On a recent business trip to Portugal, I was treated to a real 'behind the scenes' look at Portuguese culture. I shared an afternoon and evening with a group of greenkeepers, who were partaking of their favourite hobby - traditional bullfighting.
In Portugal, bullfighting is a real family tradition and differs from the Spanish sport, the raison d'etre being that the bulls have to be literally stopped in full charge by a team of eight forcados, in something that resembles a rugby scrum.
A forcado is a member of the team that performs the pega de caras (face catch), the final event in a typical Portuguese bullfight. The bulls are not slaughtered in the ring.
My host was Nuno Sepulveda of Aeragolfe Contractors, himself a forcado for six years and, on this particular afternoon, we were going to watch his youngest brother, Luis, and three of his cousins taking part in six fights. All four are currently working on a golf course construction just north of Porto.
Prior to the forcados appearing, a cavaleiro on horseback taunts the bull and rides around inviting the bull to charge. His job is to tire the bull, but he does aim to stick 3-4 small arrowed spears in the back of the bull, behind its neck.
Once his job is done the forcados enter the ring and line up one behind each other, so the bull only sees the first man in his line of sight. As the lead man moves slowly towards the bull, the rest edge nervously forward. The lead man then provokes the bull to charge and, at that moment, the adrenalin of the guys in the ring must be pumping on maximum.
ith a full half ton of horned bull charging, the lead guy's job is to grab the head and hope that he can hold on until his mates join the scrum. If he doesn't, and as happened on this very afternoon, they then don't always get their own way and people get hurt.
Luis was the lead man in the first fight. The bull had been worn down and then the eight forcados entered the ring. As the line edged towards the bull, its head went down and a cloud of dust exploded as it dug its hooves into the dirt and started to gather pace towards the men. It hit Nuno's brother and tossed him in the air, picked him up again in its horns and flung him at the other guys, before they could even get close.
They managed to distract the bull long enough to pull him away. To my amazement he brushed himself down and took his place at the front to start the ritual again.
The bull charged again and he was again unable to hold onto the head and was tossed onto the ground, only to be further mauled by the bull. His colleagues again intervened and this time he found himself being helped out of the ring.
Word got to us that he was on his way to hospital so, after getting directions to the hospital, Nuno and I persuaded a policeman to take us there.
His brother was in the process of being treated, an x-ray, bandages and a sling required for his dislocated shoulder and numerous cuts and gashes. His clothes were covered in blood, but he seemed happy enough in himself and, when he was discharged, we thumbed a lift back to the bullring.
We managed to watch the last of the six fights before we all went back to a hotel for a deserved beer and a shower. With everyone washed and changed the posse went back into town and we were treated to traditional Portuguese cuisine washed down with beer and wine. Although Nuno and I left early to drive back to Lisbon, the drink would be flowing until dawn as these brave young guys enjoyed a tradition that has survived the PC brigade that threatens the very heritage of a country.
These men are following a father to son tradition and don't get paid for their efforts. There were four generations of past and present forcados who met to drink and chat that afternoon and evening. The meal and drinks provided by the bullring owner as reward for their efforts. The owner, who I met at the meal, was a famous Matador himself from yesteryear and spoke fondly of his bullfighting experiences.
It was my second experience of a bullfight. The first, in Spain, was many years ago and did little to wet my appetite. While I'm happy to kill to eat or keep pest population down, I'm not a lover of blood sport for the sake of it. This form of bullfighting was more acceptable and pitted man versus beast, more akin to those ancient Roman days of the Coliseum.
It was amazing to see the bull halted in its tracks, but having more than just a fighting chance to take on its assailants. What was equally interesting to see was the make up of the 3000 people in the crowd. It was mostly families including many young children. In fact a similar make up to that you might see at a firework display in the UK.
One of Nuno's friends that sat with us is a vet and I asked him his thoughts about the bullfighting. He said that he'd grown up with it and, although he could understand people's reservations, the bull wasn't in distress. The particular breed of bull used are reared only for the ring, as they are aggressive by nature and offer poor meat quality. After the fights they are herded from the ring and taken for slaughter. If a particular bull has fought well, it may be taken back to stud for breeding.
Although Luis was not in a fit state to do very much that evening, I suspect that Nuno was fully expecting his youngest brother to be at work on the Monday!