bull into the ring, using a large cape. Then the picadores come out on horseback and entice the bull to charge the horse. When successful, they use long spear type weapons to weaken the neck muscles of the bull every time it rams the padded horse. Following two or three sessions of this, the banderilleros enter the ring. I find this the most exciting part. Standing in the middle of the arena, the banderilleros hold two brightly colored sticks with barbs at the end (banderillos) and try and get the bull to charge them. When the bull does charge, they attempt to plunge these banderillas into the bull's back.
The crowd cheers or jeers, depending on how successful they are at dodging the bull at just the last moment, and still get the sticks to stay in the bull. Once the banderilleros exit the arena, the matador returns to center stage and faces the bull alone. This is typically what Americans think of when picturing a bullfight. The matador uses a cape and a sword to entice the bull into charging him as close to him as possible. After several passes, the bullfighter takes a sword and tries to drive it between the bull's shoulder blades as it charges. Ideally, the sword drops the bull quickly and the fight is over. Of course this doesn't always happen; the crowd will show its approval or disapproval.
The passion for this tradition that is expressed from the crowd is genuinely unexpected. As you sit, it draws you in as any uproarious group will. Before you know it, you are chanting along, almost in unison, 25,000 spectators chant Toro, Toro, Toro each time a bull passes within inches of the matador. Many Americans find this sport reprehensible; this is not America. The time and money you spend to visit Spain will be well served attending a bullfight, at least once in your life. It's the quickest, most efficient and even cheapest way to totally immerse yourself into the culture. Should it be not your thing, keep your eyes open for other events hosted at Las Ventas. Shakira performed here in 2006. Which is more cruel, really?
Christopher Cook currently resides in Tallahassee, Florida. He has lived and studied in Tübingen, Germany. Through his blog, he hopes to inspire others to get out there and see Europe.