Pamplona – still the hell-raising capital of the world


 “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.

The cobbles of the plaza are sticky with sangria and kalimoxo (both spilled and ‘recycled’). An unconscious figure lies wrapped around a bollard at the base of the fountain. It looks as if he literally collided there but it’s as good a place to sleep it off as any other. Nobody gives him a second glance. In streets all around here you step over sleeping bodies without even pausing your conversation. By now most of the foreigners have gone from the Mussel Bar and the yelling around me is all in guttural Spanish. Throats sound raspy and raw from several nights of cheap wine and raucous singing. Almost without exception everyone is dressed in traditional white but it would be hard to find a square inch that is not splashed with wine by now. The red badge of courage, as someone once said.

This normally peaceful, sleepy city has been my home for most of the last decade and, if I stopped to count them, I figure this would be my sixteenth or seventeenth fiesta here.

Sometimes I find myself in a bar I haven’t visited in years and flashback to old days and old friends. I wonder if Pamplona has changed. Maybe the old park by the bullring – once dubbed ‘Halfmoon Hotel’ – has less grungy party-nomads sleeping rough these days. Maybe the Peña drinking groups in the warren of the old town don’t party with quite the same good-humoured craziness as they used to. The bullrun is more crowded than ever and clean, controlled runs are extremely rare now. The gypsy girls selling hats and bandanas in the plaza are certainly not as cute as I remember and I’m sure that Don Simon sangria used to be stronger.

In general though I think Hemingway was right. It’s not Pamplona that’s changed. It’s me.

Wednesday was probably the quietest night of the fiesta this year. Even so the main plaza was raucous and rocking and it was hard to fight through the crowd on my way into the old town. I passed the terrace of Café Iruña – chic and demure in ‘peace time’ but a sawdust sprinkled slosh-bucket when the fiesta gets going. Someone had hired a mariachi band to serenade some girls at one of the tables and incongruous Mexican wailing rose on thermals of sweat and vino to compete with the stomping rhythm of a passing Peña marching band.

We were exactly 129 hours into the world’s craziest party but the pace has slipped very little since the rocket first exploded on the town hall. Pamplona has often been called ‘the hell-raising capital of the world’ and for sheer stamina it still wins hands-down.

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