Where to watch a bullfight from? (Passage from ‘Death in the Afternoon’)

(The pictures are not part of the book, of course. Have been randomly picked up while wandering across the web.)

The Callejon

I would not be able to put my finger on just why the below passage from Death in the Afternoon appeals to me so viscerally. Papa Hemingway states at the very beginning of the book,

“This is not being written as an apology for bullfights, but to try to present the bullfight integrally, and to do this a number of things must be admitted which an apologist, making a case, would slide over or avoid.”


This that has been written about one person’s reaction to the horses in the bull ring is not put in because of a desire of the author to write about himself and his own reactions, considering them as important and taking delight in them because they are his, but rather to establish the fact that the reactions were instant and unexpected.

"the reactions were instant and unexpected"

The passage I refer to below is where Papa Hemingway is advising where to sit while watching a bullfight. Nowhere does he underline his contempt for the sort of people who want not to see but to have seen a bullfight (and hence the kind of reader who’s reading the book for a similar benefit) but it surreptitiously worms it’s way in without a foaming over of the words. I perhaps do a great disservice to Hemingway’s writing by endeavoring to explain what he is trying to say, as that is the one foremost thing that hits me about his writing.

That there is no need for an introduction, for a context, as it is all weaved into the very character of the writing. Opinions are not passed on from an expert to a novice, but shown for what they are and how they have developed. That the emotions generated are not just passed off in the writing but “to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion” . More about it here and here.

The Barrera

Enough of me blabbering. Here we go.

Malaga bull ring

The bullfight itself takes place in a sand-covered ring enclosed by a red wooden fence a little over four feet high. This red wooden fence is called a barrera. Behind it is a narrow circular passageway that separates it from the first row of seats in the amphitheatre. This narrow passageway runway is called the callejon. In it stand the sword handlers with their jugs of water, sponges, piles of folded muletas and heavy leather sword cases, the bull-ring servants, the vendors of cold beer and gaseosas, of iced fruits in nets that float in galvanized buckets full of ice and water, of pastries in flat baskets, of salted almonds, and of peanuts. In it also are the police, the bullfighters who are not in the ring at the moment, several plainclothes policemen ready to arrest amateurs who may jump into the ring, the photographers, and on seats built in it and protected by shields of boards, are the doctors, the carpenters who repair the barrera if it is broken, and the delegates of the government. In some rings the photographers are allowed to circulate in the callejon; in others they must work from their seats.

The seats of the bull ring are uncovered except for the boxes or palcos and the first gallery or grada. From the gallery the seats descend in circular rows to the edge of the rings. These rows of numbered places are called tendidos. The two rows nearest the ring, the front rows of all the seats, are called barreras and contrabarreras. The third row is known as delanteras de tendidos or the front row of the tendidos. The bull ring for numbering purposes is cut into sections as you would cut a pie, and these sections numbered tendidos 1, 2, 3, and so on up to 11 and 12 depending on the size of the ring.

If you are going to a bullfight for the first time the best place to sit depends on your temperament. From a box or from the first row in the gallery details of sound and smell and those details of sight that make for the perception of danger are lost or minimized, but you see the fight better as a spectacle and the chances are that, if it’s a good bullfight, you will enjoy it more. If it’s a bad bullfight, that is not an artistic spectacle, you will be better off the closer you are since you can then, for the lack of a whole to appreciate, learn and see all the details, the whys and the wherefores. The boxes and the gallery are for people who do not want to see things too closely for fear they may upset them, for people who want to see the bullfight as a spectacle or a pageant, and for experts who can see details even though a long way from them and want to be high enough up so they can see everything that happens in any part of the ring in order to be able to judge it as a whole.

The Boxes

The barrera is the best seat if you want to see and hear what happens and to be so close to the bull that you will have  the bullfighter’s point of view. From the barrera the action is so near and detailed that a bullfight that would be soporific from the boxes or the balcony is always interesting. It is from the barrera that you see danger and learn to appreciate it. There too you have an uninterrupted view of the ring. The only other seats, besides the front row in the gallery, and the first row in the boxes, where you do not see people between you and the ring, are the sobrepuertas. These are the seats that are built over the doorways through which you enter the various sections of the ring. They are about halfway up to the sides of the bowl, and from there you get a good view of the ring and a good perspective, yet you are not as distant as in the boxes or gallery. They cost about half as much as the barreras or the first row of gallery or boxes and they are very good seats.

The west walls of the bull ring building cast a shadow and those seats that are in the shade when the fight commences are called seats of the sombra or shade. Seats that are in the sun when the fight commences but that will be in the shadow as the afternoon advances are called of sol y sombra. Seats are priced according to their desirability and whether they are shaded or not. The cheapest seats are those which are nearest the roof on the far sunny side and have no shade at all at any time. These are the andanadas del sol and on a hot day, close under the roof, they must reach temperatures that are unbelievable in a city like Valencia where it can be 104 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, but the better seats of the sol are good ones to buy on a cloudy day or in cold weather.

At your first bullfight if you are alone, with no one to instruct you, sit in a delantera de grada or a sobrepuerta. If you cannot get these seats you can always get a seat in a box. They are the most expensive seats and the farthest from the ring, but they give a good panoramic view of the fight. If you are going with someone who really knows bullfighting and want to learn to understand it and have no qualms about details, a barrera is the best seat, contraberrera the next best and sobrepuerta the next.

Watching a bullfight

If you are a woman and think you would like to see a bullfight and are afraid you might be badly affected by it do not sit any closer than the gallery the first time. You might enjoy the fight from there where you will see it as a spectacle and not care for it at all if you sat closer so that the details destroyed the effect of the whole. If you have plenty of money, want not to see but to have seen a bullfight and plan no matter whether you like it or not to leave after the first bull, buy a barrera seat so that someone who has never had money to sit in a barrera can make a quick rush from above and occupy your expensive seat as you go out taking your preconceived opinions with you.

That is the way it used to happen at San Sebastian. Due to various grafts of ticket resale and the reliance of the management on the wealthy curiosity trade from Biarritz and the Basque Coast, the barreras, by the time you buy them, cost a hundred pesetas apiece or over. A man could live a week on that in a bullfighters’ boarding house in Madrid, go to the Prado four times a week, buy good seats in the sun for two bullfights, buy the paper afterwards and drink beer and eat shrimps in the Pasaje Alvarez off the Calle de Vitoria, and still have something left to get his shoes shined with. Yet by buying any sort of seat within diving range of the barrera at San Sebastian you could be sure of having a hundred-peseta seat to occupy when the citizens who knew they were morally bound to leave the bull ring after the first bull stand up to make their well-fed, skull and bones-ed, porcelain-ed, beach-tanned, flanneled, Panama-hatted. sport-shod exits. I’ve seen them go many times when the women with them wanted to stay. They could go to the bullfight, but they had to meet at the Casino after they had seen the first bull killed. If they didn’t leave and liked it there was something wrong with them. Maybe they were queer. There was never anything wrong with them. They always left. That was until bullfights became respectable. In nineteen thirty-one I did not see one leave within range and now it looks as though the good days of the free barreras at San Sebastian are over.

Cross-section of the bull ring

"The spectacle"

One thought on “Where to watch a bullfight from? (Passage from ‘Death in the Afternoon’)

  1. Pingback: Bullfights give me heartburn and a bunch of discombobulated thoughts | Blair Necessities

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