As I stand in the cold misty dawn of a small Spanish town, my heart begins to race in a mix of anxiety and anticipation.
I stand with 3,000 other men whom I have never seen before, but I know exactly what is on their minds. We have all gathered for the same purpose, but for different reasons. Some are old, hoping to regain the thrills of their youth; some are young, seeking to gain the experience of a man.
We all know what may soon lie before us, but we have chosen to carry through.
As Ernest Hemingway said nearly 85 years ago in The Sun Also Rises, “Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.”
For months, I had eagerly anticipated the trip that my father and I were going to take after my graduation from St. Paul’s. We had planned every detail of our visit to Pamplona, Spain, to run with the bulls. But no amount of planning could have prepared us for the reality.
The Spanish simply call it “Encierro,” but it is more commonly known as The Running of the Bulls, which takes place during Pamploma’s annual festival of San Fermin. The festival began as a primarily religious event to honor the city’s patron saint. Its origins can be traced as far back as the 13th century, when it took place in October. The move to July 7 in 1591 is considered the first official celebration of San Fermin. (For perspective—the pilgrims wouldn’t step off the Mayflower for another 29 years!)
“Decadence is a difficult word to use since it has become little more than a term of abuse applied by critics to anything they do not yet understand or which seems to differ from their moral concepts.” -Hemingway
Over the years, the festival of San Fermin has morphed into a celebration that rivals Mardi Gras with the infusion of music, dancing, food and copious amount of wine. Its resemblance to Mardi Gras was highlighted when the city of Pamplona and a major local tourist shop honored Mardi Gras with a special parade, complete with throws, floats and New Orleans Council-Member-at-Large Arnie Fielkow. The chief similarity to Mardi Gras is the amount of alcohol (traditionally, wine) that is consumed at the festival. Walking through the Spanish city, many New Orleanians would feel at home with the number of bars and restaurants available on each block. Many small convenient stores close down their shops and open a bar out front for anyone who needs a quick refresher. It is also very popular, especially with the many college students who attend, to spill more wine than they actually drink. Wineskins are commonplace, with many partiers shooting wine all over people during the celebration, turning white shirts purple.
This brings me to the traditional dress of San Fermin. Many people have seen the iconic clothing of the running of the bulls, the solid white shirt and pants with the red sash around the waist and the red handkerchief around the neck. This is the traditional dress for the entire festival, even for those who don’t actually run, including most of the locals.
“I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me.” -Hemingway
Possibly the single most influential event in the festival’s history was when American author Ernest Hemingway first attended the festival in 1923 and wrote his famous novel, The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. He returned to Pamplona nine times before his death in 1961. In appreciation of Hemingway’s contribution to the festival’s publicity, the people and city of Pamplona have erected a small monument to the author next to the bullring he made famous. He is also recognized in the names of many cafés and restaurants, as well as life-sized statues in places he is thought to have visited.
Hemingway was not the first foreigner to attend the festival, however. It is believed that in the early 17th and 18th centuries, word got out about how the local clergy was concerned about the abuse of alcohol and the moral flexibility of young men and women during the festival. This, of course, led to many people flocking to the Spanish countryside during the second week in July.
The city of Pamplona rests in the calmly sloping countryside of northeastern Spain near the French border. As my father and I flew into the airport, we saw hundreds of wind generators on top of the mountains that surround the city. The old part of town, where the celebration takes place, lies just south of the river Arga, which provides the perfect place for riverside walks in the cool Spanish summer.
We stayed in the town of Burlada, about two miles from the center of the old part of Pamplona where the festival takes place. We took a five-minute ride on what is possibly one of the cleanest city buses I’ve ever been on and arrived at the center of the downtown city square. I had expected a small dirt town where the only roads that were actually paved were cobblestone from the 17th century and the restaurants were small café-type places run out of people’s homes for the festival. I could not have been more wrong.
Pamplona reportedly spends about four million dollars each year to prepare the city for the festival, which generates about 60 million dollars each year and appears to put a large portion of that back into the city. The city is a beautifully modernized place with the cozy atmosphere of a small town. As we walk down the Avenida de Carlos III, a pedestrian plaza in the center of town, we begin to see upscale shopping next to street vendors and architecturally beautiful buildings with street performers out front. But the most impressive aspect is how the city of Pamplona mixes the modern so perfectly with the old. Many of Pamplona’s older buildings date back to the Middle Ages, and since the city was surrounded by a fortressed wall to protect it from attack, there wasn’t much room for expansion until recently. To cope with the growing population, Pamplona built inwards by making the city very tight and simply modernizing older buildings rather than building new ones. Most of the old town is pedestrian-accessible only, with many of the shops, bars and restaurants adapting to the inevitable influx of visitors that San Fermin brings.
The Running of the Bulls
“They’re only dangerous when they’re alone, or only two or three of them together.” -Hemingway
The actual running of the bulls during the festival of San Fermin was not always the major international event it is today. According to tradition, bullfights take place throughout the week. The bulls, which are bred and raised by nearby farms, need to be ushered to the ring each morning for that evening’s fight. The night before, the bulls are led to a small pen in the Santo Domingo area of town, about one-half mile from the ring. In early years, on the day of the fight only the bull drovers ran with the six full-grown bulls to the arena. Eventually, many of Pamplona’s young men decided they would run with the bulls in what can only be described as either a move of sheer bravery or one of blind arrogance. (She must’ve been pretty.) By 1852, a new bullring was constructed and a new route, which is still used today, was adopted. Eventually, many people began to run in front of the bulls instead of behind them as the drovers do.
The first thing most people think of about running with the bulls is the danger—and there really is no “safe” place to run. Though many groups have protested the event and requested that the mayor make the run safer, he reportedly responded that there is no way—nor is there any desire—to make the run safer at this point. Various safety precautions have been implemented over the years, however, including the installation of a second fence barrier along the route. Surprisingly, since 1910, only 14 people have died because of injuries incurred during the run. A lot of the injuries are not from the bulls, but from panicked people getting knocked around; many end up with concussions.
Pamplona holds eight different runs on eight consecutive days during the festival. Each morning at eight o’clock sharp, a rocket explodes to announce the official start of the run and the opening of the gates. A second rocket explodes to indicate that all six bulls and six steers have left the holding stable and are heading to the Santo Domingo portion of the route. This is considered by many to be the most dangerous part of the run because the bulls are fresh and are able to run quickly—very quickly; also, there is no place to hide for cover because both sides of the street are solid walls except for a few shops, which are required to block all doors and windows.
Each runner can start from anywhere on the route. My father and I chose a place near the beginning, in the Ayuntamiento area, a small square surrounded by shops that is dominated by an old church that hosts the opening and closing ceremonies. Many of the pictures of the revelry and debauchery that take place at San Fermin are taken in this square during the opening ceremony.
The most nerve-wracking part of the whole event was waiting for the run to start. Looking around, I saw each man nervously stretching and trying to loosen up. The clock ticked down to the final seconds, and many runners began to sing the traditional prayer to St. Fermin, asking for a safe run. As the bulls neared my section, sheer chaos and panic surfaced. I saw men start to run away before the bulls even reached us, and then I saw men waiting to get a closer look. Finally, I began to run, knowing that I definitely did not want to be standing there while the bulls ran past. I lost my father in the shuffle and turned back to see where he was. My heart felt like it was about to beat out of my chest at the sight—the group of six mammoth bulls and their steer counterparts were bearing down on me with their infamous horns pointing straight at me. Luckily, I was able to get to the side of them, just as they rushed past, with less than a yard between us. The realization of how much danger I had just been in hit me—the sheer size and speed of one of those creatures is terrifyingly breathtaking. As I stood on the side, I hoped that one of them wouldn’t decide to turn a bit and clip me from behind.
The whole run took only about 15 seconds for me. My heart was still racing, not knowing if it was over or if more were on their way. It was absolutely the most terrifying thing I had ever done, but I had made it—I had run with the bulls.
Though I was unscathed, the bulls were still on the loose and more runners were about to experience the terror I had felt. The next stage of the route, known as “Estafeta,” is one of the most famous portions of the run because it has the most dangerous feature in it—a sharp turn on the slippery cobblestone street. Inexperienced runners are advised not to run this portion. Running on the outside of the bulls is especially dangerous because many bulls slip and fall at this turn, crushing whatever is in their way and some bulls are separated from the herd. (The bulls stay relatively calm while they are together—fast, but calm.)
The next section, the short stretch of “Telefonica,” leads to the entrance to the bullring known as “Callejon.” Callejon is also a very dangerous portion of the route, because the whole path narrows to about 3 meters in width. All the runners as well as the bulls must squeeze through—although the bulls will make their own room if they need it.
