My bullfighting adventure begin with a Guru Walk tour of Spanish Civil War sites in downtown Madrid.  I was with friends Al Willner and Norman Engvall and during the tour we befriended  fellow American and military history enthusiast Steve Jelso.  After the tour he proposed visiting one of Hemingway's bars, La Venencia.

A Nationalist bunker stands sentinel in Madrid on what was once the front lines in the Spanish Civil War 

Off we went to La Venencia which to our surprise only served sherry. After a few bottles and with the bar closing for siesta time, we were still in Hemingway mode and made our way to Cerveceria Alemana which was another one of his favorite haunts and located near the Hotel Florida where he and foreign correspondents stayed during the civil war.

It was a great afternoon of sherry drinking and conversation.  I really felt the Hemingway spirit and it reminded me of my early days as a young photojournalist in Beirut covering the Lebanese Civil War.  Hemingway and colleagues would head to the front lines to report on the war and then return to their hotel and the bars and restaurants to talk shop and drink.  

I did much the same in my early days as an aspiring photojournalist.  I'd head off to the Green Line separating Muslim and Palestinian-controlled West Beirut from Christian Phalangist-controlled East Beirut.  After snapping a few action pictures I'd head back to the United Press International office to develop, print, caption and transmit photos.  Then I'd get together with other expats for drinks and trading stories.

The Bullfight |

So after a long day of exploring Spanish Civil War sites and visiting Hemingway water holes, Steve called to invite us to a bachelor bash bullfighting outing with his Spanish buddies.  I had always been curious about bullfighting and had actually been to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona when I was younger, but the thought of killing animals for sport and entertainment was a bit troubling to me.  But in the spirit of Hemingway and, of course, with curiosity we met up with Steve and the bachelor party boys at a bar outside the Plaza de Toros in Madrid.

It was the start of one of the more fascinating and disturbing public events I have ever been to.

Plaza de Toros | Madrid

A bullfighter and bull statue greet spectators outside the Plaza de Toros or Las Ventas at the Moorish influenced bullring in the Salamanca district of Madrid.  The bull ring which can seat 24,000 is the largest in Spain and was inaugurated in 1931.  Bull fighting has come under attack from critics citing its brutality and has been banned in Catalan since 2011. It is covered in the arts sections of publications as a cultural event and not as a sport.

The afternoon starts with a parade of the participants

Matadors, picadors, banderilleros and their accompanying assistants parade around the bull ring to salute dignitaries and spectators.  Three matadors will fight six bulls during the afternoon corrida de toros (coursing of bulls) that lasts up to three hours.

22-year old alternativa, Rafael Gonzalez, loses a shoe as he battles a bull during his transition bullfight from a novillero to a torero (matador) at Las Ventas in Madrid.

Normally, I just carry around my iPhone to take pictures, particularly if I'm out on a social outing.  However this time, I brought along the Fujifilm X-Pro2 with the 18-135mm lens.  I didn't really expect anything dramatic and figured I'd shoot a few frames of the first fight and then relax and take in the spectacle.

I had been told there would be three bullfighters and assumed each would take on a bull.  So I concentrated on the first fight as this young apprentice bullfighter who was making his first appearance to transition from a novillero to a full-fledge torero (matador) took to the ring.

Authorities, delegates and representative of the Community of Madrid watch Rafael Gonzalez


Five minutes into the fight, and after a few close runs, 22-year old Rafael Gonzalez loses a shoe. Then the bull turns back on him and he is unable to get out of the way and is gored and tossed into the air.

The bull turns quickly on Gonzalez and he is trampled |

Banderilleros rush in to distract the bull |

Gonzalez is consoled by other bullfighters but collapses soon after resuming the fight |

He gallantly perseveres and manages to strike the bull but the sword pulls out |

Gonzalez faces off against the bull and holds his descabello (sword) ready to strike

 Soon after this picture he was unable to continued and was carried from the ring |

22-year old alternativa, Rafael Gonzalez, is carried out of the ring as spectators and photographers take photos after he was gored in his first professional bullfight as a matador.  He was seriously injured in the groin and underwent surgery for the wound. Matador Juan Leal (upper right) continued the bullfight.

This first fight was some introduction to the cultural arts event of bullfighting.

The afternoon would be full of horse-mounted picadors jabbing spears into the bulls neck, nimble banderilleros stabbing darts and darting away from charging bulls and of course, the matadors with their bright red capes and swords.

Blood was everywhere | streaming down the bulls sides | coating the matadors elegantly embroidered "suit of lights" | and staining the dirt of the bullring as the dead bull is dragged out.

It was difficult to watch, but fascinating at the same time.

I didn't know this at the time, but there are three stages to a bullfight.  The first two stages involve weakening the bull so that it starts to drop its head and presents a clearer target for the matador.

The final stage is when the matador takes to the ring.  The bull charges the red cape (muleta) and to thrill the spectators and win their approval, the matador displays his skills by the close proximity of the bull's charges.  He will kneel, put the cape behind him, wave it menacingly in front of him, face off inches from the bull's horns.  He taunts, prances and dances as the blood-soak body of the bull rubs up against the matador.

The closer the bull comes to the matador the greater the cheers and gasps of the crowd.  As the bull tires and when his head starts to drop, the matador is provided with the sword in the final phase of the bullfight.  He will hold the sword pointed towards the bull and coax it to charge.  As it charges toward him he will rise up and try and plunge the sword into the back of the neck and leap out of the way.

If he is successful in delivering a fatal blow with the sword thrust and if the spectators are pleased he will be rewarded with the bull's ear.

If not, another different sword is provided and the matador then proceeds to give the stricken and weakened beast the coup-de-grace by severing it's spinal cord.


The Picador |

A picador uses a lance to jab into the neck muscles of the bull as it charges the horse which is protected with a mattress-like covering.  This is the first of the three stages of a Spanish bullfight and is done to damage and weaken the neck muscles which causes the bull to lower its head.


The Banderillero |

A banderillero uses darts called banderillas to further weaken the bull with blood loss and fatigue and to weaken the neck muscles.  This is the second of the three stages of a Spanish bullfight.  The banderillero spears the bull with three sets of two banderillas.


The Bullring |

A panorama shows spectators and the interior of the iconic Madrid Plaza de Toros bull ring (Las Ventas) as a slain bull is dragged away by a team of horses after being killed in a bullfight.

The Matador |

In the third stage, blood-covered French matador Juan Leal stares down a bull during one of his three bullfights at the Las Ventas bullring in Madrid.  30-year old Leal is from Arles, France and comes from a bullfighting family and attended bullfighting school in Spain at the age of 14. He became a full matador on 2013.

Leal plunges the sword deep into the back of the neck as he leaps away from the charging bull
Leal holds up a bull’s ear that was rewarded for an exceptional fight for one of his three bullfights at the Las Ventas bull ring in Madrid. 
30 second video clip showing matador Juan Leal in action 

In a later bullfight Leal was tossed in the air after taunting the bull |

The bull turns to face the fallen matador but is distracted by the muleta (red cape)

Leal recovers and resumes the fight, but is unable to kill the bull with a single sword thrust |

In a particularly bloody bullfight, Leal uses a second sword to dispatch the bull |

Leal stands over the dying bull |

If the bull does not die outright after the matador's initial sword thrust, he is given another sword which he uses to deliver the fatal blow.  The bullfighter will not be awarded an ear if a second sword is required or the crowd is displeased with his performance.

The bull is dragged out of the ring.  It will be processed at a slaughterhouse and the meat eaten.


After three hours of intense, cringeworthy cultural arts displays of killing, we all gathered at the Taberna Orgulloso across the street to celebrate Luis's upcoming nuptuals |

It had been a truly Hemingway-esque day and was good to decompress | celebrating Spanish-style with new friends in one of the world's great cities.