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The Sun Also Rises, San Fermin kicks off July 6 with a crush of red, white and happy revelers. (Tino Soriano)

Pamplona: No Bull

Forget Hemingway's bovine madness: this charming medieval town hosts the most misunderstood public party in the world - the festival of Sam Fermin.

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It's an excellent question of the kind no philosopher has been able to answer. Why can't we always be happy? Why do we have to grow up, get old, die? In Pamplona, during San Fermin, nobody asks such questions. And the only answer that makes any sense is that next year the fiesta will come again.

Sun or Shadow?

Where you sit in the bullring says it all

Pamplona's bullring, inaugurated three years before Hemingway's first visit to Pamplona, is the second largest in Spain. Its 19,529 seats sell out far in advance, and scalping flourishes despite the efforts of police to stop it.

The ring's shadow divides the spectators. Those in the shade tend to stare silently at the struggle below, analyzing the talent of the matador and the merits of the bull. Most of those in the sun are here to party, and if they care about what's going on below they are absolutely on the side of the bull.

Members of social clubs called penas eat, drink, sing raucous scraps of song to the brassy accompaniment of their bands and, as the heat and booze begin to take their toll, start throwing things at each other: food, wine, pieces of ice from their coolers. "We're not concerned about the image we're projecting to the outside," said Fermin Paularena, a member of the Irrintzi pena. "We're concerned about having a good time." But no matter the side of the shadow line you find yourself in, it seems strange to hear a band blaring theme songs from American movies while a lone, slender man faces a lunging black silhouette that seems lifted intact from ancient cave drawings in Altamira, 175 miles away.

It all comes together in an instant: the powerful impact of the bull's muscular ink-black shape against the blinding yellow of the sand, and the bull's mythic power, which gives off a primitive vibration of danger. The incongruity of the jaunty soundtrack with the voiceless drama of panting breath and dripping blood is one of San Fermin's most indelible impressions. —E.Z.


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