Photo by Victor Fraile/Corbis via Getty Images

Blood and beauty

Bullfighting magnificence in Santander

Artillery Row

How to enjoy a European holiday right now? Airports are hellish, BA has banned the sale of short-haul tickets and bolshie French officials have gummed everything up at Dover. But there is still the ferry to Santander, a handsome resort town on Spain’s northern coast — a mix of Brighton and Biarritz, only with vastly better restaurants. 

Had you been in Santander last week you would, I hope, have watched some superb bullfights. On Tuesday, you’d have seen the latest taurine heartthrob, Ginés Marín, facing six bulls. Marín has a big female following, which includes two of my daughters. He looks a bit like that fellow who plays Denver in Money Heist (or, for younger readers, who plays Nano in Elite).

He is not above playing to the flapper vote, dropping theatrically to his knees, striking poses immediately before the horns and, on occasion, discarding his sword and muleta. That, though, gives an incomplete picture of the man, who can be a serious classical torero. I watched him cut five ears in a mano-a-mano in Olivenza in 2020 — the first and, as it turned out, last festival of that cursed year. In June of this year, before a very different audience in Madrid, I was hugely impressed by his shrewd courage in front of two dangerous and defensive animals. How, I wondered, would he perform with six?

I should explain that in a normal corrida, three matadors each face two bulls, with all six animals typically coming from the same ranch. But when a matador chooses to face six bulls alone, he wants to show the full range of his repertoire, so the bulls usually come from six very different bloodlines.

Dávila’s face was a river of blood, but he carried on

Marín rose to the occasion, adapting his style to the diverse pedigrees and cutting five ears. Yes, he went in for some crowd-pleasing stunts, drawing worship-screams from stands. But what won him the ears was his swordsmanship.

The most dangerous part of the bullfight is the sword-thrust, which Spaniards call the “suerte suprema”. To kill properly, a matador must slam his blade upon the bull’s tossing muscle. This requires him to stretch right over its horns, exposing himself to disembowelment. The target area between the bull’s shoulders is tiny — similar to the shape you make when you put your two thumbs and two index fingers together — and the torero needs to get the weight of his body behind the blade. It is no easy feat even without the danger. I once spent an afternoon in a practice ring trying unsuccessfully to hit the spot on a mocked-up bale of straw.

Many matadors take repeated attempts, or end up having to use the descabello — a broad blade with a crossbar, used to sever the spinal cord at the nape of the bull’s neck if the main sword-thrust fails. Others kill efficiently but dishonourably, striking too near so as to avoid going over the horns. Even Antonio Ordóñez, the titanic figure who dominated the Fifties and Sixties, often planted his blade too far down. To this day, aficionados occasionally talk of a low but lethal sword as being “in Ordóñez’s little corner”.

Well, not Marín. He went properly over the horns six times, dropping four of his bulls almost instantly. The Santander crowd might not be the most demanding in Spain but, by heaven, it recognises proper bladework when it sees it. That, in my book, pays for any amount of posturing.

Had you come on the Wednesday, you’d have seen more drama in three hours than a soap opera can pack into three years. It had been twenty-five years since Eduardo Dávila Miura, a handsome, gravelly-voiced Sevillian, became a full matador. Having recently come out of retirement, he was marking the occasion alongside two of the finest bullfighters alive: El Juli, probably the greatest torero of the past two decades; and Andrés Roca Rey, the fearless Peruvian whom I interviewed in this magazine last year.

The dynamics were fascinating. Dávila was hamming up the role of the genial veteran. (Full disclosure: he was my instructor during his years away from the ring, teaching me to cape young animals on Andalusian ranches.) The other two played along with the conceit — slightly absurdly in the case of El Juli, who became a full matador only a year after Dávila.

Dávila, the senior sword, opened, the crowd cheering indiscriminately until he stumbled and — whether in an attempt to deflect the charge or from sheer raffishness — attempted to pass the bull without recovering his feet. The bull was not fooled. It ignored the lure and slammed into the man, first lifting him, then rolling him along the sand. The other two matadors were on it in an instant, Roca Rey grabbing at its tail and El Juli — who had seen how dangerous it was from the outset, and had been hovering nervously in case he was needed — caping it away. Dávila’s face was a river of blood, and his suit of lights was shredded, but he carried on, killing the bull effectively enough. Later he came back with a patched face and patched clothes to cut an ear from his second.

