Temporada '04, Especially The Duero
Harlan M. Blake

The greatest pleasure of my taurine temporada was surely that of seeing such a large number of very good young newcomers moving up: Salvador Vega, of Fuengirola; Matías Tejela, of Alcalá de Henares; El Capea and Eduardo Gallo, both salmantinos; Serafín Marín, Catalan; and José María Manzanares, of Alicante, are all names which I will try not to miss next year, and Miguel Ángel Perera, Sebastián Castella, Iván Vicente, Antonio Barrera, Juan José Padilla, Fernando Robleño and El Califa are also young matadors whom I want to see again or for the first time. Some even suggest that Antón Cortés, Javier Valverde or Juan Diego deserve further inspection. When in all taurine history has there been such an impressive list?

The reason is that toreo is improving year by year. Those bullfight schools are making a big difference – at least as far as the muleta and basic style and good manners are concerned. (One may still have to do an apprenticeship in Mexico to avoid the poncista tendency to depreciate capework, quites and the supreme suerte).

Enrique Ponce still shows no interest in the cape or the kill, but this temporada I have been fortunate to see him create a greater number of superb faenas than ever before, and that has helped make the temporada a great one for me.

Julián López ‘El Juli' remains the most fully versatile of the maestros, apparently flourishing under his new apoderado, Roberto Domínguez (who apparently has banished papa – at least from the callejón), and having abandoned (fortunately) the banderillas and curtailed (unfortunately) the number and variety of quites he offers. I hope this "poncification" is not Domínguez' idea of how to solve the problem of diluted afición from which El Juli was apparently quite naturally suffering as he faced his, what, eighth or ninth season (the fourth as a matador de toros) of excessive numbers of contracts and appearances. Anyway, El Juli still delivers, miraculously. The young man, now at last 21, is a tad heavier than last year, but still a quarter ton less than the provider of the (unfortunate) genetic pool.

César Jiménez has, I suppose, still fought perhaps only a third or a fourth as many taurine critters as El Juli, so it is not surprising that there is not only no noticeable diminution of afición, but Spain's currently most popular matador keeps getting even more dedicated and better. As his technique gets ever stronger, so does his interest in using it creatively (see my comments on César in Duero-land below).

My first three days were in San Sebastián, where this time I found the new covered bullring to be quite satisfactory in the first 10 rows. Further back, the rake increases vertiginously and the needed footrest is a real hazard to any other than a mountain-goat (of which few are aficionados). One also needs a bus to (and especially from) Illumbe, which is in the hills some distance from the city, and where taxis are usually unavailable. Fortunately, the Costa Verde, the taurine hotel, the Aranzazu (where I stayed) and the María Cristina all provide bus services.

The high point of the three afternoons was a lovely, almost classical faena from Uceda Leal , with the best of a good lot of those most unclassical bulls of don Victorino. El Cid also did well, but Dávila Miura should have stayed with the family bulls.

The low point of my days there was a corrida of uniformly terrible bulls from an unfortunate place called Las Ramblas (which should have stayed in Barcelona). These disgraceful beasties defeated the several diligent efforts of César Rincón, El Juli and César Jiménez (two caesars and a Julián – obviously a lot of fire power).

Javier Conde was second-ranked this season – on some weeks, he even led the escalafón – and, though I saw him often, I cannot say that I ever saw him good. He must be planning to retire next year and was working cut-rate this year to bank as much as possible.

Finito de Córdoba fought a lot less, but I did see him good – not at his almost incomparable best – but better than OK.

El Fandi remains popular and his muleta passes are getting to be good and even well-linked, but his work with the banderillas – which is so breath-taking first time around, and the main reason for his popularity – gets repetitive and even occasionally boring if you see it often. His ‘sticks' partner of past years, Antonio Ferrera, is now seldom seen, and Fandi's future is not clear to me.

Jesulín de Ubrique still has lots of fans and even admirers among the critics, but I saw him excellent only once (out of several bulls) and that wasn't enough to get the bad taste of his apparently instinctive bad taste out of my mouth .

Manuel Jesús ‘El Cid', however – hitherto almost solely confined to Victorinos or Cebada Gagos – is evolving very nicely, and as serious an aficionado as Noel Chandler picks him as the best of the newer-comers.

