Spanish Bullfighting: What You Need to Know Before You Go

Seville Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza Bullring
The roots of Spanish bullfighting, or corrida de toros, can be traced as far back as the gladiatorial games of the ancient Roman Empire. Bullfighting, as it is practiced today, evolved into its present form in the 18th century, with matadors still adhering to a strict code of conduct developed so many ago.

Seville is one of a handful of cities where you can still catch a bullfight, and when I visited I went to experience one for myself. I wish I could say that I left unscathed, but I was an emotional wreck after only watching the first of six bulls.

My advice for anyone interested in seeing one is to completely understand what you’re getting into before you go. I didn’t, which was a mistake that ended in tears. In hopes that my experience helps you have a better one, I have documented my time at a bullfight below.

Tickets and Seats
Bullfighting takes place in arenas where visitors can choose between three types of tickets – sol, sol y sombra, and sombra. The sol tickets are generally the least expensive since they are directly under the sun. Sol y sombra tickets have a combination of shade and sun exposure, and sombra tickets are completely shaded. We purchased sombra tickets in the fifth row.

Before you enter, you will have the option for renting seat cushions, typically for less than one euro. I do recommend doing this if you plan on staying through the whole bullfight because the concrete seats do get uncomfortable.

Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla
Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla
The Bullfight
The bullfight is actually a very strict and regimented ritual. The ceremony begins with a parade with the participants entering the arena to lively band music. Three matadors fight two bulls each, and every matador has a team of six – two picadores (“lancers”) mounted on horseback, three banderilleros (“flagmen”), and a mozo de espada (“sword servant”). Following the parade, the bullfight is divided into three parts separated by the sound of trumpets.
Bullfighting in Spain | Seville
Stage 1: Tercio de Varas
In the first stage, the bull enters the arena for the first time. I expected the bull to come charging out of the gates bucking and rearing, but what I saw was a confused animal who wanted to turn around and go back to safety.
Bullfighting in Spain | SevilleBullfighting in Spain | Seville
However, the banderilleros quickly drew its attention away with skilled cape play. During this stage, the matador analyzes how the bull moves, its personality, and its weaknesses.
Bullfighting in Spain | SevilleBullfighting in Spain | Seville
Next, the picadores enter the arena on horseback. Armed with lances, the picadores stab the bull in its neck muscle, resulting in a loss of blood that weakens the bull for the following stages.
Stage 2: Tercio de Banderillas
During this next stage, the banderilleros re-enter the arena, this time each trying to pierce and embed two barbed sticks in the bull’s shoulders. The injury angers the bull, inciting it to charge more ferociously and resulting in further blood loss.

Out of all days on the trip I decided to try out my new telephoto lens, I had to pick this one. Not only was a bull being slaughtered in front of me, but the horror was further magnified by the zoom of my camera.

By now, my sunglasses are on, as if that could shield my eyes from what was unfolding in front of me. As the crowd of locals cheered with each successful attempt at implanting the banderillas, I kept thinking to myself, “I hope this is over soon…”

Stage 3: Tercio de Muerte
Finally, the matador reemerges alone in the arena, a small red cape and sword in hand. In these final moments, the matador skillfully moves his cape to spur the bull on in a last series of passes, waiting for an opportunity to fatally stab the bull, either between the shoulders or through the heart. If he is not successful, the matador will cut the bull’s spinal cord to kill it instantly.
Bullfighting in Spain | Seville
The matador we saw was clumsy. Instead of a clean kill, we witnessed multiple attempts to take the bull’s life while it screamed in the background.

At this point, tears are streaming down my face, my head burrowed in J’s shoulders. I only dared to look up when I heard the crowd cheering, thinking the ordeal was over. What I didn’t expect was to see the bull’s lifeless body being dragged around the arena by a team of mules.

There were five more bulls left to fight that night, but I couldn’t stay to watch another, and J recognized that. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, grabbing my hand and taking me for a walk along the river.

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