Carlos Enrique Carmona is 18 years old and has the dubious distinction of having been gored by a bull… in his groin. “It wasn’t too bad,” he assures me, flashing an awkward smile that says otherwise. There’s no need to feel sorry for him. Though he still wears braces on his teeth and can’t yet muster any meaningful facial hair, the teenager has decided to pursue a career as a matador and any bullfighting-related injuries he sustains are of his own making. I’ve never met a matador before, but Carlos is exactly how I pictured one to be. Tall with dark hair and piercing brown eyes, his skinny frame bedecked in a tailored suit, he wears the look of a man who’d gleefully seduce your wife the minute your back was turned.
Bullfighting, he says, is in his blood. “My father, my cousin and my godmother are bullfighters,” he says, proudly. His mum must worry, I suggest. “Yes,” he replies, though I suspect her complaining does little to quell his passion.
My meeting with Carlos is quite by chance. Although I’ve come to Las Ventas bullring, where the young protégé plies his trade, it’s not often the public gets to meet a matador, particularly when, like today, there isn’t a fight taking place. However, he happened to be putting on a rare demonstration (sans bull) while I toured the venue, so I collared him.
An imposing building in Madrid’s Salamanca district, Las Ventas was a favourite hangout for the writer Ernest Hemingway, who was a regular in the Spanish capital during the 1920s. He loved this city and set part of his seminal novel, The Sun Also Rises, here. Despite the romance that Hemingway’s historic presence evokes, Las Ventas today is a theatre of controversy. Scores of bulls are slain here every year in the name of sport — something animal rights activists, quite reasonably, claim is cruel. But although it sits uncomfortably with me, there’s something about bullfighting that captures my imagination. It’s an ugly spectacle, of course, but there’s also a dangerous beauty about it; man and beast dancing with each other, dancing with death.
Julio Aparicio knows all about the perils of his sport. In 2010, in this very arena, a costly error led to him being gored by a bull — its horn entering through the unfortunate matador’s Adam’s apple and exiting though his mouth. Aparicio’s life was spared on the operating table, but the bull wasn’t so lucky: he was slain, despite winning the fight.
That gruesome day — one of the darker chapters in modern bullfighting — was eclipsed in July 2016, when the matador, Victor Barrio, stepped into a bullring and never walked out. The 29-year-old, an apprentice at Las Ventas, was fighting in Aragon and his death — the first in 30 years — was broadcast live on television, putting even more pressure on a sport that was already falling out of favour.
Carlos isn’t keen to talk about the ethics of his sport, so I take my enquiries to the on-site museum, which chronicles the history of bullfighting. “Right now toreo is not fashionable,” concedes the visitors’ manager, Yoann Meurs. “Some people want to stop it [once and for all].”
But, he says, bullfighting is vital to the economy. Without it the bars and restaurants surrounding the stadium would struggle to survive. He claims they make most of their annual income in May, when Las Ventas hosts an international competition that he describes as “the Champions League of bullfighting”.
But what about the poor animals, I offer. They’re antagonised, toyed with and ultimately massacred in the name of entertainment. Yoann suggests carnivores have little room to criticise the sport, which he says rewards quick kills. “The public want a good dance and just one sword to kill the bull,” he explains. “It should take less than a minute for the bull to die.”
It doesn’t always end quickly, though, and it doesn’t always end in death. If the bull proves too shrewd for the matador, spectators wave orange handkerchiefs to goad the president of the ring into pardoning its ‘charmed’ life.
“Twenty bulls a year have their lives saved in Spain,” says Yoann, neglecting to mention the many that don’t. “They’ll live in paradise, with 30 or 40 cows for reproductive purposes — it’s actually a good life.” I remain unconvinced.
Whatever your thoughts on bullfighting, you can’t deny its ability to confront. And in a continent that’s becoming increasingly standardised, bullfighting is something distinctively Spanish. Love it or loathe it, it’s woven into the culture of this country.
On the Hemingway trail
Hemingway was a big fan of bullfighting, which plays a starring role in The Sun Also Rises. Celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, the book follows a group of heavy-drinking, easy-loving American expats as they travel from Paris to Madrid via Pamplona. It ends in a local restaurant called Botin, which not only has the distinction of being one of Hemingway’s favourite haunts, but is also thought to be the world’s oldest restaurant.
Located on a street behind Plaza Mayor, Botin swung open its doors in 1725 and looks every bit its age. The stone floors, wood-panelled walls and antiquated dining trolleys convey a bygone epoch, while the smell of roast meat is evocative of Sunday lunch at gran’s house.
The restaurant is famed for its signature dish, suckling pig, which is indeed everything the plaudits promise. I wash it down with half a bottle of red, which, like the food, isn’t served with anything resembling a smile. Where service is concerned, I get the feeling that Botin trades off past glories, although it undeniably delivers the goods.
Going on the Hemingway trail is a great way to acquaint yourself with Madrid — and the writer’s drinking habits. He propped up many of the city’s timeworn bars; among his favourites were Museo Chicote on Gran Via, a sleek cocktail bar just down the road from Madrid’s brazen red light district; and La Venencia, a no-frills sherry bar that lurks down one of Sol’s quiet backstreets, Calle
Were Hemingway to walk into La Venencia today he’d surely find it little changed. The walls and ceiling are nicotine brown (from the days when you could smoke) and the empty sherry bottles stacked behind the bar look like they haven’t seen a feather duster since Franco was in power. It’s refreshingly old-fashioned; taking photos is banned, there’s no music and not one person seems to be playing with their phone. Punters seem to be treated with the same casual indifference and their tabs are chalked onto the ancient wooden bar, like the old days.