Franciso Rivera Ordónez has had his best season in some time, many claiming that a faena he produced in Málaga was not only the best in feria, but the best that Rivera has given us since his alternativa. Apparently the House of Alba, though still enraptured with Fran, has given up on him. Perhaps this has had something to do with his renewal as a torero, although he still gets more space in the gossip sheets than any other male in Spain. All the magazines have him consorting with every movie starlet who passes through. If this is the case, it seems an interesting strategy for a young husband who once told me that his highest ambition was to win back Eugenia. True, that was over a year ago…

Neville the deville reported that the great Hotel María Cristina, once the only taurine hotel in San Sebastián – this was decades ago when the old bull-ring was right across the river – is again somewhat taurine. When I first stayed there in the '50s (when the prices were about 5% of what they are today), other guests included all the matadors, including Antonio Ordóñez, who was then reportedly being pursued by Cayetana Alba, also much in evidence as a guest. There was a spanking new red Mercedes convertible in the parking lot, which was said to be a gift of the Duchess to Ordóñez, who, earlier in the feria, had dedicated a bull to her. Those were the days when the Goya traditions were being maintained. It is true that today his grandson is married to her daughter – doesn't there seem to be some generational disconnect there? – but I feel sure there is a complicated pre-nuptial agreement instead of a red convertible...

San Sebastián's beaches aren't for everyone, including me – spoiled by life in Brazil – but its nightly fireworks are Spain's most elegant, and so are its Basque restaurants, not only the mature and lovely Arzac and the fabulous, modern Martín Berasategui, but also all the more popular fish soup bistros tucked away in the enchanting old quarter along and near the docks.

A pleasant, easily accessible bus covers the scenic highway to Bilbao in less than two hours. From the public bus depot to the traditional old Hotel Carlton or the nearby, hectic Ercilla is a quick taxi ride. In the old days, the Carlton was where the taurinos stayed, and its main public room – without the big oval center bar – was furnished sedately with plush divans and chairs and individual dark wood tables spaced formally around the periphery. There, the matadors generally took tea as they quietly greeted their friends and the grandees of the Club Cocherito. The apoderados took sherry or beer as they distributed sobres to the newspaper and magazine critics and negotiated with the Choperas and other impresarios. When the Ercilla was built, the scene at once shifted there, and, for some years, the Carlton seemed to be largely deserted and we wondered whether and how it would survive. Now, at least during the Semana Grande, it is busy again, although the matadors have not returned but have instead gone on to newer establishments. I stayed there this year, and enjoyed my large and comfortable room as well as its guests' private communications center, sporting excellent, unlimited and free internet access.

Bilbao's Semana Grande has always been regarded as the third most important Spanish feria, after Madrid's San Isidro and Sevilla's Spring feria. To maintain that superannuated but coveted status, those bilbainos who decide policy have insisted on bulls like the traditional "bull of Madrid" – big and occasionally powerful. But in the mid decades of the past century, as ganaderos bred bulls for other qualities, the encierros for Bilbao, as for Las Ventas, came to be made up of bulls that were big because they were more or less force-fed during the weeks prior to shipment and were thus grossly overweight with fat and too heavy for their trapío (like the Samuel Flores corrida this year). Their legs couldn't support the bulk, and the bulls fell or lost agility and balance; they also quickly ran out of energy and had no staying power to repeat passes and engage in a structured faena.. In the 60s and 70s, aficionados came to realize that Bilbao's claim to primacy was becoming a thing of the past. An abono in the comfortable plaza of Bilbao had become total boredom. Since the high moguls of the Club Cocherito were unprepared to face reality, I became one of many who sadly decided to give up and head south for that second week of August – to the then obscure feria of Almería, where there was so much more fiesta and less pretension. Of course, I urged friends to do likewise. They came, liked it, and stayed.

I should give due credit to the former bullfight critic of ABC , the monarchist national newspaper. He was the late Vicente Zabala, no more literate than his son, Zabala de la Serna, who succeeded him ( ABC quite appropriately believed in primogeniture, as did most of its readers). Vicente was said to be so frightened for his personal safety from attacks by ETA terrorists (doubtless he was also as bored with the bulls as the rest of us), that he stopped reviewing Bilbao and fled to the backwoods right behind me. Almería was made!

