Can I blame Hemingway? Watching a bullfight at the Roman amphitheater in Nimes

Not only for men - the women around us had definite opinions on the performances of the matadors.

Warning: this post contains graphic images of bullfighting.

I'm still not sure what I was thinking but let me try to explain. When Stephane asked if I wanted to watch a bullfight at the ancient Roman amphitheater in Nîmes, images of Ernest Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises popped into my brain. And since I'm an American expatriate living in Paris, it seemed like the thing to do.

But why am I writing about it? Shouldn't I just move on to the next post and pretend as if it never happened? That's what one side of my brain has been urging me to do.  The other side, however, reminds me that this blog is a journal about this period of my life and that I did go to a bullfight. There's no denying it.

While dining in close quarters at a tapas bar after the bullfight, we spoke with several aficionados, who all asserted that bullfighting is an art on a par with ballet. One impeccably dressed Parisian woman in her sixties enthused about the grace and skill of the matadors. When she explained that their harmonious communion with the bulls often reach levels of the sublime, the other diners nodded their heads in agreement. The French Ministry of Culture has even listed bullfighting as part of the cultural heritage of France.

When I told the aficionados that the inhumane treatment of the bulls overshadowed the well-executed movements of the matador, they replied that it was a shame that my first bullfight was so bloody and blamed the matador's poor performance. The matador, in turn, stated on his website that he attributed it to the inferior breeding of the bulls.

Now I'm going to share something that doesn't make me proud - after telling Stephane that the scenes in the arena were making me ill, he asked if I wanted to leave. And my response? I enquired how much he had paid for the tickets. My brain must have been addled by the sight of so much blood, for I can't help but wonder how long I would have stayed if he had paid more than 160 Euros ($ 220). When we reached the locked exit gate, the guard confirmed that we really wanted to leave. Assuring him that we did, he said, "Then I release you." With a sigh of relief, we walked down a narrow side street made impassable by the large crowd gathered to watch the bullfight on television.

In a dual called a mano-a-mano, the top two French bullfighters, Juan Bautista and Sébastian Castella alternately fought six bulls on September 17, 2011.

The following photos show the three stages of a bullfight.

Tercio de Varas (Lances third): Shortly after the bull enters the ring, the picadors arrive on horseback and stick a lance in the bull to pierce its thick neck muscle and straighten its charge. Enraged, the bull uses its horns to attack the horse, thus further fatiguing the neck muscles and causing the 1,146 pound (520 kg) bull to lower its head. It's during this critical first stage that the matador assesses the movements of the bull, determines its character and discovers any quirks that it may have.

Juan Bautista, one of the top two French matadors.
The picador plants the first lance.

Tercio de Banderillas (Banderillas third): The three banderilleros attempt to plant two brightly colored barbed sticks in the bull's shoulders. This causes an additional weakening of the neck and shoulder muscles and loss of blood. After the banderilleros have finished their work, the matador waves his cape inciting the bull to charge. I didn't take any photos during this stage.

Tercio de Muerte (Death Third): The matador exchanges the large dress cape for a small red one or muletta. By this point, the bull was so tired that I found myself hoping that it would have a speedy death. In spite of its heaving sides and extended tongue, the bull fought valiantly until the very end. Its dead body was rewarded by the cheers of the audience as it was unceremoniously hauled out of the arena.

Using a small red cape, Bautista brings the bull in for one of the last passes.
Bautista plants the entire sword in the bull during the final blow.
Bautista studies the bull to determine if he will need to use another
dagger to cut the spinal cord and hasten death.
The bull is hauled out of the arena to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd.
A crowd watching the bullfight on television.

If you would like to visit the website for the Alliance Against Bullfighting to sign the petition to abolish bullfighting, please click here.


  1. I think this is my favorite of your blogs that I've read. I had no idea bullfighting, consummated by the death of the bull, was allowed in France - until your blog I would have guessed "definitely not!" Something new to know. I have not been to a bullfight, even with easy opportunity I always passed it up for no particular reason. I would like to go sometime. I did visit a matador's ranch in Sevilla once, and watched matadors-in-training. That was a GREAT experience that I'm glad for. The ranch owner was a fairly young guy (mid-30s) who retired early from a distinguished career because of a goring injury. I completely get the perspective that good bullfighting is ballet-like after witnessing young wannabe bullfighters being trained by the retired matador. He would sit in the stands of his practice ring giving verbal direction to the trainees. Eventually the matador became frustrated with the training and went down to the ring to show the cape work that he expected. It was instantly recognizable the difference between the art form and the actions of the inexperienced or incapable. Truly the ring and the experience transformed as soon as the matador took over. Even so, I think the appreciation of bullfighting as an art is more rationale than real. The same gracefulness and art are available outside of a bloodsport. There is something in some folks' DNA that makes them go for bloodsport - bullfighting, cockfighting, dogfighting, horse fighting (I just heard about that last week for the first time - Philippines), and boxing. All seem to be the same sort of thing, and it either interests a person or it does not. I really think it's the DNA, more than male/female, poor/rich, educated/uneducated.


  2. Jon, After my early exit from the arena, I can assure you that watching bloodsports is not in our DNA! The aficionados told me that I should have started by with the equestrian bullfight on Saturday morning. They explained that the matador rides a horse while fighting the bull. Can you imagine Margo's reaction to that?

  3. Fascinating. Even with your warning, it was more graphic than I expected. Whereas I value the historical and cultural aspects of the bullfight, it is a difficult thing for me to watch--it's gruesome and it's killing an animal, I think I would just be ill. I love the pageantry, the colors, the movements, but watching the pain may just be too much for me. Having said that, if given the opportunity, I think I would attend--maybe it's that DNA thing. I like boxing too. My mind just goes back and forth on the topic. Seems like a trip to Nimes, or Spain, would be in order to test this out.

    Thanks for posting this.

  4. Joseph, Sorry for ignoring George Washington's advice, "Show nothing to your friend that may affright him." I should have read your recent blog post prior to writing about the bullfight. One of the things that surprised me the most is how absolutely quiet it was in the arena except when the audience applauded a particularly difficult move by the matador. I told Stephane that I heard the lance entering the bull's neck, but he thinks that it's my imagination. In any case, I've seen my first and last bullfight.

    Just in case you missed it, Bruce (French Mystique Tours) left a response to your comment over on the post about the bicycle trip along the Marne River.

  5. incredibly brutal

  6. It makes me sad to see that so many members of humankind have an innate bloodlust that needs to be filled with this type of entertainment. I am not of the opinion that any and every practice that is part of a culture's heritage should be celebrated. Some things are just wrong. I'm sure all of us can think of acts of revolting cruelty that are an important part of a certain culture, but nevertheless should be (or has been) abolished. Just saying "It's culture!" is no excuse for cruelty.


  7. Everyone who is a meat eater has participated in the death of animals and though not all species on the planet, human or otherwise, eat meat the practice of killing for the sake of survival is part of nature. I have no problem with killing an animal as part of a survival strategy (although that doesn't seem to be what's going on here) but I am repulsed by the act of adding sport and spectacle to this process and subjecting a living being to cruelty, injury and suffering for the sake of pleasure.

    I don't consider this a sport since in a real sport there is equal probability that either opponent has a chance of winning and both participants enter the contest willingly. The matador can choose their profession, the bull can't. And the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of the matador. If as many matadors were killed in these events as bulls I'm pretty sure this "sport" wouldn't exist.



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