We surrendered ourselves to that ecstasy that comes only from group rituals

Roca Rey drew the worst bulls of the evening. He was, as always, spectacularly brave. But both his animals — from the Puerto de San Lorenzo breed, fine exemplars of the Atanasio caste — ran out of steam, making it impossible for him to offer the daredevil moves in which he specialises.

And El Juli? El Juli reminded us of what makes him the greatest torero of his generation. As Carlyle said of Shakespeare, it is his unconscious intellect. No one knows bulls better. El Juli has a matchless understanding of terrains (which bit of the ring the bull should be in if it is to perform as you want) and jurisdictions (what portion of territory the bull considers its own, so that advancing into it triggers a charge). The result is a smoothness that no one else can replicate — a smoothness which mediocre aficionados attribute to the nature of Juli’s bulls rather than to the way he is handling them, for he makes things look too easy.

Finding himself with two willing animals, Juli gave us the full repertoire. He opened with lopecinas, a cape pass he invented (his real name being Julián López), where he spins the two-handed capote in a full circle, like a vertical clock face; and closed with circulares — a muleta pass where he takes the bull gently 360 degrees around him without shifting the position of his feet, and then repeats the move, feet still planted.

He could easily have cut four ears, but had to make do with two because of his one besetting weakness, namely indifferent sword-work. El Juli has perfected the art of planting his blade while moving to the right of the bull rather than leaning fully over it. Even Homer nods.

I won’t tell you about the Thursday night, because it was a form of mounted bullfighting called rejoneo, which has never really grabbed me, its appeal lying more in circus display than in artistic endeavour. I gave my ticket to one of my daughters, who likes horses.

But I do want to tell you about the Friday, which was spectacular. The six bulls came from La Quinta, which has a pretty good claim to be the best ranch in Spain this season. Its bulls, like most of the Santa Coloma caste, are more popular with aficionados than with toreros, tending to turn swiftly at the end of each pass. Santa Colomas are among the most immediately recognisable of fighting animals, with slate grey pelts, often lighter on their hindquarters and underbellies. They are not especially large, nor are their horns wide, but they are quick and crafty.

These six were textbook pictures of the breed, deadly packages of grey energy. Some were too cunning to allow for much artistry. But the fifth had just the right blend of danger, mobility and manageability. “No hay quinto malo”, goes the old saying: there’s never a bad fifth. This bull — el quinto de La Quinta, as it were — was magnificent. 

Hurón was his name: Ferret. His speed and fierceness matched his stamina. The matador, a tall, grim, talented Extremaduran called Miguel Ángel Perera, saw his qualities at once. He put together one of the most complete routines I have ever seen, beginning with a series of decorative passes with the capote reversed (“tafalleras”) and behind his back (“gaoneras”), then moving onto slow, low and poised muleta work, opening with stationary estatuarios and ending with circulares.

As Perera profiled with his sword, one of my immediate neighbours — an elderly fellow with deep afición whom I had befriended during the week — yelled out, “Don’t kill him!” Several spectators were starting to feel the same way, but had been too shy to begin the call for a pardon — that rarest of taurine events, which I have described before in these pages. Once my neighbour had growled his instruction, though, we all felt we had permission to join in, and the ring was soon a blizzard of handkerchiefs. Every time Perera profiled, there would be an ear-splitting protest. Eventually, the president gave in and flapped the orange hankie that signals an indulto. Perera was grinning from ear to ear — something I have never before known him to do, in or out of the bullring.

In the stands, we surrendered ourselves to what Émile Durkheim called “collective effervescence” — that ecstasy that comes only from group rituals. In such a state, the great sociologist tells us, “the vital energies become hyperexcited, the passions more intense, the sensations more powerful”. 

Quite. And there is nowhere, these days, that you are more likely to experience that intoxication than in a bullring. It beats Goodwood.

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