Until recently, it was impossible to attend the last fight in Bilbao on the Sunday and still get by public transport to the first big day (Monday) in the Almería feria. Since the last Sunday was usually the best of an overweight week – traditionally the Miuras (believe it or not, I once saw Paco Camino prevail over a 703-kilo Miura on one of those Sundays), more recently the Victorinos – this was a real problem, especially for the critics… Now, at least for the moment, Iberia has made it possible for gluttons for taurine delight willing to arise at the crack of dawn on the Monday. (Take advantage of it before Iberia's bureaucrats realize that they have actually improved public service).

In Bilbao's plaza de toros, it was the usual disappointing week, so I will mention only three high-points. One was the fine performance of young Manzanares, whose purity of classical style with his second Torrealta was a delight to behold, though as yet there is not much evidence of creative imagination (which could emerge with greater maturity). The other two came with the excellent corrida of Torrestrellas. Bullfighters and critics almost uniformly agree that Álvaro Domecq most consistently produces the best bulls for matadors, and for most aficionados as well. However, Ponce's draw from the Torrestrellas would not support this generalization. His first required the services of an enfermería, and Enrique's masterful muleta performed this function brilliantly and went much farther to create a beautiful faena, for which I would have awarded two ears if there had not been a disastrous kill. His second bull was badly piced, but his elegant technique enabled him to produce another satisfying faena.

But the great triumph of the day, and of the feria, was for Salvador Vega, whom Tom Weitzner, a fellow fuengirolista, has called to our attention. He proved in his work with two very different, but excellent, bulls that he is well on his way to becoming the best of the new matadors on the national scene. He cut an ear on each bull, should have got the second ear on the second bull, and, in any event, was unanimously triunfador of the feria.

Since I want to get us to the Duero, I will defer to other reports on delightful Almería (there will be plenty of comment, especially on its eight-ear day), also lively Valladolid, where the big news was that good entradas could be found at the courteous and helpful taquilla, a big change from the past. But I will note a day in San Sebastián de los Reyes on which both Finito de Córdoba and Matías Tejela found bulls with which to triumph in the Antonio Bañuelos corrida. Finito was superb with both his bulls, but, with the first, he climaxed a lovely faena with delicious redondos and a pase de pecho so deep and slow as to catch at one's breath and remain engraved in the memory. He won an ear, while two ears went to Tejela with the last bull of the day for a powerful, yet delicate, faena, full of creative beauty. As so often happens in San Sebastián de los Reyes, this was an afternoon of very special toreo.

Next morning, it was the pleasant Talgo ride up to Palencia, just north of Valladolid, mostly to see Joselito as ganadero and the bulls to which he has dedicated himself for over 15 years. They were having their most important exposure to date, with the somewhat second-level cartel of Luguillano, Javier Valverde and Sebastián Castella.

I had gone over to Talavera a year earlier to see the bulls in their first full-scale (home-town) presentation and had really liked them – they were as strong, agile and difficult as Victorinos and stayed glued to the muleta, repeating endlessly. They yielded no trophies, and when I congratulated José, it was Arranz who replied; "Thanks, but they still lack class". I didn't know then and I don't know now exactly what "class" meant in that context, but, whatever it is, they now have it. The day in Palencia was very rainy and most of us thought the matadors would decide not to risk a terribly sloppy ruedo, but they obviously needed the exposure. And they ended up cutting five ears. Luguillano cut an ear on the first bull. The second was also good, but more difficult to manage, and the young Frenchman Sebastián Castella handled it with great style and corazón and cut two ears. However, the excitement, at least for Joselito and friends, came with Luguillano's second, which all agreed was an extraordinarily brave and noble animal with both strength and temple, and with which the pseudo-gitano created the only faena of his I have ever really liked. He cut only one ear, but there was an endless petition for the second.. The last bull of the day was also noteworthy and Valverde cut an ear. Joselito was pleased, of course, and introduced me to his pretty, two-year old daughter, Alba. Proud fatherhood may make it more unlikely that Joselito will return to the ruedos, but we will surely benefit from the continuing application of his taurine genius to the fiesta brava.

Absolutely no taurine insider thinks it likely that José Tomás will return either, although nothing in the world is more universally hoped for. But there He was, with long hair and Hollywood dark glasses, not looking at all like he was suffering from withdrawal symptoms, or suffering at all, in the callejón of Valladolid's plaza the day of César Rincón, Finito de Cordoba and El Juli.

