Pamplona: More than just bulls, booze and bedlam

[words and photographs © Mark Eveleigh]

“Pamplona is changed, of course, but not as much as we are older. I found that if you took a drink that it got very much the same as it always was.” – Ernest Hemingway.

At noon on the sixth of July the chupinazo (rocket) explodes above Pamplona’s baroque town hall, heralding the start of the Fiestas de San Fermin. Every year a million revelers storm this normally sleepy Northern Spanish city for nine days and nine nights of non-stop mayhem, converting it into what has been called ‘the hell-raising capital of the world.’

The town hall plaza and all the cobbled streets of the old town become a swirling river of white costumes, flashing with the scarlet flotsam of bandannas and sashes. The air is filled with shouts, songs and champagne spray. The heat is intense and the buckets of water, thrown from balconies high on the banks of this human river, are not entirely unwelcome.

The density of the crowd in front of the town hall is estimated at five people per square metre and in the midst of this current you struggle to stay on your feet. This mass of humanity is packed so tightly though that in reality it would be difficult to find the shoulder-space necessary to fall.

Dripping wet and muddy with a mix of champagne, eggs and chocolate powder you eventually fight your way back out of the crowd and head for Calle Estafeta where wineskins are now being filled with the first of the week’s sangria. The cobbles are slippery. The gutters already run with alcohol and lethal banks of broken bottles, like ice-drifts, line what is known as ‘The Street of a Thousand Bars.’ This is certainly somewhat of an exaggeration but the drinkers spill out onto the street and mingle so tightly that Estafeta could more literally be called ‘The Street of a Single Bar.’ And it will stay this way until the fiesta ends 204 outrageous hours later.

As if this formidable display of rank irresponsibility was not endearing enough, every morning these four stories of balconies will be full of screaming spectators as six angry bulls and their attendant steers come catapulting up this narrow street, pushing a wave of panicking humanity ahead of them. But it’s still early and best not to dwell on that thought for the time. Instead drift with the human current, on a tour of some of the old haunts that were once favourites with Ernest Hemingway: sangria on the terrace of Café Iruña; shots of local patxaran at Bar Txoko; Spanish cider with olives at Caballo Blanco, high above the mediaeval walls.

Since Hemingway ‘discovered’ the Navarran capital, almost ninety years ago, tourists from all over the world have flocked to witness Las Fiestas de San Fermin for themselves. But the town’s citizens say that, with very few exceptions, these visitors have ignored a great part of what the fiestas are all about.

To many travellers, the name Pamplona has become synonymous with bulls, booze and bedlam, but the fiestas go back well beyond the Hemingway years and there’s always been much more to it than this.

The San Fermin fiestas have existed in their modern state since the early sixteenth century and the encierro (the bull-run) itself was first organised purely as the most effective way of transferring the bulls from the holding pens, which are on the edge of town, to the bullring in the centre. From employees of the arena and a few desperado butchers the participation has escalated to the thousands of runners who now run every year.

Few people realise however that the first part of the ‘bull-run’ actually takes place around midnight. The bulls have already been delivered to holding pens across the river (you can buy tickets to see them here) and during the night they must be herded up to the little corral on Calle Santo Domingo. A clatter of hooves on the stone bridge is the first warning that anything is happening and then, from a vantage point on the old fortress walls, you watch the bulky shadows as they gallop in a ghostly silence that contrasts eerily with the deafening clamour of the morning encierro.

Guards patrol the corral all night to make sure that nobody disturbs the bulls with any unnecessary noise. But from the lookout on the high walls above the pens you can get an early look at the monsters that will wreak such havoc at 8am and will fight to the death at 6pm. It was always our tradition on the first night of the fiesta to meet to watch the nocturnal stampede so we could get the first possible look at the year’s bulls. And it invariably happened that the pact was forgotten and the first evening of the fiesta was normally lost in a dimly remembered haze of sangria and dancing.

It’s unusual to sleep at all during the first night of the fiesta but about 4am is a good time to start rallying the senses if you intend to run with the bulls in just a few hours. A brace of cortados (short, strong Spanish coffees) can do wonders to help you face what bit-by-bit begins to take on the character of an impending execution.

Many of the most experienced local bull-runners make it a rule never to drink at all on an evening before they run. While I applaud their dedication and abstinence my only word of defense in this age-old debate is lame: “Well…this is a fiesta.”

