The fiesta of San Fermin in Pamplona, which mixes a saint who may not have existed, an audacious American writer attracted to danger, and six wild bulls charging down the main street, may be the most famous and most misunderstood public party in the world.
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The running of the bulls is what everyone knows about Pamplona. In at least a hundred other Spanish towns the people celebrate their saints by running with bulls, but outsiders don't take much notice. That's because it was to Pamplona that Ernest Hemingway came in 1925, and his resulting novel, The Sun Also Rises, did as much for the town's fiesta as it did for the writer.
Of course, the book isn't about the fiesta, which serves mainly as the backdrop to the futile grasping at happiness by several neurotic people. But there was no stopping the hordes that responded to the novel's depictions. Drinking wine at 8 o'clock in the morning! Staying up all night and dancing with strangers in the street! Bullfights! To young foreigners with a little extra money, it was irresistible.
And still is.
Except for the bulls, Hemingway wouldn't recognize the fiesta today. The comfortable little town of Pamplona, a mainly rural center of 30,000 in his day, has grown into an industrial city of 200,000, home to a Volkswagen factory and two universities. Thanks to its location linking Spain and France, though, it has never been anything like a backwater, and even without San Fermin it would attract the reasonably curious traveler. The first people, warlike Vascons, settled here as early as 1000 b.c.: they called it "Iruna," meaning "the city," as their Basque descendants still do. In 75 b.c. the Roman general Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus established a Roman town on the previous settlement, exploiting its strategic position and honoring it with his name, "Pompaelo." As the capital of the Kingdom of Navarre, which stretched across the Pyrenees into France, medieval Pamplona flourished on both commercial traffic and that of Christian pilgrims headed for Santiago de Compostela; the stern Gothic churches of San Saturnino and San Nicolas still brim with ecclesiastical treasures. And three-quarters of the Renaissance fortifications of the old city remain, making Pamplona's massive walls among the best-preserved defenses in Spain.
But it's the fiesta that people come for, and every year from July 6 to 14, Pamplona is inundated by a kind of storm surge of revelers. Over nine days, one and a half million people pass through, every one of them seemingly heading for the historic center of town, an area of about two square miles. Only a few come for more than two or three days, but the flow is incessant. "Fiesta" doesn’t begin to cover the event's scope. It's more like a biblical visitation, a triathlon with music, for which the town provides medical emergency squads on 24-hour alert, thousands of volunteers to clean the streets of tons of garbage, extra police patrols and temporary toilets. Pamplonans who can't take it pack up and leave town.
Still, there are many who stay, and not because they have to. They adore their fiesta and live it with their whole hearts despite the chaos. Visitors "all think from the outside looking in that the fiesta is all about drinking and staying up all night, but it's not," said native Pamplonan Nekane Arrizibita, 38. In fact, if you filter out the foreigners and focus on the locals, you discover a fiesta that's hidden in plain view: laughing children, tranquil grandparents, groups of various ages sharing a happiness that has nothing to do with drinking themselves senseless, sleeping on the grass or running with the bulls. It's about forgetting the rules, declaring a sort of invisible social cease-fire that allows everyone to be spontaneous once a year without fear of repercussion—a sense of freedom that can be appreciated only by people who live their entire life in a conservative, religious town in conservative, religious northern Spain.
"Almost everyone here knows you, or knows someone who knows you," explained Eduardo Arregui, a 31-year-old telecommunications engineer. "It's not easy doing crazy things when you know that someone you know can see you. But during San Fermin, there's a kind of green light for almost everything. It's like you’ve put on a mask. You're not yourself anymore but the person you want to be." Pamplonans, he continued, "don't think of drinking and dancing and partying as the fiesta, but as the background of the fiesta—the fiesta each person lives inside of themselves."
It starts with a bang—30 of them, a succession of rockets fired from the balcony of the Casa Consistorial, or Town Hall, at noon on July 6, accompanied by a rain of red and white streamers and confetti. Called Txupinazo, this is the official launch of the festivities. Below, in the plaza, a packed crowd somehow manages to spray wild deluges of cheap champagne everywhere. (Photographers shooting pictures out of windows even three stories up know to wrap themselves in typhoon-proof plastic.) Most everyone ties a red bandanna around his neck, the town band begins to play traditional Basque songs, and roars of pleasure compete with the sounds of rockets overhead. Of course it is all going to end in tears—204 hours later, to be precise, at midnight July 14, when many of the same people will meet again at the same place for the closing ceremony, the "Pobre de mi.'" They will untie their red bandannas, hold candles and sing mournfully, "Poor me, poor me, the fiesta has come to an end...."
But nobody is thinking about that now. The hordes fan out across the center of town, gamboling across granite streets slick with beer, champagne and sweat. Before long blood is added to the mix, as revelers carouse amid 30 tons of mostly broken bottles in the square. Everywhere there's noise, from the charangas, the brass bands of the irrepressible social clubs known as penas, to the throbbing hypnotic notes of the txalparta, a Basque mountain instrument made of slabs of cherry, acacia and beechwood, played like a heavy timber xylophone, to live concerts, fireworks, people singing, children crying, high-power hoses spraying the street clean, the occasional siren.