The Dangerous Spring: On Ronda, Hemingway and Famous Matadors


This article by Leigh Ann Henion appeared in The Washington Post in 2009 and still remains my favorite travel article on Ronda. I think it is because I identify with its recognition of the pageantry and traditions of bullfighting despite doubts about its ethical treatment of animals. But it does capture the spirit of Ronda and what makes the small town such a thrill to visit.

It’s unsettling to have a severed, still-warm bull’s ear hurtling toward you — something I discovered firsthand — but being the target of a projectile body part during a Spanish bullfight is considered an honor. I learned this cultural tidbit from reading Ernest Hemingway. My journey with the writer began many years ago with a poster, a $3 thrift store find that, at first glance, didn’t seem to have anything to do with Hemingway.

I was 15 years old when I bought a bullfight advertisement that depicted, in broad brush strokes, a matador and bull forever frozen in the honeyed afternoon light of Sept. 26, 1984. For years, I studied the poster in the confines of my teenage bedroom, enthralled for reasons I didn’t fully understand. I was a vegetarian enamored with the ritualistic killing of bulls in a country I had never visited.

Hemingway was a bullfight enthusiast for much of his life. His time in Spain resulted in some of his greatest writing. “The Sun Also Rises” (1926) was inspired by a trip taken at the urging of Gertrude Stein, and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940) is based on the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which Hemingway covered as a correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance. References to bullfighting and matadors, also known as toreros, can be found in almost all of his Spain-based work.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author wrote two books of nonfiction about bullfighting: “Death in the Afternoon” (1932) and a posthumously published work, “The Dangerous Summer” (1985). In “Death in the Afternoon” he revealed that he named the fictional matador in “The Sun Also Rises” Pedro Romero, after an 18th-century torero born in Ronda, Spain, but that he based the character on one of his contemporaries, another bullfighter from Ronda known as Niño de Palma. In “The Dangerous Summer” Hemingway recounts his experience traveling Spain’s bullfighting circuit with Antonio Ordoñez, Niño’s son, in 1959.

During a recent Internet search, I discovered that Francisco Rivera Perez, a famous matador in his own right, was Ordoñez’s son-in-law. I also learned that Perez was fatally gored in 1984 at the very event publicized on my poster. It was Perez’s image that had been moving with me from house to house for the last 15 years. I was horrified, yet I found myself morbidly compelled to keep searching. My Internet quest led me in circles, always leaving me staring at black-and-white images of Ordoñez and Hemingway standing together in a bullring.

Hemingway says in “Death in the Afternoon”: “There is one town that would be better … to see your first bullfight in if you were only going to see one and that is Ronda.” Ronda — one of Spain’s pueblo blancos, or white villages — is in Andalucia, the southernmost region of Spain separated from northern Africa by just nine miles of sea. The region is considered the cradle of modern bullfighting. Hemingway wrote of Ronda, “That is where you should go if you ever go to Spain on a honeymoon or if you ever bolt with anyone.”

One night, in the blue light of my computer monitor, with my Perez poster keeping vigil over my desk, I decided it was time to visit Spain. I bolted with Hemingway.

Ronda, home to 35,000 inhabitants, is full of seemingly secret stairwells that lead into the center of town. As I walk its narrow alleys, I hear the jangle of keys in locks, metal against metal. Babies’ cries echo off of plaster walls. I am given a peep show of daily life through cracked doors leading into marble-floored homes and through open windows crowded with flowerpots. As I approach the commercial area of town, I pass cafes where slabs of pork and cheese are displayed on open-air tables under chalkboards listing paella specials. Groups of old men in flat, woven hats sit around outdoor tables pouring shots of liquor for each other.

Paseo de E. Hemingway, one of Ronda’s most spectacular pedestrian walkways, runs between Plaza de Toros, Ronda’s bullfighting ring, and Plaza de Espana, the square overlooking El Tajo, the 300-foot-deep gorge that divides Ronda into two sections — Old Town and New Town. The paseo empties directly into Plaza de Espana, which is an unassuming square full of hotels and souvenir shops selling woven handbags and child-size flamenco dresses. The two sections of Ronda are connected by three bridges, most notably the Puente Nuevo, a majestic stone bridge built in the late 1700s from stone pulled from the riverbed below. I lean against the wall barricading El Tajo, and I feel a tinge of vertigo. The scenic splendor is marred only by my familiarity with Hemingway’s writing. Chapter 10 of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” in which hundreds of Fascists are executed in a gorge during the Spanish Civil War, is widely believed to have been based on a historic massacre that took place here.

Hemingway’s version of Plaza de Espana features a fountain with lions’ heads spitting water, but this fountain doesn’t exist in the square. He was writing fiction, after all. But his ayuntamiento, or town hall, is here, though it has been transformed from a government building into a luxurious state-run hotel. The rest of the square matches his description. Standing in Plaza de Espana, I can almost see the foreboding scene in Chapter 10: “He took the hat in his hand and sailed it off over the cliff with the motion a herdsman makes throwing a stone underhand at the bulls to herd them. The hat sailed far out into space and we could see it smaller and smaller, the patent leather shining in the clear air, sailing down to the river.”

I am in Ronda for the annual Feria de Pedro Romero, a bullfighting-centric festival founded by Ordoñez and ceremoniously attended by Hemingway. During the festival, townspeople and matadors alike dress up in the 18th-century-style clothing made famous by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya. The thoroughfare of Plaza de Espana is full of horse-drawn carriages carrying men in felt cordobes hats and women in mermaid-shaped flamenco dresses.

As I continue my walk through Ronda, I pass a cafe where a crowd has arranged a ring of chairs around a group of musicians and dancers. I pause to watch the performers become a montage of spinning elbows and hands. Almost all of the onlookers have joined the guitarists in singing. I can’t make out all the words, but I understand the song is about corrida de toros, the running of bulls.

The sounds of the crowd bounce off of the pueblo blanco’s walls, surfaces destined to be painted in April. In Ronda, it is understood that homeowners and shopkeepers will whitewash the exterior walls of their property after Andalucia’s rainy season. Every spring, as they have for centuries, Ronda’s facades turn into immaculate, blank pages waiting to be filled.

Across town, novilleros, amateur matadors, are preparing to fight 3-year-old bulls that have not yet learned to use their horns. When I get to Plaza de Toros to watch the novilleros arrive, I’m surprised to find a cluster of fans gathered outside. The hopeful novilleros are working the crowd in their traditional traje de luces, or suits of light, embroidery and sequins glittering in the sun. They range from baby-faced teenagers to men with silvering hair. After having their photos taken with fans, the novilleros enter the plaza through a set of brown metal doors that are off-limits to the crowd.

I follow the curved exterior wall of the plaza to a street, where the crowd waiting to get in is so large that it spills into oncoming traffic, making vehicles swerve around the mass. The group looks ready to charge when given the chance. Two men study a contemporary bullfighting poster pasted on the plaza wall. One is wearing dark glasses and a straw hat, the other a starched business shirt. One of them catches my eye to tell me in rapid Spanish, “Cayetano is not fighting tomorrow. He was gored!”

The other man puts a hand over his heart and says, “He was gored in his chest!” They go on, taking turns, telling me of Cayetano Rivera Ordoñez’s grave injuries. One of them pounds his foot on the ground to indicate a stomping.

Cayetano Rivera

Cayetano Rivera

This is not the first time Cayetano — Niño de Palma’s great-grandson, Antonio Ordoñez’s grandson and Francisco Rivera Perez’s son — has been gored. Much of what makes a bullfighter a master is how close he can get to a bull’s horns without being injured. If a matador is great, it is generally understood that a bull’s horn will pierce his flesh at least once in his career.

Hemingway discovered early on that bullfighting was unlike American sports, though it is often thought of in those terms. In his 1923 Toronto Star article “Bull Fighting Is Not a Sport — It Is a Tragedy,” he wrote, “Bull fighting is an exceedingly dangerous occupation . . . It is a good deal like Grand Opera for the really great matadors except that they run the chance of being killed every time they cannot hit high C.”

In “Death in the Afternoon,” he changed his mind, explaining that bullfighting was, indeed, a sport, but that it would never succeed in the United States or England. He wrote, “We, in games, are not fascinated by death, its nearness and its avoidance. We are fascinated by victory and we replace the avoidance of death by the avoidance of defeat. It is a very nice symbolism but it takes more cojones to be a sportsman when death is a closer party to the game.”

The man in the straw hat looks at me and says of Cayetano’s injury: “It’s normal. This is corrida. He was doing his job. The toreros get paid a lot of money to do this.” He rubs his fingers together to stress the financial rewards. The two men then bid me farewell and disappear into the throng.

