In Barcelona’s bullring, the matador lifts his sword above his head.
The blade, catching the late afternoon sun, glitters; a visual cliché of danger. The crowd, which understands such signs, falls silent. The bull, which does not, puts its mighty head down and runs towards the matador.
For those who find the thought of what will come next disturbing, there is comfort to be had; and for those who find it exciting, there is a spur. Because this summer is the last that such scenes will be seen in Barcelona’s bullring, the Monumental. Last year Catalonia’s parliament voted to ban bullfighting from 2012 onwards. So the 2011 season, which runs until September, is the last time you will be able to watch here an activity that its opponents call “torture” and that Hemingway called “art”.
It is an end Hemingway himself foresaw. In his 1932 treatise on bullfighting, “Death in the Afternoon”, he discusses a recent modification made to Spanish bullfighting: the wearing of protective padding by the horses in the ring, which were previously often accidentally gored.
The government brought this in “to avoid these horrible sights which so disgust foreigners and tourists.” Hemingway was unimpressed. It was, he said, “the first step toward the suppression of the bullfight.” He was right.
The Catalonian suppression has acted as something of a red rag to animal activists in Spain, who are now attacking bullfighting with renewed vigour, calling this “a precedent we hope will be replicated”. And beyond Spain, too: Italy’s tourism minister said last year that “if Catalonia can ban an ancient tradition such as bullfighting”, then they should reconsider the dangerous Palio horse race in Siena, because “violence against animals damages Italy’s image”. It was tourism that helped bring these sports to the world’s gaze and now tourism is being used to remove them.
Opposition is evident from the moment I arrive at Barcelona’s bullring, a few hundred metres down from Gaudi’s cathedral, where elderly Spaniards are gathering to gossip in their Sunday best. Fights have been held here almost without cease since this ring was built in 1919, stopping only during the Spanish civil war.
The pavement the Spaniards’ patent brogues stand on is splattered with blood-red paint; the legacy of years of protests.
Fresher paint is to be had on the pavement opposite. There, a cluster of protesters hold signs (“Stop Now!”) also splattered with red. I speak to Lluis Villacorta Montero, who is painted from head to foot in red. “I have been coming here to protest for seven years,” he says. “I was the first.” I ask whether he feels that, as a Spanish tradition, bullfighting should be allowed to remain. “We are Catalonian,” interjects another protester, in correction.
The distinction is an important one. Bullfighting was promoted under Franco as authentically Spanish; not a virtue that would ever have endeared it to Catalonians. It has not always been fully acceptable even in Spain, either. In 1567 Pope Pius V issued (presumably with no eye to future puns) a papal bull banning it, but that was overturned eight years later. Montero fears this ban may be too. “The people who support bullfighting are very powerful.”
As I leave, I ask Montero what he thinks of Hemingway. “I don’t like him!” he says, raising eyebrows crusted with paint. Then he pauses. “No. Maybe I like The Old Man and the Sea. That is a fight between man and animal.” He points a reddened finger at the ring. “But that is not fighting. It is not equal.”
Back inside the Monumental ring – almost identical in structure to a Roman amphitheatre – tourists take their seats. In the curving corridor, I speak to Michael Otte, an American studying at Dartmouth College, who is in Spain as part of his course. I ask if he is looking forward to it. “I didn’t realise that the bull actually died until a few moments ago,” he says. “I was actually more afraid of the person getting gored.” And now, I ask? “I have my reservations.”
I climb the steps to my seat. The Monumental forms an almost perfect palimpsest of Spain’s past: underlying Roman structure overwritten with Moorish arches, in turn overwritten with touches of Catholicism. At the ringside entrance there is a tiny chapel for the matadors. As I pass, I peer into its gloom; inside is a painting of the Virgin Mary. I can’t help wondering, when it comes to death in front of a crowd, whose side she would be on.
The matadors, however, clearly have more confidence. As a brass band plays an oompah fanfare, they enter wearing satin breeches, braided and sequinned with gold, crossing themselves and waving at the crowd who cheer, delighted. Then suddenly, with another fanfare, the bull appears. I realise with alarm that it isn’t charging. Instead it is prancing, as light on its feet as a dog, towards the matador.
The crowd applaud. But appreciative though it is, this crowd is sparse; and sparser still when compared with the crowds of the early 20th century. Then the bullfighters that Hemingway wrote of, the Belmontes and the Joselitos, were celebrated like gods and paid like footballers. Today that glamour has passed, especially in Catalonia. This afternoon the ring is perhaps one-fifth full at most. Indifference rather than its inhumanity seems to have been the end of bullfighting here.
Back in the ring, the bull is no longer prancing. It stands, panting, in a disappearing crescent of light. The matador lifts his blade. The bull, its sides heaving, runs at him. The blade enters. The bull’s heavy head sinks down. The band begins afresh and the Spaniards below wave white handkerchiefs up and down in admiration. They fly up into the air like doves. Though there is no peace for the bulls. Today six are being killed and there are five more to go.
After the first kill, I dread the next. However by the third, I notice with some discomfort that I am in fact starting to admire certain moves; to be excited by a particularly skilful pass or a dangerous one, and to be impressed by the favoured bullfighter, Fernando Adrián Hernández Machicado. It occurs to me this is not unlike being a participant in a Milgram experiment: what will you countenance if your companions sanction it?
Then it is the final kill. The final bull sinks to the floor. The band play their final fanfare and Machicado, who seems to be matador of the match, is lifted on to the shoulders of his companions and carried out of the ring, his shining face dipping and rising as he is borne along above the dark heads of the crowd. Behind me I notice an American girl, with fewer reservations than her fellow countryman, pushing forward to see him. “Dude!” she exclaims to her friend. “He’s hot!”
The crowd pours out of the Monumental, following Machicado, trying to touch his breeches and his braiding. For a moment he is a Joselito; a god. Then they reach their van – no more than an ageing blue minibus. The god is put down and the matadors climb inside, cramped on its fake leather seats; the door slams shut and the battered bus drives away. The crowd turns and walks back along the red-spattered pavement.
Catherine Nixey travelled with lastminute.com, which offers return flights from London to Barcelona from £189; and doubles at the Hotel Princesa Sofia from £119, including breakfast.