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Spain's northeast region of Catalonia held its final bullfight last weekend after voting to ban the practice last year. But it's a different story elsewhere in Spain, where many still see it as a national tradition and don't want it banned.

Lauren Frayer took a walk in the shadows of Madrid's famed Las Ventas bullring and talked to locals about their love-hate relationship with bullfighting.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Puffing cigars, Antonio Gutierrez and his friend shuffle dominoes on a folding table near Madrid's grandiose bullring. They're a bit suspicious of a foreigner asking about bullfights.

ANTONIO GUTIERREZ: Bullfighting is very, very good. Okay?

FRAYER: They start cursing what they call uppity Catalans, accusing Barcelona of turning the world against bullfighting.

GUTIERREZ: No, no. We can't fool her. She understand, eh?

FRAYER: Gutierrez hushes his friends and explains.

GUTIERREZ: Bullfighting is the keystone of Spain. It's the tradition of Spain, (unintelligible) anti-bullfighting, anti-Spain.

FRAYER: In other words, he thinks Catalonia's ban on bullfighting is mostly about politics and nationalism. The Catalan language and culture were repressed during the nearly 40-year military dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Since democracy, Catalan nationalists have sought to cast off all things Castilian, referring to Spain's central and more conservative heartland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: But bullfighting is alive and well here in Madrid. The Paso Doble anthem blares from the gates of the city's Las Ventas ring, where Ionela Olteanu gives tours.

IONELA OLTEANU: For us, it's an art. It's a combination between artistic (inaudible) and technique and it's very important, this tradition.

FRAYER: Bullfighting on foot began as a peasant game and morphed into something regal, a source of national pride says Ricardo Perez, cuddling with his girlfriend on a bench near the bullring. It's what he was raised with, even if it is a bit bloody, he says. He respects it and thinks it should not be banned.

RICARDO PEREZ: I don't like that people kill bull, but I respect that. I think it should be legal.

FRAYER: It's true that attendance at bullfights is down nationwide by a third since 2007. Alexander Fiske-Harrison is a British aficionado and writer about bullfighting. Speaking from his home in London, he blames Spain's economic crisis for bullfighting's decline.

ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON: Bullfighting has fallen off as the economy has collapsed because it's an expensive hobby. People can't afford the tickets and people can't afford the bulls.

FRAYER: The bad economy even affects the quality of bulls breeders bring to the ring. Paco Mateo is a black-clad chain-smoking writer. With his dark beard, he seems to be channeling another famous bullfighting writer, Ernest Hemingway, as he sits brooding at a cafe near the Plaza de Toro.

PACO MATEO: (Speaking foreign language)

FRAYER: In the world of bullfighting, there's much corruption, he says. The people killing the bulls aren't the fighters, it's those who are trying to save money because of the crisis, the companies. They're rotting the game. When the bulls are weak or listless and the matador has to goad them into fighting, that, he says, is when the sport looks most cruel.

Many younger Spaniards, like Elisabeth Barcelo, don't see any romance in bullfighting.

ELISABETH BARCELO: Bulls are not aware of what they do, but people are. So I don't like it. It's torturing an animal. It doesn't make any sense for me.

FRAYER: The British aficionado, Fiske-Harrison, trained as a bullfighter himself.

FISKE-HARRISON: I think that there will be an ongoing conflict between the animal rights, animal welfare lobby on one side and the pro-bullfighting lobby on the other. It's very hard to see it actually dying out completely, though.

FRAYER: Meanwhile, Madrid's bullring hosts half a dozen fights this weekend. Out of 24,000 seats, 20,000 tickets have already been sold.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

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