It has been well documented that Ernest Hemingway was a fan of Spanish bullfighting. His first experience as a spectator in 1923 in Pamplona sparked an obsession in him that lasted a lifetime and led to his writing Death in the Afternoon. What Hemingway found so fascinating about bullfighting had everything to do with the blood and gore that now send animal rights’ activists charging the streets in protest. He viewed the violent deaths of those massive beasts as something glorious, something humanity ultimately craved, whether on the battlefield during war or within an arena during a bullfight. Whether or not we agree with Hemingway’s assessment, bullfighting continues today. It is followed by both a passionate group of supporters and an equally passionate group of protesters.
While bullfighting originated in Spain, southern France also has a long history of the sport. For over 150 years, corrida has maintained its tradition as a cultural pastime, especially around Easter. The highlight in the city of Arles, France during the festival Feria de Pentecote, is a bullfight held in the ancient Roman arena near the center of town. This is where I was first introduced to French bullfighting.
The day my husband and I were at the Arenes d’Arles (the semi-modernized coliseum) was a Thursday. Unfortunately, there were no bullfights taking place that day. But…my interest was piqued! As we left Arles, I lamented the fact that I would miss seeing a real, live French bullfight inside an ancient coliseum–an event I hadn’t planned or even known about–but one that was now festering in my imagination. We continued on our way to a small, seaside village that is known for its gypsies, horses, and cathedral, Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. It’s an out-of-the-way place, enchanting in its own right, yet completely different from the medieval villages we had visited previously. Every year its citizens honor Sarah, the patron saint of gypsies, with a parade carrying her statue from the cathedral. According to legend, Sarah was the slave girl who accompanied Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobi (sister of the Virgin), Mary Salome (mother of James & John), Lazarus (raised from the dead, remember?), and Martha (the Magdalene’s sister). In order to escape persecution, they fled their homeland and floated in a boat without a sail across the sea, landing in the Camargue region of France that we were now visiting.
Imagine my delight when I saw that a bullfight was taking place that very afternoon in Stes.-Maries-de-la-Mer! People were filing into a much more colorful and newly built arena. It looked like something you’d find at a circus. For ten euros each, my husband and I found a seat in the upper most section. The spectacle below was like nothing I’d ever experienced! The bulls were huge, snorting and bellowing as they entered the arena. Twelve svelt young men in snug, white outfits scattered around the bull, taunting and calling to him. Ultimately, unlike traditional forms of bullfighting, the goal was for each bullfighter to pull ribbons off the bulls’ horns. They had to get close enough to the agitated animals to pull off a ribbon, but get out of the way fast enough to avoid injury. Points were accumulated with each of these ribbons, so it was a competition between the men, and the bull got to live. I found this to be a relief!
Apparently, there’s a word for French hillbillies who attend bullfights religiously. I don’t remember what it is, but I was proud to be among them. The gymnastic agility of the men, who had to leap out of the way to avoid being gored, was remarkable! The enormity of the bulls, who pawed the ground, tossed their horns, and chased after the men was breathtaking. The sheer energy of the event made for a very exciting afternoon and ten euros very well spent! This form of bullfighting became one of my favorite things about visiting France.