Regardless of your personal opinion on bullfighting, it is without question that the “sport” still has a central place in Portuguese culture, despite many activist groups’ repeated demands for its abolition. The Portuguese spectacle involves a host of different disciplines, flamboyant costumes, and choreographed routines, and despite our reservations, we decided to explore this Iberian tradition after being invited to a show at Lisbon’s last remaining bullring.
Portuguese vs. Spanish Bullfighting
Unbeknownst to many, Portuguese bullfighting differs greatly from the more commonly-seen Spanish-style. Most notably, the matador doesn’t kill the bull in front of the audience (and hasn’t since the mid-19th century). Also, cavaleiros (horsemen/women) and forcados (weaponless bull wrestlers) traditionally play a role in the spectacle, whereas these disciplines don’t exist at all in the Spanish bullring, but more on those later.
The Portuguese bullring also enlists the help of bandarilheiros, whose job it is to distract the bull and move him to different areas of the ring using capes, calls, and other attention-grabbing techniques. They hold a gold/pink cape and usually wear a sparkly suit, but never one with gold sequins. Go figure.
Portuguese Bullfighting Disciplines
The cavaleiros are horseback riders who are generally dressed in traditional 18th-century costumes. Their goal is to draw the bull to a charge and then get close enough to place a single dart, or bandarilha, in the bull’s back muscle. The make of a good “stick” is when the dart stays lodged in. If it falls out, it’s considered a fail. The elegant Lusitano horses that these cavaleiros ride have been specially trained for the fights, so their movements are considered not only daring but artistic. This particular breed of horse also has a long history as a victor on the battlefields of Asia, Africa, and Southern Portugal, improving their pedigree in the ring.
Although in the beginning equestrian bullfighting had been an all-male activity, those days are now well behind us with a host of young and talented female riders performing in the finest bullrings in Portugal. Dressed in traditional attire, women such as Ana Batista are now considered to be among the best of Portugal’s new generation of bullfighters.
The forcados are a group of eight weaponless men who challenge the bull directly. The frontman provokes the bull into a charge before grabbing the bull’s head and being carried between the horns. This act is called the pega de cara (face catch). Once he has achieved the catch, he is aided by the remaining seven men, who surround and secure the bull until the frontman can jump off safely.
Wanna give it a try? One of the oldest surviving forcados groups (founded in 1915), the Group de Forcados Amadores, have a spring training camp in Santarem designated to teaching the art. The camp is open to anyone brave enough to step into the arena and try their luck.
Watching a Bullfight
Atlas was invited to witness one of the better-known Spanish matadors, J.J. Padilla, as he showed off his bullfighting skills in Lisbon’s only bullfighting arena, Campo Pequeno. Normally, it’s not something we would have agreed to attend, but we changed our minds when we discovered that the matador is nicknamed “the Pirate.” You see, back in 2011, J.J. Padilla was gored by a bull — a single horn went through his skull resulting in multiple fractures, facial paralysis, loss of hearing in his right ear and of sight in his left eye. He only took five months off to recover before returning to the ring wearing an eyepatch.
We figured that, if anyone, this guy had suffered enough to call what he does a sport. Of course, we still weren’t sure what to expect, but for the sake of research and better understanding, we agreed to go.
Now, these spectacles certainly aren’t for everyone. Just because the bull doesn’t get killed in the arena doesn’t mean it doesn’t bleed— it does. This made us uncomfortable, as did the shouts, calls, and clamor from some of the more seasoned bullfight spectators calling for a deeper stick with the bandarilha. My sense of pity for the bull was hard to overcome, but there were elements to the show that were able to draw my focus away from the sadness; There is something to be said for the costumes, the choreography, and even the daring artistry of being in a ring with a bull, but I’m not quite sure it was enough for me in the end.
You’ll have to make up your own mind.