Saviours of the Fiesta Brava or Just a Curious Anomaly? Céret 2009

Jacob Plieth


From the moment the plaza's 10-piece band, including four shawms and a double bass, strikes up the Catalan national anthem, you know this isn't going to be your average corrida.


As David Penton explained in his excellent account of last year's feria (La Divisa 184), Céret is about bulls, it is about big bulls, and it is about bulls that are "real" and definitely not Domecq. Oh, some toreros appear too. But mainly bulls.


While this is true, Céret is actually more than just torista heaven; importantly, as the Catalan national anthem played at the start of each corrida signifies, this is a feria obsessed with regional pride.


Céret lies in that part of southern France known as Northern (or French) Catalonia, and the people of Céret, at least those involved with the taurine festivities, stress that they are both Catalan and love the bulls. Furthermore, they see their adoration of the fiesta brava as something that underlines their Catalan-ness, not something that exists in spite of it.


Quite a contrast then to their neighbours on the Spanish side of the border, at least 180,000 of whom are currently attempting to ban the fiesta brava in Catalonia, ostensibly (and cynically) playing the animal welfare card to conceal their fixation on the political dogma that bullfighting is undesirable purely on account of it being "Spanish".


The Catalan language is evident all around Céret's extremely small plaza de toros - even more so now that the hierros of all the ganaderías invited to Céret by ADAC (the Association Des Aficionados Cérétans) have been moved from the callejón to a wall outside the bullring.


Above one of the gates hangs a sign for "Pati de Cavalls", and in the callejón the designated areas for the corrida's participants are marked: "corraler", "majoral", "metges", "rascladors", "arrossegada". In case we still don't get the message, a large hoarding behind the back row proclaims, "ADAC: Catalans i aficionados".


Incidentally, if you're still reading at this point, you might want to find out what shawms are; they are oboe-like woodwind instruments peculiar to Catalonia, with a bore that gives them a shrill timbre and makes them particularly suitable for outdoor playing. They’re a bit annoying at first, but you can zone them out after a while.


Anyway, back to the bulls. The 2009 feria comprised two corridas (one fewer than in 2008) and one novillada, and as the ADAC website advertised on Christmas Eve - three months before it revealed the names of the toreros who would be appearing - the ganaderías were Assunção Coimbra, Sánchez-Fábres and Celestino Cuadri.


They were billed as "Parladé et Santa Coloma authenthiques". Whether the peculiar ganadería of Cuadri (holding full encaste status) can be called santacoloma and whether the coquillas of Sánchez-Fábres that we saw were "authentic" is highly debatable, but more of this later. They certainly had presence, kilograms, and horns.



We are often told that the tercio de varas is in crisis, and the aficionados of ADAC have made it one of their main goals to rectify the situation. The trouble is, few people nowadays seem to care that this tercio is often a mere simulation, first category plazas typically seeing one hard pic followed by a tiny picotazo. Meanwhile, most bulls in second and third category plazas arrive at the faena underpic'ed or even totally unpic'ed. (Of course, they are probably too weak to take even one decent pic, but that is a chicken and egg question; the greatest irony is that these are the animals that then end up being awarded indultos, by a public seemingly totally focused on the final tercio.)


The truth is, many who go to corridas appear simply not to understand the tercio de varas or its importance. There is no better evidence of this than the number of times a mixture of applause and whistles is heard when the bull goes to the horse - a fact, incidentally, that also makes it incredibly hard for the neophyte aficionado to understand this vital part of the corrida.


Well, any aficionado wanting to find out how it should be done properly has to come to Céret: matadors appear actually to try to position bulls properly before the horse; most bulls are pic'ed three times, usually having been positioned further from the horse with each successive entry; and picadors generally cite de frente.


At this point, it seems apt to commend Alain Bonijol's cavalry. You will struggle to see such beautifully presented picadors' horses as these - in stark contrast to the more frequently seen knackered old nags – and see horses so calm, so agile and so at ease with being pushed half way across the ring and even knocked over.


But that is not to say that it was all perfect: on the first day, an alarming number of pics were badly placed, as a result of which the prize for the best picador of that corrida was not awarded; picadors usually repositioned off-centre pics rather than desisting in the encounter; the carioca was frequently employed; and you often saw the pic being jabbed in and out, although thankfully without the vicious twisting so common to plazas like Madrid.


Almost miraculously, given the punishment that the bulls took and the commonly held current view that the modern toro bravo is incapable of withstanding a full and proper tercio de varas, virtually none of the bulls fell down.


Most impressive with the horse were the Assunção Coimbra toros of that first corrida (the quality of the pic'ing notwithstanding), each of which charged eagerly without excessive citing. Frascuelo, the Fred Astaire of toreo, managed to let two more decent animals slip by him: the first, in particular, had shown excellent signs of breaking out in the faena.


The Portuguese string was remarkably even in weight, trapío and comportment, and the best two bulls fell to Morenito de Aranda. His first was, to me, the best of the day, and he appeared to mistake the ovation and petition for a vuelta for the bull as a reward for his own lacklustre performance and decided to take a vuelta himself.


His second, which actually did receive a vuelta, was the best-looking animal, a negro bragado corrido. It took three heavy pics with eagerness, but did not consistently lower its head, and Morenito's lack of temple resulted in numerous enganchones, making for an ugly faena. He took another vuelta, this time with the ganadería's mayoral, José Maria Pinheiro.



To me, the revelation of the feria was the novillero Fernando Tendero, who produced the best faena of the weekend with a replacement novillo of Pilar Poblacion and might have cut an ear had he killed well. This was in the Sunday novillada of Sánchez-Fábres that was a major reason for my coming to Céret.


Coquillas, being an offshoot of Santa Coloma, are naturally smallish, and have effectively been sidelined since the 1970s - squeezed out by the trend towards larger bulls. There are no pure coquilla herds in the UCTL, although Sánchez-Fábres is on the list of aspiring ganaderías, and it is a rare occasion indeed to see them in the ring nowadays.


Perhaps naively, I had hoped to see smallish, agile, peppery animals; what we got instead was deformed giants, two of which weighed 550kg and two 570kg. A full coquilla toro weighing this much has to be considered fuera de tipo, a novillo just a freak.


These "coquillas" were generally uncommitted with the horse, and, while not impossible, lacked fire in the muleta. Mario Aguilar had an awful time of it, but Javier Cortés, after composing himself and his feet, produced a lovely faena to the sixth, a lucero with a dangerous right horn, only to spoil things with the sword.


The corrida of Cuadri that followed (weights: 580-620kg) offered one of very few occasions in 2009 to see this ganadería, very popular as it is with some torista aficionados (its clear santacoloma ancestry is coupled with a bulky, huge-dewlapped, distinctly non-santacoloma appearance). However, the first and fifth bulls were immobile, the second was rejected for lameness and the last was just plain unfightable.


So would I recommend Céret to whose who haven't been?


Although it is truly refreshing to see an attempt made at performing the tercio de varas correctly, at Céret one almost gets the feeling that this is taken to extremes, and that this is all the corrida is about. In awarding the sixth bull of Saturday's corrida and its mayoral a vuelta, the Cérétans appeared hypnotised by the animal's eagerness for the horse, almost totally ignoring its performance in the faena.


There are other aspects of Céret with which I took issue. The ring is so tiny (28m across) that it is difficult for bulls to break into a gallop in banderillas, and so this highly important suerte often ends up marginalised. And then there is the crowd; if you do not like the idea of sitting through a faena in total silence (to the extent that you feel obliged to whisper to converse with your neighbour), then Céret is probably not for you.


For all its desire to build a reputation for having a serious feria with tough bulls, Céret shows distinct pueblo tendencies, and it is by no means beyond the crowd to make a generous award for a mediocre performance. This was how Fernando Robleño was awarded the only ear of the feria for a faena, to the fourth Cuadri on Sunday, that was full of movement and vulgar, crowd-milking bluster. To his credit, he did produce the only single-entry kill of the two days, although that sword was lowish.


But if it is primarily bulls that you like, and you can understand the fascination that quite rightly exists in seeing the more peripheral ganaderías with toros en puntas, then you have to go. Céret has to be experienced at least once, and it might just be the case that you end up developing the acquired taste for it that it no doubt demands.


JP Ceret Coimbra vara


Morenito de Aranda


Fernando Tendero


Fernando Robleño

JP Ceret Morenito Aranda JP Ceret Tendero  JP Ceret Robleno


The tercio de la varas is the centrepiece of corridas at Céret. Top: An Assunção Coimbra bull heads towards the picador. Below: The horseman awaits a toro of Celestino Cuadri





Jacob Plieth’s own photographs are used to illustrate his article

JP Ceret Cuadri vara




Bilbao postscript

One month later ,a fascinating parallel with Céret was provided by the feria of Bilbao, which, one gets the feeling, might, years ago, have provided the acorn from which ADAC's oak grew.


Bilbao, of course, offers a mix of dura and commercial ganaderías, almost as if to highlight the difference deliberately. The Jandillas of El Juli's somewhat disappointing encerrona perfectly summed up what is wrong with the modern-day fiesta brava: bulls capable of taking little more than a half-pic, weak, barely managing to stay upright, and following the cloth slavishly with heads bowed - super-noble, yet somehow failing utterly to transmit emotion.


But the corrida of Victorino on the last day made me think of Céret. The bulls were well armed, beautifully presented and big: the last was a 623kg ox - in my view, totally fuera de tipo for an albaserrada - that totally dwarfed the pint-sized Diego Urdiales. It was only the skill of Urdiales, who pulled off one of those edge-of-your-seat faenas that only a few gladiatorial toreros are capable of, that saved the day, and he cut a well-deserved ear.


Yes, bulls should be serious, strong and capable of withstanding punishment. And size does matter, but only in the right context; a 600kg Palha, a 650kg Miura, yes - these are bulls that look totally natural at this weight - but there is more to authentic toros bravos than just piling on the kilograms, and there is certainly nothing serious about an overweight albaserrada or santacoloma.


Trivia: what musical instrument accompanies the placing of banderillas at Bilbao's plaza de toros? Answers on a postcard, please.