The Spanish aren’t in the habit of getting drunk and rarely booze on an empty stomach. La Venencia, therefore, like every other bar in town, serves small plates of tapas, which start from just €1. A glass of fino, meanwhile, leaves you with change from €2.
“No tips,” barks the bartender, when I settle my tab, returning the silver to my palm. I bid him farewell and stagger home with the glow of a man who’s had more than enough sherry for the day.
Forging new narratives
One of the main themes in The Sun Also Rises, set in Europe after the Second World War, is the idea of a lost generation. And, the following morning, as I explore Malasaña, a district prone to being described as ‘trendy’, it doesn’t escape my attention that there’s also talk of a lost generation today.
Eight years after the economic crash, the unemployment rate in Spain is a reported 21%, rising to 45% when you start talking about youth unemployment. The EU average is 8.9% and 19.4% respectively. Spain has been hit hard. Perversely, the economic crash has helped Malasaña reinvent itself as the vibrant, vital district it is today. At least that’s according to Joanna Wivell, a garrulous Yorkshire lass who fell for Madrid and now works as a tour guide in the city.
“In a way, this place has really come alive since the crisis,” she says, as we thread through Malasaña’s bustling streets. When workers lost their jobs and moved back in with their parents, the price of property here crashed, explains Joanna, which opened doors for those looking to start businesses. “And because people lost their jobs, they had to reinvent themselves,” she says. “So they went abroad or studied something new and came back here with their ideas.”
Vanesa Serrano is one of those people. She worked in advertising before the crash and now runs a design shop in Malasaña. “When I arrived here there were druggies in the street, but now it has changed,” says the young entrepreneur, who has just returned from a three-hour lunch.
Long lunches are an essential part of life in Madrid, as they are in the rest of Spain, but this time-honoured tradition is under threat. Politicians are talking about reining them in and bringing them in line with the rest of Europe. “Impossible,” says Vanesa, shaking her head. “We won’t do it.”
Malasaña’s independent spirit is similarly under threat. The tide of gentrification is creeping in and the main thoroughfare, Fuencarral, is increasingly dominated by multinationals. However, the bohemian vibe lives on down the labyrinthine backstreets, lined as they are with salons, shops, restaurants and bars, which people flutter between like butterflies.
Joanna leads me into Bodega de la Ardosa, a vermouth bar that’s been serving drinks for more than 100 years. Like all of Madrid’s eateries specialising in the aperitif, this bodega is painted bright red, but, unlike the others, this one has a hidden backroom, which is accessed by crawling under the bar. This is the best bar of its kind, says Joanna, before ordering two wee snifters.
And so starts a bar crawl, which next takes us to La Realidad, whose owner, Javier Figarola, regales me with the history of the district. “Malasaña is named after Manuela Malasaña who was a seamstress from the area,” he says. “When Napoleon invaded Madrid she was one of the leading revolutionary girls. She died fighting French troops.” Since then Malasaña has retained its rebellious, youthful spirit.
“After Franco, this neighbourhood was one of the main places where young people came to hear music,” says Javier. “Malasaña has always been an area for young people.”
The crawl continues to Kikekeller, an art gallery-cum-cocktail lounge, which has a bar made from what appears to be an American muscle car. And then to Palentino, where I befriend Pipi, who’s a TV producer on a soap opera called Troubled Times. Pipi is bedecked in a tartan dress, red specs and auburn hair, and is accompanied by a man who sports a heroic handlebar moustache and smokes Savage cigarettes.
“This place is an institution, a proper bar,” she says, raising her voice above the din of conversation. “There’s always a big mix of people in here. Everyone is welcome.”
Less welcome is my fuzzy head the next day, which follows me to the Matadero arts centre on the other side of town. The Spanish capital is not short of headline cultural attractions — the Museo Nacional Del Prado, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum are all world-class galleries — but the Matadero is recognised as an incubator for tomorrow’s talent.
“The authorities knew Madrid had lots of great museums, but there was a lack of space for young artists to work and exhibit,” says communications manager Iñigo Garcia, showing me around. “We don’t exhibit the big names, just emerging artists.”
I explore the rambling facility, which is home to theatres, cinemas and various creative spaces where I watch resident artists lose themselves in sculptures and paintings. There’s a calm and convivial atmosphere throughout, but that wasn’t always the case — in a previous life this hub of creativity was actually a slaughterhouse.
From death there is life. No doubt anti-bullfighting campaigners would like to see something similar happen to Las Ventas, but that may be wishful thinking for now. While new narratives are being forged in Madrid, some old habits die hard.
Getting there & around
EasyJet, British Airways and Vueling are among the airlines offering regular daily flights between the UK and Madrid. Between them, they service the Spanish capital from London, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Manchester.
Madrid is easily explored on foot. However, for longer journeys, hop on the Metro, which is extensive. If you’re going to be using the Metro a lot, buy a Go Madrid travel pass, which starts at €8 for one day’s unlimited travel in zone A.
How to do it
Fly to Madrid from around £60 return (easyjet.com) and check-in to Only YOU, a beautiful boutique hotel in Malasaña, where doubles start from around £120 per night. Build your own bespoke tour of the city, focusing on anything from food and wine to history, with Insider’s Madrid.
The interviews in this feature were conducted before the tragic death of Víctor Barrio in July 2016, and all quotes included should be viewed in that context.
Published in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)