Roman arena, now used as a bullring, Arles
Sol y Sombra

Pick of the plazas

Christopher North advises on the best bullrings for budding aficionados

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Where should you watch your first bullfight? I hope, by next season, to have persuaded you to give it a go. Spanish towns hold their ferias between March and October, and a big part of being an aficionado is plotting routes that will allow you to cram in as many corridas as possible. So here are some of my favourites, listed in calendar order.

Valencia. Spain’s curiously under-visited third city holds the first major feria of the season in March. It is arguably too early: the weather can be cold and the bulls sluggish. But if we consider the entire festival, rather than just the bullfights, it is hard to beat.

There are exquisite fireworks every night, as well as a deafening daylight display, the mascletà, which slams its soundwaves through you. The streets pulse with bands. Then there are the fallas — huge fantastical wooden carvings displayed in parks and on street corners during the week and torched at the feria’s climax.

Seville. Seville’s bullring, the Real Maestranza, is an eighteenth-century baroque masterpiece. Locals have no doubt that theirs is the true taurine capital, and feel a commensurate sense of responsibility.

In the rest of Andalusia, crowds reward thrills, drama, near-misses. But Sevillians hold themselves to a higher standard, and visiting toreros know it. The feria spans most of April, and bullfighters attempt feats on the yellow sands they won’t try anywhere else.

Las Ventas, Madrid

Madrid. I wouldn’t recommend Madrid to the newcomer. For one thing, Las Ventas, its gorgeous Moorish-style bullring, is too big. Everyone knows it, but no one says so because the dimensions were proposed by Joselito himself. For another, a chunk of the Madrileño crowd, gathered in Section Seven of the stands, likes to impose its taste by shrieking and gibbering to protest at what often, in the event, turn out to be splendid bulls.

Still, Madrid is recognised (except by Sevillians) as the spiritual centre of toreo, and no matador is considered qualified until he has appeared in its May feria. Just as the wise bullfighter first finds his aesthetic in the provinces, though, so should the wise aficionado.

Aranjuez. If, by the end of May, you have had enough of Madrid’s portentous feria, take the short train ride to Aranjuez. You’ll be sharing the carriage with other aficionados who want to see lighter and more mobile bulls, more relaxed matadors and happier crowds. Aranjuez’s bullfights coincide with its strawberry festival, and the people of that royal town like to munch their way through sweet punnets between bulls.

Pamplona. During the July week of San Fermín, the normally staid northern town becomes like Mecca in the Hajj. At night, every cashpoint foyer is filled with snoring bodies, clad in regulation white with red neckerchiefs. Many northern Spanish towns stage “encierros”, where runners scarper before bulls through the streets; but only Pamplona’s is a national event, carried live on TV. Like Mecca, it should be visited at least once.

Hemingway memorial outside the Pamplona bullring

Bilbao. The August feria in the Basque city is famous for its exigent and grimly silent crowds. “El toro de Bilbao” used to be a byword for fierce aggression. As your taste veers towards the tougher castes of bull — and, trust me, it will, at least for a time — you, too, will be pulled to the old port city.

Ronda. Hemingway proposed Ronda as the perfect place to take your mistress. The clifftop setting is spectacular, and the September feria — called a “goyesca”, because the toreros dress in a style inspired by the artist — is a romantic celebration of toreo.

Arles and Nîmes. I wrote here last month about the depth of afición in the Midi. French spectators have the advantage of not thinking that they are born with expertise in their blood, and so are prepared to read and ask and look with open eyes. France’s other chief bullfighting towns — Bayonne, Béziers, Dax, Mont-de-Marsan — also run ferias of Bayreuth-level intensity. But only Arles and Nîmes have Roman arenas, and there is something incomparable about using a 2,000-year-old amphitheatre for something close to its original purpose.

Lima. The Plaza de Acho is by far the oldest, grandest and most handsome ring in the Americas. Juan Belmonte turned in his finest performances there a century ago, and Manolete triumphed in Lima just before his fatal goring in 1947. Many Limeños are aficionados prácticos, meaning that they have caped smaller animals as amateurs. It makes them uniquely discerning spectators. Lima usually holds its bullfights on Sundays in November and December — but it, too, has folded in the face of Covid.

Toreo has never suffered like this before, not even during the Spanish Civil War. How I yearn to stride expectantly into these rings again, to hear their pasodobles, to smell their cigar smoke. Usque quo, Domine? How long, O Lord?

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