Portuguese equestrian bullfighting is an ancient tradition - one that predates Portugal. But, for those who have been to a bullfight in other lands, the Portuguese do it differently.
The bullfight is held right before sundown, so that the arena is a mix of shadow and light. The arena is alive with voices; beer, sesame candies and opinions fly. The Portuguese love to discuss and debate and the bullring is the perfect venue. The topic of the debate often seems mundane, bullfighters of the past, insects, clouds, the wind - as the idea is not to express heart-felt opinions but rather the art of the debate.
The Portuguese bullfight is, at first glance, quite simple. A "cavaleiro," or rider, dressed in a silk jacket embroidered with gold and lace, and wearing tan riding pants and black boots, takes to the arena atop the renowned Lusitano breed of horse. The Lusitano has a long history as a victor on the battlefields of Asia and Africa, and in southern Portugal. The goal of man and horse in a Portuguese bullfight is not to kill the bull, but to draw the bull to a charge and then to place a single dart in the bull¹s back muscle. Horse and bull must charge at each other, with the horse suddenly veering off to avoid an impact. Then the rider must place the colorful dart exactly and ride off unscathed.
Although in the beginning equestrian bullfighting had been an all-male art, those days are now over, as a host of young and talented female riders are performing in the finest bull rings in Portugal. Dressed in traditional attire, women such as Ana Batista are now considered to be among the best of Portugal's new generation of bullfighters. While bullfighting has declined in popularity, this injection of new riders has given life and interest to an ancient sport.
Although in some places they run the bulls just once a year, on the island of Terceira in the Azores there are more than 230 traditional bullfights every summer. From April to the late fall, the people of Terceira hold "touradas á corda" every weekend a unique running of the bulls, with the bull on a rope. It is found only in the Azores, and has been popular since 16th Century. The bull is let loose with a very long rope around its neck, usually at the main square in a small village. The bull is guided by several experienced, hefty men, keeping a tight grip at the rope. The idea is that the courageous people will try to get as close to the bull as they dare. After the run, the bull is taken back to the wooden crate and an outdoor festival begins.
In Sabugal, August hosts the village's "capeias arraianas" bullfights.
It is a century-old tradition that attracts local inhabitants, though mainly the youth, who play a major role in the events. The "capeias" take place in the village's main squares that become the arenas. The festival starts in the morning when people gather to where the bulls will be escorted to the square. The escort begins as a veritable exodus of bikes, 4x4, tractors, trucks, horses, bicycles, or any other means of transportation capable of moving in the fields near the Spanish border. Along the way, spectators wait impatiently to see the bulls, while street vendors are set themselves up near the square. In the bull ring, locals form the Forcão a giant timber triangle that is turned against the bull in a contest of agility and strength. About thirty men enter the square and pick up the Forcão. Two men coordinate the movements of the whole group. Men of greater agility step forward to the "gall" in the foreground, to confront the bull while only protected by a few tree branches artfully arranged on the fork. It is this very moment that men and bull rival in courage and cunning. In the end, the descencerro" is the return of the bulls to the fields once more.
In Alcohete, the Festival Barrete Verde and Salinas is the highlight of the year. With more than 60 years of history, the second weekend of August is eagerly awaited. The event brings thousands of visitors attracted by bullfighting, the bull runs, musical shows, faith, traditions, and the spontaneous street parties that fill the town. One of the highlights is the "Night of Roasted Sardines" during which thousands of people that fill the night with color and life until sunrise.
Another event, the "Procession by Land and Sea" is one of the most intense religious manifestations, reflecting the faith of a people and keeps the town surrounded with joy.
Sound like fun? Well, one of the oldest groups, Group de Forcados Amadores, have a training camp to teach the art. Held every spring at Santarem, the unofficial capitol of bullfighting in Portugal, the camp is open to anyone brave enough to step in the arena. This group has acted around the world since their founding in 1915, so if you¹d like, give them a call, and try your luck!
Campo Pequeno - Lisbon's monumental bullring - Built in 1892 in a Moorish style with small rounded turrets atop its four main towers, Campo Pequeno's bullring (Praça de Touros do Campo Pequeno) accommodates up to 10,000 spectators. The Praça de Touros do Campo Pequeno hosts the year's most important bullfights; most of them take place between the months of March and October. Bullfights take place here on Thursdays in season. During the rest of the year it is occasionally used for concerts and other shows, such as a circus.
After being closed for extensive renovation, it reopened in 2006 with a new retractable roof and a shopping mall, restaurants, cinemas, and a supermarket. Parking space for 1200 cars is also available. It was designed by architect António José Dias da Silva.
Inside a Portuguese Bullfight
In modern Portugal, the performance of the horse in the bullring is maybe one of the most important factor in the breeding and selection process of the Lusitano horse. This factor has sustained the preservation of the characteristics of the classical Iberian war-horse. In a description by Sylvia Loch, she describes the Portuguese horse:
"They are noble instead of pretty with aristocracy written all over their fine, slightly hawked long faces. They develop a powerful neck and shoulder which makes them look extremely majestic in front. The quarters are not large, but the loins are wide and strong and the hocks long and wiry, giving them the power to bounce forcefully forwards with masterful impulsion. Deep flexion is gotten from the developed second thigh and the longer than usual cannons and pasterns. The same characteristics that are essential for the bullfights, also make the Lusitano extremely efficient for other sport activities, or as a working and pleasure riding horse."
Bullfighting in Portugal traces its roots to ancient times, when Celts fought bulls in pagan festivals. Bullfighting in Portugal today is a snapshot of the 18th century, when a single event changed bullfighting forever.
The Portuguese bullfight is, at first glance, quite simple. A cavaleiro, or rider, dressed in a silk jacket embroidered with gold and lace, and wearing tan riding pants and black boots, takes to the arena atop the renowned Lusitano breed of horse. The Lusitano has a long history as a victor on the battlefields of Asia and Africa, and southern Portugal. The goal of man and horse in a Portuguese bullfight is not to kill the bull, but to draw the bull to a charge and then to place a single dart in the bull¹s back muscle. Horse and bull must charge at each other, with the horse suddenly veering off to avoid an impact. Then the rider must place the colorful dart exactly and ride off unscathed.
The Portuguese site for all that is Bullfighting: