Author Archives: nkershner


The view from inside the Las Ventas bullfighting arena.

I awoke yesterday to a clear, cool Sunday in Madrid. Although I had been having fun into wee hours with some #msuspain kids I was determined to attend a Catholic mass. I had never had this experience, and I thought it would be an adventure to have it in Spain. With the most respectable outfit I had with me on (don’t worry, it really was church-ok) I set out. The chapel was surprisingly close-one block east, two blocks north-which made me earlier than I expected to be. Spanish churches, at least in the city, are set up a little different from what I am used to, and so I almost missed it. The church had it’s side to the street, with a little courtyard to it’s front.  Through a door in the stone wall and up a few steps took me into a sanctuary I never would have known was there. Here and there were patrons among the darkened pews, basking in the glow of two offering-candle stands behind me and the beautiful altar with the crucified Jesus rising above to the front. After some brief moments of meditation in that quiet place the priest motioned for us to move to an adjacent chapel. It was filled with shafts of light emanating from a wall of stained glass, softened by a million dancing dust motes. The glass depicted scenes from the New Testament as any christian church would, but the faces of the characters had been hand-painted with obvious care. A woman directed the opening business, before the priest came out to conduct the actual ceremony, which I found interesting as most of the attendees were older and, one would assume, more traditional. I speak a little spanish, but it was not enough to understand all of what happened during the mass. I could tell some things from familiar cadences of speech, such as the Lord’s prayer, scripture, and sermon, and I generally just followed along as the faithful knelt or bowed their heads. The strongest impression I was left with was the importance of symbols and ceremony in our lives, especially as a means of catharsis. When we came to the ‘greet your neighbor’ part, perhaps my neighbors guessed I was slightly out of place, but nonetheless gave me warm smiles and firm handshakes. I was early in the morning and they had been sitting on wooden benches for more than forty minutes, but they were happy in the best kind of ways–happy enough to share it. Perhaps there is a heaven, but even if not we were able to produce a facsimile of it by quietly remembering an old story of a good man who took the bad upon himself so others wouldn’t have to. The symbol of the sacrificial lamb stuck with me as I joined the rest of the students later in the day to watch our first bullfight. This was to be a ceremony of a very different kind.

The first bull we saw.

We had heard that it was to rain, but the clouds never arrived. Karl, one of our very helpful semi-native guides, knew to buy the ‘sol’ tickets–for the section of the stadium in the sun. Luckily the cool weather made the temperature mild our view was well-lit as we were bustled in by a perturbed usher, as we were slightly late. Men in the outer corridor had been selling ancient leather cushions but we had refused, electing to bear with the stone benches.

Las Ventas.

I think we all had been expecting to leave before the last bull fell, thanks to Karl’s warnings. As we sat the first bull was already in the stadium-a large black with a white underbelly. He loped around the ring, almost springing with energy. There were several men in the ring with him, flashing bright magenta capes at the bull and then scurrying behind wooden walls when he got too close.  Suddenly three or four high trumpets sounded from our right and two men on horseback, caballeros, rode walked in. We were surprised to see that the horses wore thick padding around their bodies that reached to the ground and blindfolds with the colors of the Spanish flag. It wasn’t long before we saw why. Bulls are colorblind and react to movement, so once the first bull caught sight of the horse and rider he charged. The almost 1700 pound animal hurtled forward at an amazing rate and crashed into the horses’ flank. He pushed into the horse, lifting it up, and thrust his head and horns into the protective padding with a loud thwock. At the same time the caballero jabbed a long spear into the bulls back. When they separated the bull already had a red curtain of courage running down his neck. After a few rounds of this the trumpets were blown once more and the caballeros left the stadium. The next to enter were the picadores. These men carried what looked like long sticks decorated with colorful flowers. One at a time they locked eyes with the bull, raised the sticks (which were really small harpoon-like spears) and they slowly moved towards each other. The tension builds, then breaks as the bull charges and just as he reached the picador the spears were jammed into the bull’s back and the man jumped out of the way. Three picadores did this, then as the trumpets sounded once more the matador entered the ring. He held a large cape which he flared open by holding a small sword concealed within the edge. Slowly he strutted in the middle, holding his head high, displaying like a peacock would. He was certainly just as colorfully dressed. Several times he would lure the bull in close and they would perform a sort

The matador approaches.

of dance, the bull unknowingly trying to gore the cape, missing the matador by just inches. By this time the animal was visibly weary and most of his shoulder was drenched in blood. During the final dance, under a swoosh of cape the matador pushed the sword deep between the bull’s shoulder blades. The enraged bull writhed in pain, while four or five men confused him by swirling their capes in his face every way he turned. This only lasted for a few precious seconds, then he stumbled once, twice, and fell to his knees. We could hardly watch as blood poured from his mouth and he collapsed, with finality. Some of the bulls struggled on the ground before one of the men with capes plunged a knife into the back of the bull’s neck, ending his life. After this there was a flurry of activity, as a rope was tied around the bulls neck, the other end of the rope tied to a team of four mules, and with the crack of a whip the carcass was dragged out of the arena. One of the matadores, who was apparently very popular, did a victory lap around the ring as this happened, smiling at all the people waving pure white handkerchiefs at him. Unlike the earlier ritual, this animal and all the others died in vain, save for the poverty-stricken they were later slaughtered to feed. It was more akin to the gladiator fights of ancient Rome, where men lived and struggled and died, never knowing why. Karl tells us that there are many activist groups trying to end the sport  of bullfighting. We left long before the fight ended, and while I think most of us are glad we saw one in our lives I’m sure none of us would be sad to see this practice end.

Waving the white flags...


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If You Can’t Get It Here…

After allowing our creative sides to feast on the work of Picasso our group went  to La Mercat Boqueria for some bodily sustenance. The market´s website ( says that La Mercat Boqueria originated as a traveling market around the walls of the old Barcelona. It was given a fixed location as an open-air market in 1827 and then in 1914 the vast metal roof was built and the Mercat became a permanent part of La Rambla and Barcelona. Sandwiched between two of those lovely Spanish apartment buildings with tiendas on the first floor is

A man selling his wares.

an enormous wrought-iron gate proclaiming the presence of the market to passers-by. The entrance (as everywhere in La Rambla) is choked with people speaking a cornucopia of languages. Just inside a man was selling brightly colored strands of beads draped along his entire arm — one euro each. Moving past him, we could quickly tell the market was vast and intricate. Booths are organized similar to city blocks; the first I investigated was one dedicated to everything sweet. There was chocolate, any kind of bon-bon you could think of, hard candies, truffles and more.

Some beautiful marzipan candy.

The marzipan was amazing. Some had individual faces on them, some were incredibly realistic — the bananas bunches  had brown spotting on them.  One wall was filled with every kind of gummy candy imaginable, from licorice pinwheels to sugared gummy wedges in all flavors.  Around the corner was a large gallon-sized jar, filled with maraschino cherries.  Across from this was a lollipop garden. The Willy Wonka factory came to mind.

The Lollipop Garden.

The next section of booths featured fruits and vegetables. What struck me about them was not only the extensive variety — table

Carefully arranged vegetables.

grapes to lychee fruit to things I had never seen before — but also the artistic manner in which the food was arranged.  Green peppers, red tomatoes, black avocados, blonde nectarines, orange kumquats and many others formed striking blocks of color in such perfect patterns. Here they also sold smoothies, most of which were two kinds of fruit blended together, in every combination possible.  Most of us purchased either one of these or a pre-made fruit salad packed full with apple and banana slices and other interesting things like coconut chunks or a slice of the seedy, pink-rinded cactus fruit.

Venturing further into the depths of the market my nose signaled to me that I had reached the fish section.  A bed of white ice held a multitude of frozen fish.  Still life salmon, squid

Never look a gift fish in the mouth.

and sardines glared at me as I jumped at the hard chop of a cleaver through a chunk of red tuna.  Laura E. called them ¨staring eyes¨ and said she took lots of haunting pictures. The lobsters were the only ones stretching their limbs and looking at me as I left for the next section of La Mercat Boqueria.

I walked through a passage towards vendors selling meats and cheeses. These meat stands are butcher shops where a Spaniard can get any kind of meat. Various sausage loops fringed the space above the counter. One that is common is chorizo, a bright red sausage with a distinctive flavor, usually slightly spicy. One could purchase whole chickens, tiny lamb chops, giant slabs of bacon, the entire hind leg of a hog or a whole skinned rabbit. Some items were very traditional and probably the most foreign for an American student, such as tripe and goat heads. None of this was procured today as none of us is Andrew Zimmern. One booth sold only pate, but at least twenty kinds. Nearing the end of the market, I passed by lunch counters crowded with tired shoppers regaining their energy with a bite to eat. Around the end of one row bags of snails were being sold.  Laura F. pointed out that they must be used to make escargo, a favorite dish of hers.

Wandering back to the front of the market I revisited some of the booths I had seen on the way in and even saw some new ones. As I searched through the new places, I knew there was much, much more to take in. I look forward to seeing as much as I can in the next two weeks, but something tells me it won´t be enough time to see it all.

A lovely day at market.

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