Bullfighting in the Basque Region: An Insight into a Cultural Dilemma
Peter Jenkins, Foreign Correspondent in the Basque region, Spain, discusses his cultural encounters and the persistence of outdated practices like bullfighting.
The Basque region of Spain is a very interesting, some might say unique, part of modern Spain. As I will be calling this region, in particular the city of Bilbao, home for the next six months, I have felt obliged to explore the culture of the city and attempt to make sense of the dyed-in-the wool-lifestyle the people seem to lead here. This region, in the far north of Spain, shares many cultural everyday aspects with the other Spanish regions I have visited previously, such as Galicia and Andalucía – yet has an added air of independence about it.
As I will be calling this region, in particular the city of Bilbao, home for the next six months, I have felt obliged to explore the culture of the city…
The natural landscapes and political history of the Basque country are contrastingly alluring, with the added aspect of cultural attractions, such as Bilbao’s world-famous Guggenheim art museum, make this city and the Basque region a destination on many a tourists’ wish-list. Many of the Basque tourism videos produced in recent years have laid their focus upon the aspects mentioned above. Further sights such as La Concha beach in San-Sebastian, the church at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe – for Game of Thrones fans – and the symbolic Gernikako Arbola at Gernika, all showcase the interesting past and present culture of this region. Additionally, a vital thing for any newcomer to learn, is that tapas (bar food) here are known by their Basque name, Pintxos (The Way – Starring Michael Sheen! Anyone?).
However, the Spanish tradition that threatens to tinge the positive aspects already mentioned, is the one I felt implied to witness in all its indignity at first-hand. To understand Spanish culture is to understand the power of tradition. Here in Spain, of course, many traditions are pleasantly enriching experiences to witness or experience. Flamenco dancing, paella eating fiestas and the afternoon siesta to name a few. The one I have hesitated to mention is, of course, bullfighting. This form of entertainment has enjoyed a long life in Spain, it’s place secure in both the symbolically macho national image of Spanish-ness and the literary portrayal of Spanish culture. Thank-you Mr Hemingway.
For my first, and extremely likely, last and only experience of bullfighting, I had to settle for a place high in the stand of Bilbao’s architecturally neo-Mudejar (terminology for any of you taking Alun Williams’ excellent Islam and the making of Medieval Europe module in History this year) Plaza de Toros… I was not prepared to pay more than 5 euros for what I knew would be an unpleasant viewing spectacle. The cost of “ringside” seats was akin to football ticket prices, quite staggering to a Englishman’s eyes. Half-heartedly, I took my seat in a consolatory half-empty stadium and unfortunately, alas, I seemed to be seated between two blood-thirsty fanatics who gesticulated at me in Spanish slang quite incomprehensible to my ears.
However, the sight of an incandescent bull hurtling into the circular ring… soon snapped me back into reality on each occasion.
My thoughts strayed to those many tourists enjoying Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum or the many delights of the Casco Viejo or the old town’s charm, as a lone beret-wearing man trooped into the centre of the ring with the challenger’s details upon a large white placard. This happened before each of tonight’s bouts, fostering the feeling of being stuck in a bizarre dystopian dream. However, the sight of an incandescent bull hurtling into the circular ring, urinating in confused fear, its backside covered in fresh excrement, soon snapped me back into reality on each occasion. The same questions floated around my head. Is this culture? And, what is the point of upholding traditions such as this?
As the small but enthusiastic crowd showed their appreciation at the close of each bout, the executed bull was dragged, quite literally, ungraciously from the arena by a team of heavily adorned horses and their traditionally attired drivers. The picadors mount, the poor horses who seem to take the full force of each bull’s rage, at being stabbed by a lance, were, no doubt, also being treated for their highly visible wounds. Yet the crowd waved their white hankies frantically as the matador paraded his prize of either one or both ears cut from the bull, depending on the adjudged quality of his performance. It was during the final such parade that the two spectators besides me jubilantly expressed to me some words in Spanish, which I did manage to grasp the better part of. This rounded off my bewilderment. They said that “you have been very lucky to witness such a spectacular performance here in Bilbao and that it was not usually this good”. Digesting these sentiments as I gladly departed the venue, I couldn’t help but think to myself, if I was lucky to see that then I just hate to imagine what I would be or would have been unlucky to have seen.
Spain is attempting, with some success, to maintain its place at the high end of the global tourism market. But it appears to me, having delved into the local customs and traditions here in Bilbao, that there is a paradox which divides the population. Many people still enshrine a deeply traditional sentiment which, I think, is offsetting the burgeoning tourism-friendly mindset of the people who are keeping many areas of Spain at the top-end of Europe’s cultural attraction list. There still seems some way to go before Spain will give its youthful generation the opportunity to create a fresh cultural landscape; one where Spanish-ness is more comparable with other forward-thinking nations’ cultural reputations. Only time will tell. Maybe tradition will prove too strong, maybe culture will prove the more adaptable. Just don’t mention San Fermín.