|At Las Ventas in Madrid, the sport's blood and violence clash with romantic notions of the spectacle. (Maria T. Olia for the boston globe)|
MADRID - The bull had collapsed on its front legs, head lolling, blood oozing down its flank from the wounds inflicted by a lance and by the colorful barbed sticks still impaled in its back. The matador approached with his sword outstretched, but he didn't seem so brave now. After several failed attempts, a thrust of the blade finished off the half-dead animal. The audience cheered, "Bravo!"
We were stunned - my husband and I and our four children - by the violence we had just witnessed. "I've seen enough already," said my husband, who was ready to bolt. "I didn't know that the bull is killed," said my 16-year-old son. "I've never seen blood like that; it's not like video games," said my 14-year-old son. My 18-year-old son was pragmatic: "Well, I guess the bull was going to die anyway." And my daughter, 11, was indignant: "It's wrong, Mom, just plain wrong."
This was not my first bullfight. My grandfather retired in Spain, and on our family trips to visit him we often went to a corrida, or bullfight. But I had forgotten how bloody and cruel they are.
Apparently attitudes have changed in Spain, too. My guidebook barely mentioned bullfighting. The young hotel desk clerk raised an eyebrow when I asked for directions to the bullring. Clearly she was not a fan. And on that Sunday afternoon, Madrid's Plaza de Toros was only half-full, and there seemed to be as many tourists as Spaniards in the audience.
Before our trip I had read Ernest Hemingway's manifesto on bullfighting, "Death in the Afternoon," and encouraged the boys to read it. There were no takers. "Too graphic, Mom," said my middle son. So I dug out our copy of Munro Leaf's classic picture book "The Story of Ferdinand" from the attic and was pleased to see each of the kids surreptitiously reading it before we left.
Bullfighting is a national sport in Spain and in the interest of cultural understanding I wanted my family to see the show. We took the metro to the bullring, and there was definitely a sporting event vibe as we followed the crowd. We bought our tickets and found our places on the concrete bench. There were hawkers - old men in white jackets selling potato chips, sherry, and beer. We watched the grounds crew paint chalk lines and rake the sand.
The sun was low and the bullring half-shaded when the drama of the bullfight began to play out. At first the kids enjoyed the spectacle: the fanfare of the live brass and percussion band and the procession of the players, horses, costumed assistants, and the matadors in their elaborate outfits. When a bull was released from its stall, there was even some comic relief as the matador teased it with his cape and his assistants did a quick alley-oop over the bullring's barricade to safety.
The matador displayed his artistic technique with some close cape work and a dramatic pause as he turned his back on the bull and bowed to the crowd. The kids felt the danger of the moment. Sometimes the bull charged, and the matador moved away too quickly to the sound of catcalls and hisses.
But this pretty act was only the prelude to the bloodletting to come. That afternoon we saw six bulls killed by three matadors. Death for the bulls did not come easily or swiftly; a killing can take 15 minutes.
The experience was both exciting and repulsive for the kids. Back home, they told their friends about it. "You saw a bullfight? Cool," they heard. But I suspect that none of them will ever attend another. Now they know that, unlike in storybooks, in the Spanish bullring the bull always dies - and it's ugly.
Maria T. Olia, a freelance writer in Newton, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.