The toros of Domingo Hernández/Garcigrande were, on the whole, quite good, but if José came to see Rincón, he was doubtless sadly disappointed. Finito was fine, though not loved by the vallesoletanos, but Rincón sadly continued in his end-of-season (ex-France) slump. El Juli, on the other hand, was in great form, perhaps determined to dry himself from the bath Ponce had given him the day before. Whether his second faena was as "magistral" (almost the only adjective used to describe Enrique's work this Fall) as Ponce's second the day before, I am unable to judge but, in any event, Ponce also did excellent work with (and cut an ear from) his other bull of the day, so a bath he did deliver.

Some of the other taurine events of the week were also of interest. Manolo Caballero was making his last appearance in Valladolid (he ‘cut the coleta' as far as Spain is concerned less than a week later in his home town, Albacete). On the cartel for this final appearance were Luguillano and Miguel Abellán. Manolo's straightforward country boy style and technique are less appreciated in Valladolid than in the La Mancha of Albacete (or the London Club); Luguillano's neo-rococo, on the other hand, is, so some will think the ear awarded to the latter might have better gone to the honoree. I am sorry that my only reference to Abellán in this long-winded affair must be negative, but he did decide to sit this one out, an unusual but understandable attitude for him, more often the soul of all-out effort and pundonor.

I couldn't make it for the first two days of the feria, so I missed the reportedly excellent novillada (Roberto Carlos, who doesn't sing Portuguese but apparently does cut ears; Morenito de Aranda, who didn't make it to Aranda this year – maybe he never has – but who did cut ears in Valladolid; and someone called Escudero, who abstained). I also missed Manolo Sánchez's annual truimph in this feria. Manolo has always been a good and rather special torero, who one year, if I remember correctly, cut 12 ears on one of these occasions (sadly I wasn't there), but he has apparently settled for the pleasant life of the local idol. I don't know the full story, and would be delighted if Larry Belcher could fill me in. Anyway, this year he settled for a mere three orejas, the press reporting that they were well-deserved and that his (two-ear) first may have been the bull of the feria, although the other was difficult.

The rest of the week was also good, but largely due to El Capea, and, even better, Eduardo Gallo, and, perhaps better still, José María Manzanares hijo. Since of these three, the first two salmantinos, were to be the major new interest in Salamanca, I will deal with them later On to the Duero!!!

It had been decades since I had followed that lovely ribeiro from Valladolid to Aranda, and never by public transportation. Since there was a spare Sunday between the end of Valladolid and the first major day in Salamanca, and the bus depot was right across the street from my hotel, why "waste" a day on which Salvador Vega (and Jesulín, who now says he wants to become "serious" and, incidentally, showed signs of that in Palencia) was to have Jandillas, all in the wine and asador capital of the region?

What I didn't know from past fleeting visits was what a lovely town Aranda is, especially in feria; that it is building a handsome new plaza de toros; and that one of Joselito's favorite ganaderos, Victoriano del Río, is the moving force behind it all. If I had known that, I might have assumed that the bulls would be good, but not guessed how good. The new Plaza de la Ribera del Duero, still without its convertible roof, was celebrating its inauguration – and what self-respecting ganadero would send an admired colleague anything but a worthy encierro on such an occasion? So the Jandillas were fine, and Salvador gave us a pair of actuaciones just about at the level he had provided in Bilbao. I may have enjoyed them even more, partly from a sense of discovery. The festive crowd provided a stirring ovación after a lugubrious kill of the first and two ears plus a lively and insistent petition for the tail on the second. Jesulín was politely ignored, but the local boy, Jarocho, cut an ear on the last. I celebrated a lovely day by torearing down the crowded main street to an excellent, recommended asador with a great assortment of Duero wines, and knew that all was right with the world – although I again had to rise early to return next morning to catch a return bus to the Valladolid coach station to pick up checked luggage and catch a connecting bus to Salamanca. I had reserved my room in the Hotel Aranda for the following Sunday, when I would be heading back and up to Burgos and thence Logroño.

Salvador Vega was on the cartel again the next day in Salamanca, so I saw him on two days back to back; the appearances could hardly have been more different. The bulls of García Jiménez were pretty bad and Salvador tried but could not connect, able to offer only a few lovely details with his first. Juan Diego, a local boy, had somewhat better luck. Manzanares worked with intelligence and discipline and produced two faenas of real merit, cutting an ear from the last of the day.

This was more or less the pattern for the week. The bulls, exclusively salmantino, were disappointing, with few exceptions. The local boys, especially Gallo and El Capea, saved the feria, with some help from Manzanares, but relatively little from the seniors or even César Jiménez. Matías Tejela, the candidate of many to be a future numero uno, had no more luck than Vega, but neither did Finito or even sure-fire El Fandi, with terrible bulls of Valdefresno and Charro. El Capea made his first appearance of the week with Rincón and Ponce and the family bulls. Rincón had a disastrous day, but Ponce gave us another of his lovely lessons in maestria with his first bull, with which however he had great difficulty in the kill.

Pedro Moya, father, hidden away in Julio Robles' famous bunker, must have been as happy as a man can be when both his son's (and his) bulls turned out to be good, and with the young man's two actuaciones, both strong, elegant and lovely, each deserving of an ear (only the first was awarded for reasons known only to the presidente).

Eduardo Gallo's first appearance was an even greater personal triumph. He was on the next day, with a mixed lot of bulls of El Pilar. Javier Conde showed up only to collect his check (as so often this fall), but El Juli was in good form, working hard and with great skill to bring his unruly first bull into a good faena and cutting a weighty ear.

His second faena would also have merited an ear but for the kill. But the triunfador of the day was clearly the "fighting cock" Gallo. With both his excellent bulls, he gave glorious displays of cape passes and quites (following El Juli's challenge) and later kept us on the edge of our seats with the risks he took in working millimetrically close to the bull in the interest of brilliant aesthetics – a triumph perhaps even more complete than in Valladolid, taking an ear from each, with an endless petition for the second on his first animal.

The feria's pièce de resistance was its mano a mano between Gallo and Capea on the Saturday. It was one of the most exciting and beautiful mano a mano's I have ever seen, a wealth of taurine valor and arte too copious to describe. Let me just give you its results. Gallo cut an ear on his first; Capea cut an ear on the next; the third and fourth bulls yielded no trophies; on the fifth, Gallo had a great bull and cut two ears, certainly locking up the day to the despair of the many capeistas; then El Capea unleashed every ounce of his afición, technique and corazón to create what, without doubt, was the most breathtaking and beautiful actuación of the feria. And the sword? A nice, clean entry. First one white handkerchief appeared, then a pause that seemed like an aeon, and the second – PANDEMONIUM!!! Perfect symmetry, complete catharsis, a memorable day.

The only constraint to my delight was that some of our small group, including Vivi Fortier, had had to leave that morning. Vivi had added to the delights of Salamanca by introducing me to the Museum of Art Nouveau, the fascinating turn of the century avant-garde home of a collector of art of this school. It is located overlooking the river, down below the cathedral. Lovely Salamanca is constantly changing, and some of our losses are hard to take. The modest but classy restaurant Félix, which for years has offered some of the city's very best roast suckling pig (cochinillo) at reasonable prices, is no more, being in the process of being remodelled for a fate which I could not discover. Even more potentially far-reaching, both the Gran Hotel, long the center of the feria's taurine social ambience, and the Monterrey, owned by the same interests, are being (or have been) sold, and no one seemed to know for sure to what end. The toreros are no longer there, but have scattered around. Fortunately, the Candil continues supreme for morucho, and tapas, the Río Blanco for cordero asado, and lovely Chez Victor for French tastes.

I left the next morning to retrace my steps to Valladolid and Aranda, observing with pleasure the vineyards of Vega Sicilia, Pesquera and many others spread over the slopes of the valley of the Duero, and the lovely village of wine growers and bodegas, Peñafiel, nestled below its imposing castle, and resolved to return for a more leisurely visit. The only problem of arriving in Aranda by bus (and untold numbers of other towns) is that there is seldom a taxi, and phone calls are often unanswered. After a frustrating wait, I finally began to negotiate with private cars, and succeeded after offering a young driver a generous "taxi" fare. We had an aficionados' conversation en route to the bullring, and when I gratefully thrust a banknote upon him, he smiled and firmly and repeatedly refused, instead offering a suggestion for the best asador in town.