Pamplona’s position on the edge of the Spanish Pyrenees means that the nights can be chilly and, while (as Hemingway was quick to note) ‘the sun also rises,’ it can take a while for its warmth to penetrate into the streets around the town hall where a white river of humanity is once again ebbing and flowing. Every year more and more drowsy desperados make their way back into the town-hall plaza for what has been called ‘an early morning gallop with death.’

The caffeine overdose and three hours of complex discussions on which was likely to be the most sensible spot in which to run on one of the busiest days of the fiesta means that, by the time you take your place under town-hall clock once again, paranoia already rules the day.

For many bull-runners (specifically those who are aware of what is to come) the 30 minutes leading up to eight o’clock are a veritable torment. You stare up at the seemingly paralysed clock, and watch veteran runners roll and unroll their newspapers with a nervousness that is contagious. Like the San Fermin whites, the morning paper is traditional equipment. Held in front of a charging bull it may lure him on a straight run and, if things go wrong, it could be the flash of a newspaper that diverts a bull’s horns.

Visitors often think that the paper is used for slapping the bulls on the back in the same way that they imagine it to be a point of honour to run with a hand on the bull’s rump. These practices are despised by experienced runners who’ve seen first-hand what the effect of this can be. The unfamiliar pressure on the bull’s back can cause him to hook his head or veer away from his path unexpectedly. When this happens, the runner behind the horns is in very little danger compared to the men who are running ahead. It’s worth remembering that a bull is only pointed on one end.

During the long morning wait the paper’s greatest disadvantage lies in the news that it reports. As the days pass the centre-spread, showing yesterday’s most dramatic moments (in gory Technicolor), can carry a terrible weight for those trying to kill time, with their future seeming bleaker – and shorter – by the minute. There are photos of inanimate bodies in post-apocalyptic streets strewn with newspaper, shoes and torn clothing. There is an interview with a victim reposing in glory in his hospital bed: “Uuuh-yep, doctors say I should be outa the wheel-chair in a couple of months…so reckon I’ll be runnin’ again by next year.” (You never seem to hear about the ones who say, “F**K THAT!”)

There are countless legends concerning these dedicated (some would say certifiable) adrenaline-junkies. One famous story involves two English twins who were regular runners in the 1960s. One brother was getting badly gored in the thigh and the other, in trying to save him, succeeded only in getting viciously trampled and having one arm and several ribs broken. Early the next morning, when the staff at Navarra General Hospital turned their backs, the twins ‘escaped.’ Shortly after eight o’clock they were seen, rigid with plaster and bandages, hobbling up Calle Estafeta as fast as their remaining appendages would carry them.

The back page of the newspaper also provokes discussion as the minutes drag onwards. It shows a map of the bull-run’s route, marked with relevant information on the previous day’s encierro, including the total duration (anything from two to 12 minutes), the weight of each of the morning’s bulls (average 550 kilos), the number of injuries treated (as many as 80) and where they happened. You begin to wish that there was some way to apply this wealth of information to your immediate future but nothing is predictable in the bull-run.

The speed of the galloping bulls (about twice that of the quickest runner) makes nonsense of the most common of bull-running misconception: that the aim is to run with them from the corral to the plaza – a distance of 825 metres…mostly uphill. Each runner chooses a section of the route along which he wants to run and carefully analyses what refuge it offers. A healthy sense of self-preservation, coupled with respect for an ancient tradition, ought to be enough to dissuade anyone from running in total ignorance.

The minutes tick by and the Spaniards begin to cross themselves. I check yet again that my shoelaces are tight and my sash loose, so that they’ll come off if hooked. Halfway down Santo Domingo I know that the faithful are already singing to the image of San Fermin, asking for his guidance in this encierro.

Shortly before eight the police move the barriers out of the street and the crowd surge forward. People have been crushed and left unconscious in front of the town hall even before the bulls have entered the streets, merely because the uninformed minority thought: “this is IT!” In fact, there’s still ample time to make slowly towards the point from which you want to run. If your ambition is simply to be able to say, “I was there,” a slow trot will see you safely into the bullring before the bulls have even left the corral. Once in the bullring, however, you’ll be greeted by the sarcastic cheers of the crowd: “Viva los valientes!”

I make my way around Mercaderes corner, keeping to the edge of the street to avoid those who are already running with their heads craned back over their shoulder. The solid wood barrier here is rough with splinters from decades of gouging horns.

I stop at the green doorway where I always began my run. By now my heart is hammering and I can sense an increased tension in the attitudes of the runners around me. Most of these men know what to expect and just want to get started now. It’s a relief when the rocket explodes in Santa Domingo, carrying the message that the awful wait is almost over. I imagine the heavy timber gates of the corral swinging open. Hooves scrabbling on the damp cobbles. A second rocket explodes, bringing the good news that all the bulls have left the corral more or less in one group. If a bull loses sight of his brothers in Santo Domingo there’s a good chance that he may dedicate himself to goring the trapped runners around him.

Santo Domingo is by far the fastest section of the run. Here a few desperadoes run downhill, straight into the face of the charge, before spinning around on their heels and sprinting away. The bulls are fast and very aggressive here though – not yet eased into their gallop – and a runner manages only a few steps in front of their horns before he dives to the side or goes down under the pounding hoofs. All but the most experienced runners avoid the ‘canyon’ of Santo Domingo. For the first 50 metres there’s no refuge whatsoever – no doorways, corners or barriers to dive through – just the towering stone walls of the old military hospital into which the wounded used to be carred once the bulls had passed.

The six bulls, raised together from birth, have one urge now: to stay together. They rush forward in company with ‘tame’ steers (with bells on their necks) whose only wish is to gallop along the route as fast as possible. Without this herd instinct the bull-run would be nothing less than a massacre.

Still waiting in Estafeta I fight the urge to run. I try to visualise the location of the bulls along the route: now rounding the left-hand corner by the town hall, one or two probably swinging close to the outside barrier; now turning downhill with their hooves sliding towards the far wall; now frantically trying to slow for the tight right-hander of Mercaderes. And this is when I hear the signal that I’ve been waiting for: the crash as the animals hit the barrier. I am aware that six tonnes of furious muscle is scything through the seemingly impenetrable crowd towards me.

I bounce on my toes trying to catch sight of the horns. The scream of the crowd rises suddenly in pitch. It rains down on the runners, from four stories of balconies, heralding the arrival of the bulls. This scream supplies every runner in Estafeta with a shot of distilled adrenaline. The energy in the air jumps another notch, onto the level called ‘PANIC.’ And I panic with the best of them. As I dash into the centre of the road I catch a glimpse of a tumbling white wave of bodies driven in front of the bulky black forms.

I glance back as I run and, although I see nothing but flashing white-clad bodies, I know that the bulls are right behind us. I’m sprinting flat-out now, a third of the way into the road. Another runner is right behind me. I sense him stumbling and I leap – fearing a trip. A quick glance over my left shoulder reveals a red bull and I dimly register a pale horn, low and unnaturally forward-pointing, like a unicorn. The bull is hooking towards the diving runner. Then the horns rear again and stocky legs power the animal onwards, driving to keep with his brothers. The herd instinct was too powerful to allow him to stop and now he is after me. I force myself to hold my track, trailing the rolled newspaper from my left hand. The wide red head is high again. I recognize gratefully that the posture is that of a galloping – but thankfully not charging – bull. He has, for the moment, accepted my presence in the procession. Temporarily I have become part of his crazy stampede. Thanks to the steep climb at the start of the run the bulls’ speed has been trimmed and runners in Estafeta are able to maintain their speed ahead of the herd for much longer.

There follow a few seconds (though it seems very much longer) in which everything seems strangely synchronised. The foaming muzzle is close to my newspaper and the horn tips are sweeping up towards my shoulder blades. I’m intensely aware of everything around me. There are two runners just in front of me and I analyse their footfalls precisely – wary of a fall that would drive the bull into my back. Only afterwards will I become aware of the surreal silence of those moments.

This precarious situation can’t last long however and, seeing a gap in the wall of runners on my right, I head for it. My newspaper sweeps an arc along the bull’s path and I pull my body back as quickly as possible behind his line of vision – and his horns.

I see the bulk of the herd go past me but I realize that there are at least two more bulls back along the road somewhere. By now it’s just a relatively short dash through the tunnel and into the bullring so I try to catch my breath and wait for another final dash of glory with the last of the bulls.

This time any ‘glory’ is extremely short-lived. No sooner do I get into position in the centre of the road than a bull hits me like a pile-driver in one shoulder. The blow spins me sideways so that I am now lying almost across the great black head. Thankfully, the horns are either side of me but the momentum is enough to pick me up and carry me down the road on the bull’s head. My shoulder crunches onto the cobbles first, then my head. My legs flip up and tangle with the legs of the leaping bull, bringing him down too in a sliding fall that somehow passes right over the top of me. I cower in the road with my arms over my head until I realize that the paramedics are trying to help me to my feet.

Nothing hurts for the first twenty minutes. My head has a small flap of skin hanging loose but at the hospital they clean it and shrug. It’s messy but apparently there’s nothing really that can be stitched. Later, back home, we count thirty-seven cuts and bruises over my body. But I have been incredibly lucky.

One reason why so many runners choose to run near the end of the course is that they intend to be in the plaza when the cows come catapulting out into the arena. While a fighting bull inherits his strength from his father the mother is said to supply the characteristic courage to her offspring. Although they are naturally much smaller than the males, the feisty little cows hit anyone in their way with the force of a small car. The fighting cows in Pamplona are ‘professionals’ and you can find many experienced runners who say they prefer to face the bulls than the cows. The females do not die in the bullfights and instead they tour from fiesta to fiesta all over Spain. Unlike the bulls, they have great experience of how a man moves. During the half-hour after the encierro, five or six cows may come bowling out to punish the audacity of the runners.

There is one group in the plaza who position themselves deliberately to take the full force of the heifer’s awesome anger. They sit, tightly packed together, directly in front of the chute from which the little black cannonball is going to explode. Thus they are the first things that she sees and she hits them with all the power her hooves can deliver to her slashing horns. They cover their heads and curl up but she may have sent many home with loosened teeth and bad bruises before a running figure behind them provokes her wrath.

Wrestling a cow or pulling her tail is quickly punished by the fists of locals who set themselves up as her protector. She is only powerful when she is in a full galloping charge and then she is a demon. The thrill is greatest if she is allowed all the advantages and with every body that she flips up into the air on her padded horns the crowd screams with excitement. Hemingway called the bulls ‘the only incorruptible animal in the bullring.’ It has been said that the Pamplona bullrun is when they get their chance to draw the line.

The sunny terrace outside Bar Txoko is where many bull-runners gather after the encierro to ‘swap lies and talk bull’ in half a dozen different languages while the waiters shuttle trays of chocolate con churros – the typical San Fermin breakfast of long ‘doughnuts’ and thick drinking-chocolate. Here and there a shaken runner is gazing around with a ‘thousand-yard stare’ and uttering that old promise never to do it again. The stories grow throughout the day, nourished with Spanish wine and sunshine: ‘an American kid was killed in Santo Domingo.’

Early the following morning the first of the local newspapers prune the rumours back to size. The fact that the bulls ran the course in two and a quarter minutes means that they didn’t stop for anyone. Although several people were hospitalised on the canyon, thirty-one injuries made this what the locals would call muy limpio – a very clean run.

Some (but certainly not a Spaniard) may consider it paradoxical that a religious festival is the basis of this week of wild excesses. But every year thousands gather to pay homage to San Fermin as he leaves the church of San Lorenzo (at 10am on the 7th) to make his yearly rounds through the Casco Viejo, the old town. Many will again ask his blessing before they run with the bulls.

Even when the saint is safely back in his church the other characters in his procession, los gigantes (15-foot figures of Moorish and Christian kings), zaldikos (half man – half horse) and cabezudos (‘big-heads’), will continue to make regular forays through the streets. Whatever kilikis were originally meant to symbolise has been lost in the mists of time and nowadays their sole purpose seems to be to wallop children (and anyone else in their way) with the plastic-age equivalent of a sheep’s bladder.

Plaza del Castillo is the centre of Pamplona’s old town and, when it grows late enough for the coloured lights to flicker on, this is where the citizens of the town came to dance the night away. There are a dozen other stages in different plazas, however, offering everything from Navarran folk to reggae, tango to blues, salsa to heavy metal.

At some point you are sure to be lured (like a moth to a flame) towards the shouted chorus of “AUSSIE! – KIWI! – AUSSIE! – KIWI!” echoing from the tiny plaza with a fountain in the centre that has become hallowed ground to rival any on the Antipodean world-party circuit. Should you, during the inevitable pilgrimage to the Mussel bar, feel tempted to have a go at ‘fountain diving’ give some thought to the fact that this too is a ‘tradition’ that has its roots. It was only a few years ago that the fiesta’s ‘nomadic’ punks – or punkis in Spanish – started fuenting. They stopped in disgust when it became too mainstream. Every year there are several smashed kneecaps and early terminations travel ambitions thanks for this fountain.

There might be very little that is traditionally Spanish in this plaza but it has become a valid part of the incredible variety that has made ‘Pamps’ the hell-raising capital of the world. It’s best to hit the Mussel Bar within the first two or three days since by day four most of the foreigners have succumbed to the lure of the beach at San Sebastian. The fiesta now enters its second stage and becomes an almost entirely Spanish affair.

Now the eye of the storm shifts to long roaring nights in the taverns of the Casco Viejo (old town) where a large proportion of the fiesta’s 3 million litres of booze are consumed. This area is peppered with bars, all of them full to bursting point and blasting out music in competition with each other. Some of these are the headquarters of las peñas (pronounced ‘pen-yas’).

Pamplona is a town in which partying is taken seriously and the peñas are organisations dedicated to just that. They are the cause of much of the fiesta’s offbeat craziness. The members wear, on top of the obligatory San Fermin whites, a loose shirt in the colours of their own peña. Membership is usually inherited; thus many of the kids in these bars are occupying the spaces formerly occupied by their great grandfathers – spaces that will soon be passed on to their own children.

Peña marching bands and their followers keep up a dedicated patrol throughout the nine days of the fiesta, straining to drown out all other noise. When two of these bands meet in the narrow lanes the noise is deafening and, no matter how sensitive your dispositions after several days of this, it’s impossible not to laugh at the absurdity of it all. James A. Michener, himself an old Pamps vet, wrote that the peña marching bands, while not the most accomplished musicians, were the ‘greatest noise-makers in Europe.’

As the week progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to ease yourself back into the night’s debauchery and it’s a good plan to saunter off – with a hundred thousand others – to Vuelta del Castillo park. Here, fortified with a wineskin of ‘vitamin-packed’ sangria, you can lie back to watch one of the most spectacular firework displays in the world (at eleven o’clock every night).

‘Los Sanfermines, like the best bullfighters and the greatest love affairs, always end too soon,’ say the Pamplonicas. But for the few remaining foreigners – with the ubiquitous dry cough from chilly, sleepless nights in Parque de la Media Luna (aka ‘Moonshine Hotel’) and with throat and gums painfully scoured by kalimoxo (coke mixed with cheap wine – hangover-friendly but harsh) – the ‘closing ceremony’ secretly comes as something of a relief. There’s a price to be paid for nine intense days at the world’s craziest street-party: one year (while hitchhiking through Salamanca a week after the fiesta) I was diagnosed with pneumonia…a direct result of too much ‘good-living’ Pamplona-style.

Just before midnight on 14th of July, the crowd gathers once again in front of the town hall to sing the ‘Pobre de Mi.’ After its first wailing lament – “Poor me, Poor me, the fiestas of San Fermin are finished” – the song picks up tempo and progresses into an accelerating count through the year: “First of January, second of February, third of March, fourth of April . . .” and so on, through what Pamplonicas call ‘the ladder to San Fermin.’

The party is so intense that, for those who have been immersed (or pickled) in it for nine days and nine nights, it will leave a void that seems impossible to fill. Tomorrow there will be no early morning stampede, no kalimoxo, no dancing, no midnight-mussels at the Mussel bar, no dangerously dark-eyed gypsy girls, no gigantes, no bull stew or Navarra trout, no peñas, no tortilla sandwiches (eaten on-the-run between bars), no wine-skins, no music, no red sashes and bandannas, no dozing drunks in doorways…

It can seem difficult even to remember life without all this.

When the ‘Pobre de Mi’ finishes its count-down and the crowd roars “7th of July – San Fermin!” there’s an explosion of laughter and cheering that brings to mind that other one – seemingly far back in history – when the chupinazo first exploded.

“Ya falta menos” the Pamplonicas cheer. “We’re one day closer to the next fiesta.”

[Adapted from a feature that was first published in the Great Festivals of the World book, Pilot Publications]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *