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

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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.

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