Aranda's feria, at least this year, is spread between two Sundays (of which I have already reported on the first, with Salvador Vega). Today, the second Sunday, was for Javier Conde, César Jiménez and the young Manzanares. The intervening corridas (while I was in Salamanca) offered on Monday, with Victoriano del Río's own bulls, Finito, El Juli and Gallo; on Tuesday, rejoneo; and on Saturday, El Cid, Miguel Ángel Perera and Juan Diego. Good, imaginative carteles.

I settled into my spacious, comfortable contrabarrera, still thinking of the mano a mano the day before in Salamanca, fairly sure that today's show, though likely to be good, could hardly be in the same league. First, today's García Jiménez bulls were half-brothers of those that had performed so badly less than a week earlier in Salamanca; second, Conde seemed usually to be taking a free ride in recent weeks.

My fears as to Conde were well-founded. Again he was not there; he made no serious effort with either of his bulls. Young Manzanares, on other hand, was in top form. His first bull was difficult, missing no opportunity to hook in. Showing both technique and valor, Manzanares stole a few lovely derechazos. His second bull was better and the alicantino gave a splendid show of the best his father had taught him – a toreo that was elegant, soft and templado, near perfect in its classical simplicity – gaining a well-earned ear and an especially warm reception.

But the day belonged to César Jiménez, and it was surely one of his very best. His first bull was extraordinary and it was soon apparent that César was well aware of that fact. Before the arrival of the horses, he gave a limpid series of lovely verónicas, each advancing towards the center of the ring. In due course, he brought the bull to the horse with some walking chicuelinas that made even my treasured memory of Bienvenida's seem a bit awkward. The placement was perfect and the bull took a strong, well-placed pic. César decided to risk only one, possibly because he had needed to intervene with another quite, this "a cuerpo limpio", audaciously improvised in the flash of an eye to rescue a hapless monosabio. The artistic quite was por farol invertido, which evolved into a garland of chicuelinas, each deeper and more templada than the one before. The last of these blossomed into a complex, but elegant, series of baroque cape swirls that might have been César's own variation on the lopecina. Breathtaking! Then the banderilleros were permitted to begin their work. Too bad! If the bull had taken another pic, it might well, as we will see, have been indultado.

We have all, I hope and trust, experienced one of those rare days on which an extraordinary bull seems eager to join a favored matador in a show of continuing offer and response, with such nobleza and temple that it appears that – perhaps rather than having been dominated – it has been lured by the matador's quiet invitation into an almost joyful but ambiguous, if not erotic, game. Perhaps the dumb animal senses that, if it plays well, the matador may become a friend, or ally, or lover, and get it out of this strange and terrible situation. Perhaps there had been some tribal intuition of the possibility of salvation though shared aesthetic catharsis. In any event, César joyfully embraced the opportunity to press his technique and aesthetic sensibilities to their very limit and then continue – perhaps beyond what he had ever done before – into the heretofore unknown inchoate material of aesthetic invention, testing the limits of creative imagination and of courage and of human ability to invite and bear risk.

César dedicated his extraordinary bull to the public, then opened his faena with knees planted firmly in the center of the ruedo and offered a series of passes en redondo, linked so as to completely encircle his central axis, smoothly, slowly and millimetrically close – no pointless, flashy knee-work this, but effective and powerful toreo – and, as the critics say, with the plaza boca abajo. On his feet, Jiménez designed one of the strongest, most complex, yet beautiful faenas of recent memory. Most of the faenas which impress me as important are classically simple, with necessary tandas of derechazos and naturales, templados and linked, smoothly culminating in a deep chest pass, or occasionally two pases de pecho linked in sequence (some aesthetic purists insist that each pase must be preceded by its own tanda of naturales; I tend to agree with this, but the beauty and honesty of César's intervening linkages occasionally persuade me that exceptions may be possible). César gave us all this and more, with subtle and lovely variations developing like a resonant Bach fugue. The faena came to have a Gothic structure, with soaring passages making space for stained-glass light and dancing shadows. Such soaring power requires lateral support, and buttress designs appeared in the form of tandas of ayudados, firstly low ones with immense strength, then high passes given with light Baroque delicacy.

I had long since laid note-pad aside, lost in the aesthetic emotion of the creative process taking place before me, as it transformed artistic imagination of high order into substance that embodies the beauty and taste of this young artist. No matter, I could never have catalogued in sequence, or at random, the named and as yet unnamed suertes and combinations of suertes which César improvised in any way that could have enabled another to visualize what had happened – how could one describe in mere words a jazz riff of Charlie Parker in full flight, or Artur Schnabel improvising a new cadenza in a Beethoven concerto? Even if I could discipline myself to dilute the existential experience, how would I find the exquisitely refined Spanish to do it justice (only José Carlos Arévalo, or perhaps Barquerito, has occasionally succeeded in doing it for me, and I am no Neruda)? And in English? – Give me a break. This is a memory I seek to treasure unalloyed.

When César had finally depleted his adversary (or what was it by now? collaborator? partner? brother? enamorado?), it seemed excessive, even cruel, to require him to kill it. Of course, this was the moment for an indulto, except that the bull had done too little with the horse. So came the change of swords. The crowded plaza was as silent as Sevilla: everyone had stopped breathing, waiting for the kill. Even I (only slightly more agnostic than atheist) offered a silent prayer. The alignment and entry were measured and slow – they looked perfect to me. The bull surged forward, as if responding to a call. The entry was so powerful that the sword, hitting bone, bent nearly double and sprang out into space. I recoiled reflexively, almost feeling the pain in the wrist. Was it broken? The wrist and the bull survived, as they did the second entry. The third, still excellent in form, succeeded. An ear was awarded – not, of course, the tail or some hooves, or even the entire bull, as in olden days or even in the days of the original César Girón's triumphal tours of Iberia in the 1950s.

Miraculously, César's second bull was also very good, although not of the category of the first. His entire day was inspired, the second actuación was also superb, he killed well and was awarded a delirious ovation and two ears. There followed the most festive exit from the puerta grande of the temporada, with the entire plaza crowding out the door with him and out onto the streets of Aranda.

I joined the celebrants, and regained my composure only in time to split as we passed Mesón El Pastor, the asador recommended by my young benefactor. After responding to questions about the corrida, I was awarded the last table (reserved for the mayor, I was told) and was obviously the only non-Spaniard in the place. Everyone was eating exactly the same thing, I noted, and I had no interest in being original. A convivial couple passed by and recommended the house Duero or, if I were very rich, the Pesquera '97 Reserva. Since the latter, of course, came only in full fifths, I staggered back to the hotel that evening replete in every respect and absolutely convinced – as I remain to this day – that it would be impossible to eat and drink better in all Spain, or see more beautiful toreo, than I had that fantastic day. (The asador's bill, wine and all, came to a total price of under $30).

The next morning, it was a pleasant bus ride to Burgos, where I had an hour to look around the handsome plaza mayor of a town whose feria I used to visit frequently, but not now for 10 years or so. The centro appeared unchanged and lovely, but, as the bus headed out of town, I could see that residential and industrial expansion had extended the city out many miles since the last visit, and the plaza de toros with it. The bus route from Burgos to Logroño is quite different from the superhighway one uses in a private car, so I saw some different scenery – less mountainous, with more small towns and village life, and passing through historic Najera and Santo Domingo of the rooster feathers. Logroño provided its usual pleasures, including the usual evening with the best cabrito in Spain and its chef and madcap entrepreneur, very pleasantly shared with Marion Perry (Tom had to be in Madrid) and Noel Chandler (Fran had to be in Oviedo). On another evening, I compared notes with, and, as usual, learned a lot from Barquerito. Half way through the week, I had to bus back to Madrid to catch a late afternoon flight to New York. I hope the Logroño bulls improved after my departure.

So it was a pretty good fin de temporada for me, and leaves me certain that the taurine future is in good hands. I can't yet point to the eventual specific successors to Manzanares padre, the earlier Ortega Cano, Julio Robles, Joselito, or Ponce, but the talent is there. And the irreplaceable Sr. Tomás is there, too, quietly observing from the callejón, perhaps sizing up the future competition. Ojala!

PS: As I finish writing this, the news has arrived that the Lozanos will no longer be exploiting Las Ventas. By the time you read this, the final decision regarding the plaza's future management will be known. The news is already excellent and perhaps the eventual outcome will be superb. Whoever wins, it will take a lot of time and dedication, as well as the collaboration of the politicos, to repair the damage that has been done. But at least one can again feel good about coming back to Madrid…