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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.

While tourists, many already well oiled, head for the stone pillar in the St. Cecilia fountain to jump from it into the arms—they hope—of waiting mates, Pamplonans are gathering for festive lunches. In restaurants throughout the city, tables reserved months ahead fill with clans dressed in traditional garb of red and white, two Basque customary colors that represent the blood shed in the struggle for independence and the Catholic faith. Through the cigar smoke a cheer will suddenly rise: "¡Viva San Fermin!" And everyone responds "¡Viva!" And again, in Basque: "¡Gora San Fermin!" "¡GORA!"

At 7:00 each morning of the nine-day fiesta, squads of men start to set up wooden barriers along the path of the encierro, the daily running of the bulls. On this particular day as many as 6,000 runners, mostly men above the official minimum age of 18, have chanted the traditional prayer to San Fermin three times for protection and have positioned themselves at various points along the stretch of streets from the bullpen to the Plaza de Toros, where the animals will be shunted into stalls to await the evening's corrida, or bullfight. Thousands of onlookers cling to the barriers, and every window and balcony overlooking the route is crammed with even more spectators, many of whom have paid handsomely for the view.

At 8:00 a.m., a rocket signals that the six bulls have burst from the holding pen and are on their way. Why bulls, and why are they running? Religious rituals have often required an animal sacrifice; here the bullfight has taken over this role. The bulls have always been driven through town to the bullring, and running in front of them probably began spontaneously. To show courage, or to show one's faith in the saint's protection, once had real importance. For some today it still does. The bulls cover the half-mile distance in about two minutes; there are points at which the beasts have been clocked at speeds faster than an Olympic sprinter. Runners have to choose which section of street they want to run, because they'll be with the bulls for only about ten yards. At street level it is all hugely anticlimactic (unless you happen to be at the spot where a runner makes a mistake). If you manage to see anything besides a mob of other people, you will glimpse the bulls for about three seconds.

To a runner, of course, it's something else entirely. "It's adrenaline over the top," said Eduardo Arregui, the young engineer, who has run the encierro every year for nearly half his life. "One or two months before San Fermin, I start thinking about the bulls, and I feel my heart pumping, and sweating. As the moment comes closer, it gets worse." And then? "When the rocket goes off," says Mikel Aranburu, a tax assessor who teaches the Basque flute, "the fear goes away and everything goes blank. And when the bulls pass by, you feel extreme relief. You feel exaltation, friendship, life. It's a very, very intense experience. You're hooked. It’s like a drug, and you're almost begging for more."

But it's a drug that fewer and fewer locals care to try. "It used to be a rite of passage, an initiation, for the boys of Pamplona," Aranburu added. "Their fathers and grandfathers and elder brothers had run. So if you were 15 or 16 and you hadn't run the encierro, you weren't a man yet. But now because of the media, the encierro has changed from being a Pamplona thing to an international event. Now the boys of Pamplona don't have the same interest in it; they prefer socializing, drinking, smoking and hanging out." Most Pamplonans now watch it on TV.

After the encierro, bars and restaurants fill up again, and the tumult on the blinding hot streets slows to a leisurely swarm. Mime artists find a spot of shade to continue their silent gesticulating, while makeshift stands offer plastic glasses of kalimotxo, a concoction of equal parts red wine and Coca-Cola. Habitués of the bar at the Hotel Yoldi favor shampu (lemon sorbet and champagne in real glasses). The drinks display an unusual touch of social distinction, but whatever your beverage, this would be a good moment to look for a shady bench along the tree-lined battlements and pause to reflect on a few themes.

Religion, perhaps. Pamplona is a major center of Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic lay movement. And when, on July 7, San Fermin's relics are carried from his chapel in the Church of San Lorenzo to the Cathedral of Santa Maria for solemn high Mass, it's an emotional procession. But this is the only day religion rules; the rest of the week, San Fermin has to take his chances like everybody else.

"San Fermin would be crying if he could see what's going on at his feast," Padre Jesus Labari, the parish priest of San Lorenzo told me. "There’s no sleep. And the odor of urine and dirt in the street." On the other hand, "the majority of people who come for the fiesta don't leave the city without visiting the saint, even if they're not believers. I’m no fool. I know that during the year a lot of them don't go to church. But every year there are more and more people who come to the procession. It's thrilling—the people really do cry when they see the saint pass by them."

While the fiesta still retains elements that a jongleur or wandering friar would recognize—street performers, flashes of intense piety, that wild sense of freedom—many of its best-known customs are surprisingly recent. Several years ago, for example, children spontaneously offered a few flowers to San Fermin. Now an entire morning is devoted to the children and their flowers—red and white carnations, yellow roses, orange gladiolus—laced into a broad trellis behind the saint. Dressing in red and white began in the 1960s; before that, celebrants wore street clothes. The bulls used to run at 6:00 a.m., but since 1974, the time has crept ever later to today's 8:00 a.m. Even the Txupinazo began to take form only when people spontaneously began to set off rockets in the Plaza del Castillo, half a century ago.

The last day of the fiesta is July 14. You can feel it seeping away. The music seems a little sadder, and people seem to move a little slower. Jeweler Marcial Acuna Lopez stands at Plaza San Nicolas, which tomorrow, like the whole city, will be empty of revelers. "Pamplona will seem like a spectacular painting that has been cut out of its frame and carried away under cover of darkness," he tells me. "When San Fermin is over, all you see is the frame. And it makes you think: during the fiesta, everybody talks to one another. The rest of the year everybody is very serious. Why aren't we always the way we are in San Fermin?"

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