By Sara Millbank

Still popular

These days, while bullfighting is not so popular with youngsters, it still remains Spain’s number one national sport and over 30 million people attend across Spain each year.

Last year it was reported that over 24,000 bulls were killed in front of audiences in a season that runs from March to October. Bull fighting in Spain can be traced back to 711 A.D. as part of the celebrations of the crowning of King Alfonso VIII.


Originally a sport for aristocracy, bull fighting took place completely on horse back and started in village squares around Spain. King Felipe V took exception to the sport and banned the aristocracy from taking part, as he believed it was a bad example to the public. After the ban, commoners accepted the sport as their own, but could not afford the horses, so developed dodging the bulls on foot. When horses were used, the men on foot would use their capes to distract the bull and this drew more attention from the crowds. The more artistic the display of the cape work, the bigger the cheer from the audience and so it became the biggest part of the show.

In the late 18th century the building of a bullring in Ronda formalised the activities. Each fight followed a particular sequence of events with first the entrance of the bull, then the picador, the banderilleros and finally the matador. Francisco Romero from Ronda is credited with introducing the smaller cape (muleta) at the end of the fight and the sword (estoque).

The Entrance

The structure of the event remains the same today as then, with six fights taking place over several hours of entertainment, or torture, depending on your view. Six bulls to be killed by three matadors are usually required in each corrida and encounters last about 15 minutes. After the entrance sequence the chief assistant to the matador waves a bright yellow and red cape in front of the bull to make it charge. This allows the matador to determine the bull’s quality and mood. Then a trumpet sounds and several picadors place spears in the bull to weaken it, taking about 10 minutes.

The dance of death

Another trumpet is sounded and the matador takes his black winged hat (astrakhan) off and dedicates the death of the bull to the president or the crowd. The farna is the skilful section of the fight where the matador must prove his courage and artistry. The matador must make the bull charge at him in something known as the ‘dance with death’ as one wrong move and he could end up impaled on the bull’s horns. It is the matador’s job to make the dance entertaining and dramatic, elegant and controlled.

He uses a small cape called the muleta which is a piece of thick crimson cloth draped over a short stick. It can be held in the left hand or draped over the sword or estoque which is always held in the right hand. The matador holds the muleta in front of him to make the bull charge and then swings it away at the last minute. The matador has to demonstrate his superiority over the bull before it can be killed.


The matador’s dress is very important and all part of the performance. The matador dresses in his suit of light (traje de luces) which is usually decorated in gold. The assistances tend to wear suits decorated in silver. A matador’s suit is always hand -made and usually takes six people a month to create. The suit will usually cost anything from 1,500 to 3,000 euros and is worn with a white short shirt, a narrow black tie, a red, green or black sash knotted at the waist, pink, knee length stockings, black ballet-style slippers and a black two cornered hat.

The most popular colours for the jacket are red, black, green, blue or white. Yellow is never worn, even by the spectators as it is considered very unlucky. The matador’s cape is only worn in the parade before the fight commences and is then hung on the fence in front of a special friend or distinguished guest. Finally a pig tail is clipped to the back of the head and when a matador retires this is symbolically cut off.


If the matador performs well and the bull is killed cleanly, the audience will wave white hankies to persuade the president to award the top prize – the ear or tail of the dead bull. League tables are kept each season based on the number of tails or ears awarded. The ultimate accolade for a matador is to be carried out of the ring on the shoulders of his fans. Interestingly, in Portugal the bull is not killed in the ring in front of the crowd so that he can keep his dignity to the end.


If a matador is injured and has to leave the ring to be attended by his surgeon, or worse go to hospital, then the remaining matadors must move quickly to kill the bull between them. The carcass is quickly removed from the ring and distributed to butchers shops and markets. Reports and photos appear in the local papers the very next day.


Most shows take place in the late afternoon or early evening and seat prices vary depending on where you sit. Seats in the shade (sombra) are always dearer than those in the sun (sol) and most people take cushions to soften the hard seats or rent one for one euro. The largest bullring in Spain is to the east of Madrid called La Plaza de Toros de las Ventas, built in 1929 and seats 25,000 people. The best time to see a bullfight in Madrid is May or June when San Isidro takes place. This is the world’s most famous bullfighting festival and when the real aficionados appear, as it is thought to be the hardest bullring to succeed as a matador.