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I often spend time in the South of France and have become used to many of the traditions of the region. I always try to put aside any pre-fabricated ideas or prejudices I may have and embrace these traditions as fully as possible. And so, at the late end of summer 2009, I decided to go and witness something that is widely seen as controversial, yet in Southern France is bathed in tradition – The Corrida, aka bullfighting.

Since the 19th century Spanish-style corridas have been increasingly popular in Southern France. Among France’s most important venues for bullfighting are the ancient Roman arenas of Nîmes and Arles, although other smaller Roman arenas can be found throughout the South from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coasts.

In the Provence and Languedoc regions of Southern France there exists a more indigenous genre of bullfighting known as a Course Camarguaise. This is a bloodless spectacle (for the bulls) in which the objective is to snatch a rosette from the head of a young bull. I have watched both a Corrida and a Course Camarguaise and can honestly say that they offer entirely different experiences. The atmosphere I experienced in Arles for the Corrida was very different from that at the Course Camarguaise – much more tense where the spectators seemed to have an emotional involvement in what they were witnessing. There is a strict protocol to the Corrida.

Le Paseo
The show commences with a parade of the participants.
– Les Alguaziles: horseman who ceremonially perform the rule of law during the bullfight
– Les trois Matadors: the three matadors classed in order of seniority
– Les Areneros: those who restore the track between fights
– Le train d’Arrastre: the team of mules who drag the body out of the bull after it has been killed

After Le Paseo, the first of three bullfights begins. There are three main stages of the bullfight.

Premier Tercio: Le Tercio de Pique
After the release of the bull, the Matador and his team entice the bull to attack using a brightly coloured cloth (often pink or red). These first passes allow the matador to assess the behaviour of the bull. The team who work with the Matador stay on the sides and call out to the bull to draw his attention away from the Matador. Effectively, the idea is to tire the bull out.

After the initial passes, the Picadors (horsemen that jab the bull with a lance) enter the arena. Their main roles are to pierce the muscle on the back of the bull’s neck in order to straighten the bull’s charge, to fatigue the bull’s neck muscles and general stamina as it tries to lift the horse with its heads and to lower the bull’s head in preparation for the next stage.

Deuxième Tercio : Le Tercio de Banderilles
Next, Banderillas sticks about 80 cm long, that have a 4 cm harpoon at the end are planted into the muscle at the base of the bull’s neck. The banderillas are usually planted by the Matador’s team, but some matadors do this themselves.

Troisième Tercio : Le Tercio de Mise à Mort
The last stage of the bull fight is where the bull is put to death. It involves the Faena Muleta, where the Matador entices the bull to attack his cape a number of times, again tiring the animal. The Matador then carefully choses his moment to strike le coup de grâce, the final planting of a sword.

Bullfighting is of course very controversial. Those who are against it argue that it is a blood sport where the bulls are unfairly mistreated and killed. Those who follow the spectacle regard it as a ‘fine art’ and argue that the bulls are raised and conditioned their entire life with the sole intention to participate in the Corrida – without the Corrida they would not have been bread. When I spoke to people in the Camargue region of Southern France, an area that has a long tradition for bull fighting, they argued that there is an entire local economy based on young bulls.

I do not condone the sport of bullfighting, but I find the traditions surrounding it extremely fascinating. I very much doubt I will go to watch another Corrida. On the one hand I found it to be a beautiful spectacle, yet on the other hand I found it very one-sided and extremely unfair on the bull. But it is a tradition that I do not fully understand and, unless you are from an area where bull fighting takes place, I think it’s extremely difficult to fully understand it’s appeal.