The crowd’s flashy, traditional attire has made me eager to attend the Corrida Goyesca, the festival’s main bullfight, but I didn’t pack clothing to match the supreme glamour of the event. I walk to Old Town in hopes of finding a fringed shawl, or mantone, I like. I enter one of the storefronts advertising textiles and reach out to gauge the smoothness of an elegant black mantone covered in floral embroidery.

I inquire, in Spanish, “How much for this one?” The shopkeeper, a 50-something woman, walks over and explains that the shawls range in price. When she quotes an amount, I snatch my hand back as if I’m about to be bitten. The mantone I’ve been eyeing is nearly the euro equivalent of $700. In Ronda, danger is everywhere.

The clerk sees my disappointment, so she leads me over to a rack of budget shawls. I pull a bold red mantone with black embroidery from the display, and she immediately transforms into a saleswoman, demonstrating how the cloth can be folded in various ways. She leads me over to a mirror. The shawl’s fringe runs down my back like the mane of a Spanish mare. “How beautiful,” she tells me.

She takes the mantone, wraps it around herself and shivers, pretending to be cold, to show me how it could be worn for warmth. Then she drapes it around my shoulders. I start to play along with her, folding the small, budget mantone into a triangle to make it seem larger.

She laughs when I wrap the triangular shape around my shoulders. “You’re much too young to wear it with a point in the back! I wear mine with a point, but you shouldn’t wear it like that. It’s old-fashioned!”

“I didn’t know,” I say, shrugging in apology.

“Well, now you understand. This way is more modern,” she explains, wrapping the mantone around my shoulders in a narrow rectangle.

“Very Spanish,” she says.

I follow Paseo de E. Hemingway back to Plaza de Toros to have dinner at a nearby cafe. I consider the standard tapas selections housed in a glass case on the bar — cheese, tomatoes, zucchini, olives and shrimp — before opting to review the cafe’s slightly overpriced feria menu. I finally settle on tortilla de patatas, a hearty dish of potatoes marbled with egg.

As I’m finishing my pimento-garnished meal, I notice a group of rowdy English speakers enter. They’re carrying the red-and-yellow striped cushions sold outside Plaza de Toros, telltale signs that they had tickets for the novillero bullfights.

Staffan Safwenberg, a Swede, has brilliant white hair, and he’s so tall that I find my just-over-five-foot self standing on tiptoes when talking to him. I inquire if he and his friends are aficionados. “I’m not,” he says, demurely, “but you really have to meet Noel.” He motions toward Noel Chandler.

Safwenberg explains his hesitation. “I’ve been going to Pamplona since ’67, but Noel has been going for much longer.”

When I ask Safwenberg how he became interested in bullfighting, he offers: “I got into it because of Hemingway. We all read Hemingway when we were young, ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ so we went to San Fermin, and some of us got stuck in it.”

Ad his equally handsome (but less accident prone) brother Francisco

Ad his equally handsome (but less accident prone) brother Francisco

Chandler has the relaxed air of someone who has been sipping wine for hours, and bushy eyebrows that make him seem a bit professorial. In a British accent, he tells me that he has been an aficionado since 1959. He estimates that he attends 130 corridas a year.

I tell him that most of what I know about bullfighting comes from reading Hemingway’s work, and Chandler scoffs a little. “Well, I’ll tell you right now, I’m not a Hemingway fan,” he says. “He was a marvelous writer, but I disagree with a lot of what he had to say about the bulls.” Then, Chandler makes the sign of the cross as he says: “But he was very much beloved of my friend Antonio. He and Antonio were both great people in their own worlds.”

As it turns out, Chandler became a close friend of Antonio Ordoñez after Hemingway’s death in 1961, and he has known Cayetano and his older brother, Francisco Rivera Ordoñez, who is also a bullfighter, since they were young boys. “I never thought any of them would be toreros, but when they decided to get into it, I felt I owed it to Antonio to stay with them, good or bad.”

The bartender approaches to take our orders, and Chandler shouts to everyone at the bar, “This round is on me!” I request a glass of water, and Chandler snickers. “A writer who doesn’t drink,” he says, nudging a friend seated beside him.

Chandler goes on to explain why he disagrees with Hemingway, saying: “I think Hemingway was too preoccupied with death. The toreros aren’t. They don’t want to die.”

I ask Chandler if he thinks bullfighting would be a meaningful ritual without the moment of death, and he says: “The whole object is to kill the bull! In Portugal they don’t kill the bull in the ring; they take it out and shoot it afterward!”

