Page last updated at 11:05 GMT, Saturday, 8 August 2009 12:05 UK

Spanish bullfighting on a budget

Bullfight in Manzanares el Real
Bullfighters are billed like film stars in Manzanares el Real

In Spain, the recession is testing the nation's passion for that most cherished of traditions - bullfighting. Steve Kingstone visited a town that has decided to slash dramatically the costs of its annual bullfighting fiesta.

Under an already fierce mid-morning sun, the young runners limber up nervously. Some crouch down and touch the dirt, others stare resolutely at the cattle truck behind them.

They have come to run with the bulls - the ultimate test of testosterone in Spain.

One at a time, six beasts will be released, then stampede their way along an enclosed course ending in the Plaza de Toros - the bullring - where later, the animals will meet their end.

Except, when the truck door opens - nothing. There is a pause, someone bangs on the side, and finally two horns and a lazy-looking head appear.

It is the kind of place where bulls run through the DNA... where the bullfight is the highlight of the fiesta

After further coaxing, the animal shuffles out of the truck, and trots along the track. It is smaller than the standard fighting bull and the pumped up runners leave it for dust.

"These bulls are a joke," someone shouts, prompting a burst of good-natured banter. The crowd all know the inescapable truth - this is low-budget bull-running during a recession.


The town is Manzanares el Real, a 45-minute drive and a world away from Madrid.

Edged by mountains, overlooking a reservoir, the air is clean and the history rich.

Bull running in Manzanares el Real
The town now has two days of bullfighting rather than three

The druids, Romans, and Visigoths were all here. Charlton Heston played El Cid, the legendary Castilian knight, against the backdrop of its 15th-Century castle.

It is the kind of place where bulls run through the DNA, where the annual fiesta is the highlight of the year, and where the bullfight is the highlight of the fiesta, where bullfighters are billed like film stars on colourful retro-style posters.

But like everywhere in Spain, Manzanares el Real has fallen victim to the recession - the country's first in 16 years.

Nationwide, unemployment is nearly 18%, double the EU average. Locally, most of those out of work are immigrants who were once cheap labour on the building sites of Madrid.

'Rump of reactionaries'

"In an economic crisis bullfighting is unsustainable for a small town," the mayor told me.

At just 35, Oscar Cerezal has already made a name for himself. In March he held a referendum on whether the fiesta should take place without bulls - a move which would have saved the town hall 140,000 euros (£120,000). That is a quarter of the annual event's budget.

Maria del Carmen
Of course we have to tighten our belts - but if they scrap the bulls, we all know they'll fritter the money away on something else
Maria del Carmen

"The conservatives in this town would come up to me in the street and say 'who are you to ask the people what they think?'" the mayor explained. "I told them - it's called democracy."

But democracy failed to deliver a clear-cut result. Fifty-two percent voted to scrap the bulls, and 48% to keep them in some form - with barely one in five of the town's 7,000 inhabitants bothering to turn out.

The mayor's supporters portrayed the pro-bulls camp as an isolated rump of reactionaries. But with the outcome inconclusive, compromise was inevitable.

Hence, two days of bullfighting rather than three - using 'novillos', younger animals weighing 300kg (660lb), as opposed to the standard 500kg.

In the morning, they would take part in the bull run and in the evening, do battle with 'novilleros' or trainee bullfighters.

There was funding for a lance-wielding horseman - or 'picador' - but only on one of the two days. Overall it was a budget cut of 40% compared with last year.

Lifelong tradition

I spotted one of the novilleros arriving in a minivan, while most of the town was taking a siesta.

Bundles of capes and swords were unloaded at the temporary Plaza de Toros, erected in a field on the outskirts of town.

The owner of the facility told me he had rented out mobile bull-rings for three decades, and that business had never been so bad. Twenty small towns had cancelled bullfights this summer because of the economic crisis.


But that evening, the makeshift plaza was almost full - as a band heralded the lycra-clad novilleros with a paso doble, the traditional soundtrack for bullfights, and a thickset man raffled off a leg of ham balanced on his shoulder.

There were families with young children, Spaniards and immigrants. And elderly fight fans were there too - in spite of the fact that pensioners had been charged entry, for the first time ever.

"I'm 68 years old and I've always come here to watch the bulls," said Maria del Carmen. "If they want me to pay, I will - just as I would if I went to the football."

There were murmurs of approval as this elderly aficionado denounced the mayor. "There are people who weren't even born here who want to meddle with a lifelong tradition," she said.

"Of course we have to tighten our belts. But if they scrap the bulls, we all know they'll fritter the money away on something else."

I left as the third lightweight bull was being dragged, lifeless, from the arena.

To this crowd, it mattered little that the novilleros were rough around the edges. There were shouts of encouragement, jokes and advice in abundance.

The town's young mayor - eager to do away with this spectacle - had told me traditions evolve and sometimes disappear.

But recession or not, I sense this tradition will be hard to budge.

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