The arena is the final stage of the Encierro. As the bulls run in, “dobladores” work to draw the bulls into the pen, and the spectators cheer the runners who have made it safely. The run into the arena signifies the end of the running for that day. It is an amazing feeling of accomplishment and invincibility as you realize that you have successfully run with the bulls.
I ran on Wednesday, July 13, 2011, which was the fastest running of the bulls ever recorded since officials started keeping track in 1980—2 minutes and 11 seconds. A typical run lasts around 4 minutes, with runs being drawn out if a bull becomes detached from the herd.
Once the run was over, the streets cleared out of all the partiers who needed to rest before the evening festivities. Some people were still out drinking, and small groups of local marching bands known as “penas” were around, but for the most part, this was the calm part of the day—a great time to walk around and explore the city or do some shopping without having to fight the drunken crowds. The party wouldn’t pick up again until the evening’s bullfight.
“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.” -Hemingway
A Spanish custom that can be dated back for centuries, the bullfight has been spread to many former Spanish colonies throughout the world. In Pamplona, the bullfights are held in the same local arena used in the run, which is one of the largest bullfighting arenas in the world. Each night the stadium is filled to capacity, with many of the local penas in attendance. The partying, including the tradition of throwing wine everywhere, continues inside the arena throughout the bullfight.
To many, the bullfight is a daring and courageous art form. Many Americans feel strongly against the sport, however, and end up cheering for the bull. PETA has held many rallies and protests against the sport and the running of the bulls. A few days before the festival begins, PETA holds its “Running of the Nudes,” in which hundreds of people walk through the streets of Pamplona—you guessed it—in the nude.
In a traditional Spanish-style bullfight, three matadors each fight two bulls. (The bullfight we saw featured the six bulls that had run through the streets of Pamplona earlier that day, each between 4 and 6 years old and weighing about 1,500 pounds.) Each matador has six assistants—two picadores, who are on horseback and use large lances; three banderilleros; and a “mozo de espadas,” which translates to “sword page.” Together, these men are collectively known as “toreros,” or “bullfighters.”
The modern bullfight is highly ritualized, with three distinct stages. The participants first enter the arena in a parade called the “paseíllo.” Torero costumes are inspired by 17th-century Andalusian clothing, with matadors being easily distinguished by the gold of their “traje de luces” (“suit of lights”) as opposed to the lesser banderilleros, called “toreros de plata” (“bullfighters of silver”). When the bull enters, the matador and banderilleros use special magenta and gold capes to lure the bull around the ring, not only to tire the bull but also to test his ferocity.
Next, the picadors enter the arena on horseback. A padding called “peto” surrounds the horse to protect it from the bull’s horns. The bull will eventually charge the horse, which allows the picador to stab at the bull’s neck and shoulder muscles. The manner in which the bull charges provides important clues as to which side the bull favors.
In the second stage, the three banderilleros each attempt to plant two “banderillas,” sharp barbed sticks about 2 feet long, into the bull’s shoulders by running at the bulls themselves and quickly dodging the bull’s horns right at the impact of the banderillas. This angers and invigorates but ultimately further weakens the bull.
In the final stage, the matador re-enters the ring alone, with only a small red cape, or “muleta,” and a sword. The matador uses his cape to attract the bull in a series of passes, which serves the dual purpose of wearing the animal down for the kill and producing a beautiful display, or “faena.” The faena ends with a final series of passes in which the matador uses his muleta to maneuver the bull into a position that allows him to stab it between the shoulder blades and through the heart. The sword is called “estoque” and the act of thrusting the sword is called an “estocada.” This final thrust will inevitably kill the bull,
ending the fight.
If the matador has performed particularly well, the crowd may petition the president of the event to award the matador an ear of the bull by waving white handkerchiefs. Very rarely, if the public or the matador believes that the bull has fought extremely bravely, they may petition the president to grant the bull a pardon and spare the bull’s life, allowing it to leave the ring alive and return to the ranch.
After each of the bulls has been killed, the penas and most of the audience begin the next phase of festivities by parading into the streets, which are filled with music, dancing and more wine. It is common for the bars to be empty on the inside because everyone is on the street dancing and celebrating.
Once a year, the small Spanish town of Pamplona becomes the center of international interest and holds the hopes and memories of thousands of people who flock to the city for that one week in July. If you consider joining them, remember this quote from Hemingway, “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguishes one man from another.”Filed under: History, March-April 2012, Travel