In the bullrings of Portugal, the horse is the star of the show

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Bullfighting might have been banned in Barcelona, but it is still part of life in Lisbon. Adrian Mourby stayed at a hotel where guests are invited to meet the men behind this controversial spectacle

The lunch table is thick with smoke.

Daughters and nieces, fresh from school, sit on any available knee. "I believe what happened in Catalonia was only a political issue," says Antonio Ribeiro Telles. He is a commanding but quietly spoken man. "It is not really a statement against bull-fighting, more against a symbol of Spain."

Antonio Ribeiro Telles is unusually tall even when he sits at the table, nursing his glass of wine. Height could be a disadvantage if you're fighting on the ground like in Spain, but a Portuguese toureiro fights on horseback. Jorge, my interpreter, explains to me that duelling with bulls was always an aristocratic sport on the Iberian peninsula, but when the Spanish king stopped his nobles taking part in the 18th century, the common people took over, fighting on foot and killing the bull in front of an arena of spectators.

In Portugal, the old ways still apply. Antonio Ribeiro Telles plunges steel-tipped bandarilhas into the bull's hump with his right hand while controlling the horse with his left, but he has never killed a bull in the Portuguese ring. "If he kills a bull, he goes to prison!" interjects Catarina, Antonio's wife.

We don't have the equivalent of bullfighter's wives in the UK. Catarina is glamorous but in a casual way. She is no WAG. She has been to more than 1,000 of Antonio's fights, in Portugal, Spain, France, Macau, Mexico, California and Colombia. Recently, she and Antonia Mota Pereira, who is the local vet, found that a fan club for Antonio has started up on Facebook. They joined just to keep an eye on what his women fans were up to.

Antonio tells me through Jorge that times are changing in Portugal. Women may be fighting bulls now but no allowance is made for them.

"Would you be happy for your daughter to become a toureira?" I ask.

"I would help her," says Antonio.

"I don't believe him!" Catarina insists.

"Women, they bullfight us every day," smiles Antonio.

I've been made very welcome by the family. One of Antonio's nephews, Henrique, has offered to take me to the next corrida de toiros, while another, also called Antonio, is keen to tell me about working as a bandarilheiro (toureiro's assistant) when not training as a vet in Lisbon. The daughters and nieces smile. The wine flows. More cigarettes end up in the central ashtray. And Senhor Ribeiro Telles just sits there underneath the stuffed head of Gabarito, his favourite horse, smiling benignly and fielding my questions through Jorge. I already feel like a friend.

It's odd to think that this is just one of a number of options that the Four Seasons hotel offers on its interactive online city guide. Yesterday, I toured Lisbon in the sidecar of a Russian army motorbike. Today, I am at lunch with the best cavaleiro (mounted bullfighter) in Portugal. Migel, my driver out to Herdade Torrinha, told me Antonio is the best, very calm in the ring as 670kg (1,500lb) of bull charges after him. Even Antonia the vet says Antonio is the best.

"He is classical," she explains. "He does not go in for theatricals like some of them today. As a vet, I do not like what happens to the bull, but I admire what Antonio does with the horses."

Horses are very much what the afternoon is about as Antonio drives us out across the 1,000 hectares his family owns along the river Tagus. We cross a rough dry landscape of olive and cork trees and cattle and spend an hour or so looking at the mares. Antonio owns some dozen horses. One of these may produce a foal that will grow up to be the next Gabarito, Antonio's beloved horse in the dining room.

"A great horse can make a career," he tells me through Jorge. "There are three essential elements to a good bullfight. The toureiro is important but not as important as the bull, the bull is very important, but neither is as important as the horse."

On our way back to Herdade Torrinha we meet Antonio's father. David Ribeiro Telles lost all the family's land after the revolution in 1974. He supported his 12 children as a cavaleiro, fighting on horseback until he was 70. He looks like a smaller version of his famous son, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in muttonchop whiskers. Ribeiro Telles senior fathered three bullfighting sons, and now he can see two of his grandchildren following suit.

"In Catalonia, they have banned bull-fighting," I say to make conversation as we sit outside the family's training ring. "Do you see bull-fighting ever dying out in Portugal?" The old man puts down his grandchildren and turns his watery eyes on me.

"He says bull-fighting is in the Portuguese soul," Jorge translates. "You must understand that after the revolution, the Communists wanted to outlaw bull-fighting, but the people wanted to keep it. Mr Ribeiro Telles's land was taken from him, but the common people, they looked after his land and gave it back to him when he returned."

This question of land is important. You have to be wealthy to be a Portuguese cavaleiro. Antonio receives payment when he fights, but he has to train and provide horses and to pay his bandarilheiros and the "cowboys", as Jorge calls them, who look after the animals. He teaches young men who come to him if he considers they have potential, but he does not receive payment for this. That is not the way in Portugal. No wonder he needs independent wealth.

"As a young man, I myself trained with Mr David Ribeiro Telles," says Jorge. "I wanted to be a cavaleiro but I did not have the money. That is why I now teach dressage."

"We haven't seen any bulls," I point out.

"Oh, Antonio has bulls but they are 100km to the north." Yes, this is a rich family.

I see bulls the next night, although sadly I do not see Antonio, who is not booked to fight in Lisbon's extraordinary bullring that evening. It's a brick structure with Moorish towers and a modern retractable roof.

As a member of the Ribeiro Telles family, Henrique gets to park where the cavaleiros and bandarilheiros leave their cars. He may be a Lisbon dentist by day, but tonight he is corrida royalty, the grandson of David, the nephew of Antonio and Joao, the cousin of Joao II and the brother of Manuel.

We enter the brightly lit arena just after 10.30pm as a Cinderella coach is crossing the yellow circle of sand. There are lots of musicians on horseback, young pages in white wigs and 18th-century frock coats, and a master of ceremonies on his horse making obeisance to the box where the president of the games sits with his bugler.

From out of the coach step six men, cavaleiros dressed in more frock coats, feathered hats, breeches and tall black boots. I get to know these men well over the next three hours.

First, the avuncular Joao Moura, oldest of the six and tending towards the portly. "Very nice man, but he is beginning to decline," said Henrique. Then Joaquim Bastinhas, who is known to play to the crowds, again "very nice" in Henrique's view but the family do not really approve of him. "He makes a lot of noise and his party trick is to put the reins into his waistband and take a small bandarilha in each hand and charge at the bull with only his legs for control!" Next along is Rui Salvador, who is known for being brave.

These three fill the first half of the evening. The next three are Joaoa Salguerio, who has a bad time of it with the crowd whistling him for taking too long to make contact with the bull. Then Vitor Ribeiro, who was clearly more popular with the crowd than the president judged. This proves interesting. When a cavaleiro has been deemed to be doing well, the president awards him music. This is played by a brass band up in the gods. If the crowd believes a fighter deserves music and is not getting it, then they start to clap in unison until the president agrees, and with Ribeiro the president did not agree. Nothing poor Ribeiro did seemed to please the president, and I saw the cavaleiro make a distinct WTF gesture at one point.

Last up is Francisco Palha, who is a Spanish cousin of Antonio's. Young handsome, cocksure and quite clear how to play the crowd, he delighted non-aficionados by punching the air, making his horse rear on its hind legs and getting so close to the bull that the horse was butted by its horns. For Henrique, this is bad behaviour. "Many people now do not understand the rules of the bullfight, so they do not know how bad it is if the bull touches your horse."

The whole evening comprises six highly structured bouts: one bull versus one cavaleiro assisted by his two bandarilheiros (caped like Spanish matadors). The cavaleiro always changes horses after plunging in the first two long bandarilhas. The second horse is better suited to the close quarters work with the short blades. I expected to be shocked by seeing an animal wounded in this way, but the cavaleiro attacks so quickly that you never catch the impact and your attention is then taken up by the enraged pursuit of rider and horse around the ring by a 670kg bull. These powerful creatures can out-run a horse on the flat so horse and rider need to know evasive tricks to get away. You can understand why this all began as cavalry practice. Horse and rider have to think as one.

After each bout the forcado team comes in. This group of volunteers, in the dress of 18th-century peasants, are there to calm the bull. Their leader advances solo across the ring, calling out until the bull charges him. The next thing you know, the young man has leapt on to the horns and is being carried across the ring with his colleagues grabbing on like a rugby scrum.

"When the bull cannot see to left or right he will stop," says Henrique. On one occasion it takes three attempts. Imagine provoking a bull seven or eight times your own weight with a landspeed of nearly 40mph. They do it for the honour of their city. I didn't want to imagine it. Not even once.

And the bull? He survives, gets patched up and usually is sold for meat, which was what he was raised for. Henrique tells me that occasionally a "nice" bull will be selected to live out his days fathering new bulls.

We leave the arena at 1.30am. Henrique is wondering about going on to a disco. "But they only start to get good about three or four o'clock." As for me, I want to sleep. Three hours have sped by. There is a lot to think about, but I know I want to see more.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Adrian Mourby flew to Lisbon with TAP (020-7932 3605; flytap.com), which offers return flights from London from €160.

Further information

The Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon (00 351 213 811 400; fourseasons.com/lisbon) has double rooms from €460 (£400) per night with breakfast. A visit to the home of a toureiro and an evening's bullfighting is part of the hotel's Insightful Guide for Seasoned Travel and can be arranged for a fee of €1,550 per person, including transfers, insurance, horse-riding, a day at the estate with lunch, and a trip to the bullfight escorted by a member of the family.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Life and Style
life“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice