Much like a spaghetti western, La Feria de Ronda is a rather rowdy affair. It celebrates many Spanish icons, such as flamenco dancers, wine, proud stallions, macho men and last but not least, big black bulls.
Foolish or not, men have fought, worshipped, leaped over and sacrificed bulls since time immemorial. Bulls are depicted in cave paintings and hailed in epic verses by the Mesopotamians to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Ronda saw its first official ‘bullfight’ when King Philip II created the Royal Calvary Order (La Real Maestranza de Caballería) in Ronda in 1572 to promote military training of noblemen. Their training included horsemanship, as well as spearing wild bulls from a horseback.
Francisco Romero (1700 -1763) from Ronda’s legendary Romero family is considered the father of modern corrida or bullfighting. While traditionally fought from the back of a horse, Francisco evolved the fight to where the matador (literally meaning ‘killer’) confronted the bull on foot. He also introduced the emblematic red cape, which colour does nothing for the bull, (they are colourblind), but helped hide the bloodstains and also made for a more exciting visual spectacle. The ‘modern’ style of bullfighting spread rapidly across the Iberian Peninsula and into the Spanish colonies. The greatest fighter of the Romero family was Francisco’s grandson, Pedro Romero, who allegedly slew 5,558 bulls during his lifetime without receiving a single goring.
During the early 20th century, the Ordóñez, another Ronda family, achieved further fame in the bull arena, with its family members still fight bulls today. In 1954, Cayetano Ordóñez developed the Feria de Pedro Romero, the only fair in the world dedicated to a bullfighter. The Feria combined the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Pedro Romero, the town’s annual fair and the art of the 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco de la Goya, with the highlight being a Corrida Goyesca where the matador himself wore a Goya period costume. Cayetano’s son, Antoñio Ordóñez, continued developing the Feria, which due to his close friendship with Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles brought Ronda and bullfighting to the world stage.
Hemingway wrote after seeing his first fight: ”Bullfighting is not a sport, it’s a tragedy”, but he later became a real bullfighting aficionado. And he was not alone. Though most celebrities of today, excluding Charlie Sheen, will avoid the game due to its politically incorrectness and the bad press it may cause, stars of the Hollywood era, such as Gary Grant, Sophia Loren, Bing Crosby, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Raquel Welsh and James Dean were depicted enjoying the ‘new’ bullfight rage in Ronda or elsewhere in Spain.
Ronda’s Corrida Goyesca is still one of the highlights of the Spanish bullfighting calendar. The town also has one of Spain’s oldest bullrings, the celebrated Plaza de la Real Maestanza de Caballería, completed in 1785. Bulls are still big business and a big media seller here in Spain, though it is worth noting that Ronda only hosts one bullfighting event each year, because the owners actually earn more money from the busloads of tourist paying to see the empty arena and visit the bull fighting museum than going to the ‘real thing’. Although a blood sport by definition, many spectators view bullfighting as a ‘fine art’ rather than a sport. As an expat living in Ronda, I for my part, with my Viking- raids and whale-slaughtering ancestry, shall not be one to point fingers at this most Spanish of traditions.
For for those who find this sport a bit too bloodthirsty, there are lots of other Feria festivities to entertain the willing. There is the cabalgata or parade to present this year’s young Goyaesque ladies, folkloric dances, the enganches horse show and carriage processions through the streets with locals dressed in 18th century costumes. And then there is the 24-hours a day party. La Feria is when Rondeños really let their hair down, or up! Everything is put on hold for the weeklong party. Forget business and bank hours, and expect big lineups. The streets surrounding the Plaza del Socorro becomes a never-ending bar with wine barrels rolled out as tables for the dancing and drinking hordes. Pity the vegetarians who may find themselves in our town during the first week of September, as there is not a vegetable in site. On the contrary, Jamón Ibérico, croquetas, chorizo and salted, grilled or hung meats are sold by the truckload for over-inflated prices to tourists and locals alike, flushed down with gallons of sparkling alcoholic beverages to counterpoint the stifling heat.
Hemingway described a feria as “For seven days, the dancing, the noise and the drinks don’t cease”. Ronda certainly stands true to the tradition.