Hemingway, were he standing at the bar with us on this mild September evening, might quote from “Death in the Afternoon”: “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.”

A few hours before the Corrida Goyesca is slated to begin, the streets fill with people. Women fold and unfold fans; girls in elaborate costumes eat popcorn; and police blow whistles so shrilly that my eardrums begin to sting. Above the street, expectant onlookers hang out of windows and crowd wrought-iron balconies.

By the time the matadors make their parade entrance in horse-drawn carriages, thousands of spectators are pressed between Plaza de Toros and the now almost-impassable road. One of the horses neighs and nervously rears less than two feet from where I stand. An elderly woman beside me clutches my arm in fear. I instinctively place my hand over hers to reassure her that we’re in this together, and she does not loosen her grip until the animals have passed.

Finally, the matadors and their entourages, or cuadrillas, disappear into the Plaza. Built in 1785, Plaza de Toros is one of Spain’s oldest bullrings. Hemingway appreciated the structure, often comparing other plazas he approved of with the old ring of Ronda. His friend Antonio Ordoñez asked to be buried here. The great matador died late in life, far from the ring, but his ashes are mingled with the sand of the arena. Today, Ordoñez’s ashes will be walked upon and honored by his able-bodied grandson.

The bullfight starts almost immediately after I find my seat, and I quickly realize I would be disoriented if not for Hemingway. From the beginning, the contest moves fast. The first matador is Francisco Rivera Ordoñez, heir to the Ordoñez dynasty and, therefore, Hemingway’s affection. A bull suddenly appears in the ring. I watch it run toward Ordoñez, a strikingly handsome 34-year-old, who twirls to get out of the way. Then he provokes the bull, “Hep! Hep! Hep!” Ordoñez and the bull circle each other, slowly.

Ordoñez soon trades his capote, a hot-pink-and-yellow cape, for two decorated banderillas, steel harpoons, and walks forward dramatically and gracefully. He makes a little hop, feet together, and then he runs toward the bull, jamming the banderillas into the animal’s withers. I screech, a sound I cannot remember making before in my life.

One of the men beside me shrugs as if to say, “That’s the way it goes.” In spite of myself, I join the crowd in clapping.

Ordoñez is the son of a man killed in a bullfight, the brother of a man who was nearly gored to death just a few days ago. He is in the throes of death-defying action, and yet I do not feel especially moved by his work. Even as he finishes the fight, I do not really understand why aficionados talk of the corrida as an artistic experience.

But then 26-year-old Jose Maria Manzanares makes an entrance. He is a matador with a dark brow that seems to be fixed in a deep, permanent furrow. The bull Manzanares is fighting is aggressive. It charges the wooden wall of the ring before responding to Manzanares’s call for it to attack. Manzanares guides the bull around himself with his capote, yellow side out, making it look as if the animal is a shadow against the torero’s woven sun.

Abruptly, trumpets indicate it is time for the next act to begin. The crowd begins to chatter, and Manzanares moves to the side of the ring to trade his capote for a red muleta, the most recognizable of all bullfighting symbols. Soon, the bull is flipping the small red cloth with its horns as it passes Manzanares.

“Ole! Ole! Ole!” The crowd shouts each time the bull passes, indicating that what is happening is exemplary. Manzanares leaves the bull and runs through sand with the muleta trailing the ground. The bull jumps, and the band begins to play. I know from Hemingway’s writing that this means Manzanares has already triumphed in the judgment of the crowd.

It appears as though Manzanares and the bull are locked together in a strange, intimate slow dance. Bull and man finally part, and Manzanares walks toward the bull with his body turned slightly sideways with care and trepidation, as if he is theatrically approaching his beloved, who he knows might betray him at any moment.

When he calls to the bull, their bodies grind against each other as the bull’s horns appear on the underside of the red muleta. When they separate, Manzanares’ white, Goya-era suit of lights is covered in splotches of blood. Manzanares and the bull are both fighting death — senses alert, acutely alive. As man and beast orbit each other, my feelings — fear, admiration, disgust, sorrow and joy — smear together like paint on a palette.

The muleta is triangular, like the traditional fans being flicked by slender wrists all over town, like the pointed mantone only older women should wear. Manzanares’s muleta grazes the ground in front of the bull to invite him closer. The intimate movement in the ring looks more like a mating ritual than a ritualistic killing.

Manzanares is in control, and there is no question about what is coming next. A woman in the row in front of me turns to a friend and says, in Spanish, “Very moving!” As Hemingway wrote, “It is impossible to believe the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure, classic beauty that can be produced by a man, an animal and a piece of scarlet serge draped over a stick.”

The crowd, which has been vocal, begins to calm itself, collectively exhaling, “Shhh,” demanding silence for the bull’s moment of demise.

Manzanares lunges. He slips a blade between the bull’s horns. The bull teeters for a moment then drops to its knees. Manzanares raises a hand, his open palm toward the bull in a silent goodbye. The bull finally falls on its side with four feet in the air. The crowd screams and waves white handkerchiefs, indicating that they want the matador to be rewarded with an ear.

The awarding of ears and tails is a custom widely believed to be a holdover from a time when matadors were tipped with meat, making the ear a symbolic offer of sustenance. A member of Manzanares’s cuadrilla cuts off the bull’s ear and hands it to the torero. He proceeds to walk the perimeter of the ring, holding the ear up as if he’s just won a trophy of great value. When he reaches the section I’m sitting in, he rears back and throws the ear up into the stands. I duck to avoid contact, but the well-heeled women around me scramble to catch the ear as if it’s a bouquet. The woman who scores the ear immediately poses for a picture with her husband, displaying their souvenir in front of them. It all feels primal, ancient. The woman hastily wraps the ear in a cotton handkerchief for safekeeping.

Another matador follows Manzanares with an ear-worthy performance, and, at the end of the corrida, both matadors are carried out of the ring and into the awaiting crowd on the shoulders of two men. The back stable full of bulls I had spied through a tiny window on my way in is now empty.

As I’m walking out, I pause by another small, barred window, where I see bull carcasses hanging from a metal contraption in a corner of Plaza de Toro’s outdoor chapel. Half a dozen men in soiled white clothes work to butcher bull meat for market. A bucket of entrails sits by a pearly white wall smudged with bloody handprints, and a man in rubber boots hoses crimson streams down a Plaza de Toro drain. As I crouch by the low window, watching workers load meat into awaiting trucks, a man in the corridor behind me playfully calls out to a woman “Hep! Hep! Hep!”

I turn just in time to see her walk toward him as if she is a flamenco dancer on stage. She seems emboldened by the energy of what she has just witnessed in the arena, and her hands are swimming through the air Sevillana-style. The look on her face is one of pure elation. Behind her, another man slowly walks down the same hallway. Under his breath he mutters, as if on cue, “What a world.”

On my last day in Ronda, I set out for the leafy town square with stone steps leading into El Tajo. The steep path into the gorge is surrounded by Mediterranean scrub. Halfway down, I encounter a small house guarded by a man in a lawn chair. A rough-hewn wooden sign says, in English, that visitors are invited to take a photograph of the Puente Nuevo bridge from the house patio for one euro. I enter the patio and hand over a coin. The view from the house is less than spectacular, so I veer from the designated overlook to explore the area’s vegetation.

When I notice a tree laden with small, lime-green pods covered in fuzz, I ask the now-roving attendant what they are. “Almonds,” he says, before directing my attention to another tree. He walks over and pulls a purplish fruit from an outstretched branch — a fig. He hands it to me and sends me on my way.

I descend into the gorge and find that the El Tajo path ends abruptly at a collection of Moorish ruins. There is no fence or wall protecting onlookers from the sheer cliffs below. From this angle, the Puente Nuevo looks like it has always been here, as if it simply grew out of the cliffs.

Suddenly, I notice a dark spot in the hazy sky over Ronda in my periphery. When I turn to look, I see that it’s a human figure, falling. I watch for a minute and realize the figure is not attached to a parachute as I originally thought. He’s hanging from a paraglider, and he’s not falling — he’s soaring. Two hand-held ropes are giving the flier a semblance of control. He’s seated in a hanging chair, and his legs are scissoring the sky, making it appear that he’s running in midair. The wing above him is the yellow of a bullfighter’s capote, a bright spot in the sunless sky.

He flies low, as if to see how close he can pass without crashing into the pueblo blanco. From where I’m standing in the gorge, it looks as if he’s close enough to touch the terra cotta roof tile with his toes. I try to envision what the already elevated, cloud-white city of Ronda must look like from his altitude. People all over town must be watching him — their fingers pointed skyward, their voices raised to alert friends and neighbors to the rare grace of what’s taking place above. This man is surely jeopardizing his life. I don’t know if the view is worth the risk, but to borrow Hemingway’s closing line from “The Sun Also Rises”: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

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