Over at the bull-running blog The Pamplona Post, I had vowed to write my first proper review for some time of a corrida de toros, the tragic drama culminating in a ritual sacrifice we wrongly call a ‘bullfight’ in English.
I was in Cuéllar in Old Castille, which hosts the most ancient encierros, ‘bull-runs’, in Spain. I have been going to the town to run with the bulls there for a few years, and brought many friends with me along the way. When I first arrived the wasn’t a single foreigner here and I wrote it up Financial Times.
Anyway, the fact that I have returned to the same town, the same hotel in fact – thank you Hostal Mesón San Francisco – for the entire six day Feria de Nuestra Señora del Rosario on the last weekend in August every year says how much I enjoy it. However, this is in part because of the people, the town in both its location – an hour and a half from Madrid – and the dilapidated beauty of its buildings and general ambiance, as well as its unique encierros, of which there are five on consecutive mornings.
However, I have never spoken here about what happens in the plaza de toros, the ‘bull-ring’. This is because I realise how precious the feria is to the locals.
This year, though, I wasn’t only there for the bull-running, although I was in writing on that subject for the Telegraph. I had also brought a group ranging from the BBC to Lore Monnig, President of the New York City Taurino, and so I knew the corrida would be under serious scrutiny as well.
We had dinner with the main matador, Manuel Escribano, the night before, although I was far from at my best having broken my ribs saving children from an escaped bull in the streets earlier that day (almost, real story here.) As the photo shows I’m dosed on red wine, vodka, Tramadol and Oxycodon.
I remember Escribano well from when he saved the Feria de Abril in Seville in 2013, which had been universally flat, and did so in the most unlikely circumstances by fighting the most difficult breed of bulls there is, that of my friends, the Miura family. The bulls were unusually good, which may have been because that particular string of six bulls were chosen originally to accommodate the unusual phenomenon of El Juli agreeing to fight two of them. However, after his goring in the ring two days before – see cover of ABC left – he was subsituted by this then unknown bullfighter, even though Escribano had taken his alternativa to become a full matador nine years before, a few weeks shy of his 20th birthday.
His triumph was incredible – see cover of ABC right – and he has made a point of capitalising on that success, especially this year where he has consistently substituted for the horrifically gored Saúl Jiménez Fortes (one suspects this is in part achieved by deliberately under-pricing himself.)
It was a fascinating evening spent discussing how to develop an animal during the lidia (although I haven’t been in the ring in over a year), and his taurine influences Paquirri padre, and Paquirri ‘s mother-in-law’s brother, Luis Miguel Dominguín. (Paquirri hijo is currently recovering from the most terrible goring discussed in the previous post on this blog.)
So, given his abilities, ambition to the point of genuine hunger, and influences which… well… I won’t use the word tremendismo, but he knows how to work a crowd and won’t allow artistic fastidiousness to get in the way of his connection with them or the animal.
So, I took my camera, notebook, bought the best seats in the house with Lore and promptly walked out after the fourth bull (his second.)
The bulls, by the way, were from Los Bayonnes in Salamanca, and their bloodline comes from D. Atanasio Fernández and D . Lisardo Sánchez, which means a drop of encaste Navarra, but mainly Vistahermosa, by way of Murube to Ibarra and Saltillo, to Parladé and Conde de Santa Coloma (as does Saltillo), Santa Coloma going to Conde de la Corte to Domecq, but also with the line from Murube that goes through Fermín Bohórquez.
My notes for his first bull, the first of the day, describe how this matador famed for his oft-exposed white teeth was completely unsmiling throughout the first bull, even placing his own banderillas, which always wins over an audience – especially in a town like this – and at which he is very good.
The bull looked old, I mean six years old (which would be illegal, so it can’t have been), but most of all it looked tired and wary to the point of fearsome conservatism and defensiveness. If the toro won’t charge, but stands its ground and just hooks at the torero, daring him to come to it rather than vice versa, then not only is there no art, but the corrida collapses into the very thing it shouldn’t, a fight, or in this case, more of a squabble. Escribano even had difficulty with one of his strongest suits, the sword, which meant a slow and not very nice death.
In between rain-showers we saw the local matadors Javier Herrero and Victor Barrio do competent jobs with similar animals with Barrio cutting an ear, although only after his first animal had been substituted as inadequate (and it helps that he was local.)
And then out came Escribano’s second bull. Like his earlier one, to be frank it had suspicious horns (not my comment, and one echoed in the most serious of the regional newspapers, El Norte de Castilla.) However, it looked strong, with nice trapío, good open horns, a handsome head and strong musculature. What it was, though, was the angriest, meanest and bounciest son-of-a-bitch of a bull I have ever had the displeasure to see. By bouncy, I mean like a kangaroo on amphetamines bouncing down that famous staircase in Montmartre. It was simply impossible to keep its head within the cape, so when it came to the banderillas, he elected to let his peones do it. Even though this was an aesthetic choice rather than one based on safety – it simply reflects less on the Maestro if a member of the cuadrilla puts in the sticks badly rather than himself – it ended up being terribly dangerous for his team. The animal was then simply intoreable – ‘unbullfightable’ – with the muleta (the smaller red cape.) He killed well, although on the second attempt from memory – I had given up taking notes at that point. Frankly, it was too much of a pelea, a ‘battle’, to try and describe.
Sitting in an arena with broken ribs watching this didn’t leave me in the best mood to say the least. And when the 5th bull entered the ring for Herrero and promptly went utterly lame, and the President wouldn’t let it out of the ring because he didn’t have another substitute – third category rings like this aren’t required to by law – I walked out. I hear Barrio cut another ear and was carried out on shoulders. Good for him.
After this I sent a message to Escribano, whom I knew would be unhappy and thus didn’t try to talk to him in person in the hotel (it is the only hotel in town.) I said (in Spanish, obviously), “Manolo, I am sorry about your bulls. The first had nothing, and the second… all that he had was bad milk! [A Spanish saying for a bad disposition.] I left the bullring after that – I do not need to see a bull that can not walk. So, I come here to run [with the bulls], not for my afición [that which makes an aficionado]. Okay, another place… Until then un fuerte abrazo.”
Here is what he replied: “It was a shame. With this encierro, the bull can never charge by the afternoon. It is almost impossible.”
So, there you have it. Something confirmed by a serious torero but which I myself have seen every year for four years, which I saw this year from day one.
I ran with those bulls, as you can see, and watched them in the bloodless activity of recortes. The first one dropped dead in the ring anyway. Another died on the encierro another day.
I know that this is much talked about within the town, and that serious taurinos at the open discussion forum at Bar Oremvs every morning did so this year like my friend Miguel Ángel Castander, pastor in San Sebastian de los Reyes, champion recortador and astonishing bull-runner, along with local runners like Josechu Lopéz (one of my co-authors in my bull-running book Fiesta) and the horsemen from the first part of the encierro. There has even been a suggestion of running different bulls in the morning from those toreado or recortado in the evening, but I understand the threat that brings to the idea of the authenticity of the events.
However, I don’t think more obvious if radical options are being considered. The route has been changed before, why not change 5km across the campo with horses to 2km? Why not cut 1.5km of streets on the course with well-known spots where the bulls stop and batter the hell out of themselves against the barriers into 1km cutting up calle Camilo José Cela and prevent people from citing the bulls to the fence?
To put it bluntly, if the plaza de toros dies, the encierro will not last long without it, and how on Earth are you going to develop a new generation of aficionados if what goes on in the plaza is that bad? The plaza was a third full for the corrida, at this rate is will be down to a tenth by 2020.
I am aware that Cuéllar has been very kind to me. ABC even claimed in the headline below that it has been the destiny of my career (ahem.) Every year I write an annual thank you letter to the town in El Norte de Castilla. (The most recent is in English here.) This year, I fear I must act like the true friend to the town that I am, and offer a little respectful advice. I hope it will be taken in the spirit I intend.