around Europe in a van!
(5.0) (1 Vote)
July 04, 2004
The San Fermin Festival
*** The Arrival ***
“Smoking or non-smoking?”
is something one is usually asked when entering a restaurant (and
nowadays in Melbourne not even then). So when asked this at the
Air Europa check-in counter, I knew we were onto a winner. We’d
booked with the budget airline having never heard of them before
(which I view as a good thing since when airlines make the news
it is normally with footage of a smouldering wreck). I no more comfortable
an hour later as we taxied out fast enough to actually bank the
plane into corners, the cockpit door still swinging wide open. I
was quite happy then when we touched down (actually, judging by
the impact, it was more like a controlled crash) at Madrid airport
two hours later.
After a night at Madrid airport spent wondering how it recently
won European Airport of the Year (the answer, since you asked, has
to do with proximity to the city not, as we thought, with the 24-hour
bar), we caught an early train up to Pamplona.
Pamplona, or Iruña in Basque, sits at the centre of the Navarre
region in northern Spain. It is the administrative centre of Navarre
and the historical heart of the Basque people. Overseas, the word
“Basque” is most often accompanied in news stories with
the words “separatist” and “bombing”, since
the pro-Basque terrorist group ETA, when not making peanut butter
and condiments, have been blowing up people for a while in the name
of self-determination for the region. Even during the festival,
pro-independence posters were plastered over many walls in Pamplona’s
Putting all that aside though, the region is beautiful. Pamplona
sits in the Agra river basin. It is largely a student town, divided
into a bustling commercial area and the more sedate Old Town. Sedate
that is for 51 weeks in the year. We had been lucky enough to book
a private room in the Old Town, 5 minutes from the start of the
bull run. Having no receipt or proof of booking though, we were
a bit dismayed when the taxi driver said, “78, there’s
no number 78 on this street”. Or something to that effect
in Spanglish. Still, disbelievingly, we hopped out and eventually
found number 78, sneakily positioned between numbers 76 and 80.
Our host Luisa showed us to our fourth-floor room, with a great
view over the Pamplonian rooftops and, later, the ensuing carnage
in the streets below. Despite making our lack of proficiency in
Spanish abundantly obvious, she continued to rattle on to us in
her native tongue. This is one thing I love about the Spanish. Having
visited countless places with “tourist menus”, hotel
staff that speak English to you before you do (how do they know?)
and dual-language signage everywhere, you can always count on the
Spanish to make absolutely no effort to help your comprehension.
“Didn’t understand me? Let me repeat it again
in Spanish, but faster and louder this time”. It really is
great. Add to this the fact that there are countless dialects and
regional languages. When asking for six beer, as one is often prone
to do, the number may be “seys, seix, seis, sais, sieês,
seyes, sei, cei, seih or saih”depending on the dialect. The
dialect in Pamplona is mainly Castillian, but Basque is also prominent
(and sounds completely different).
Anyway, onto the party…
*** The Opening ***
We woke on Sunday to a very different city. The town was now packed
with people dressed in the traditional garb of white pyjamas and
a red sash. A red neckerchief is added to this at midday on the
6th of July when the festival officially starts, to a rocket exploding,
in front of the Town Hall. The packed square and surrounding streets
then proceed to go berserk. Songs celebrating San Fermin are sung
loudly. Champagne, sangria and shaving cream is sprayed everywhere.
Buckets of water are emptied over people from balconies. People’s
bright white clothes are transformed into stain-covered artworks
faster than any toddler could ever hope for.
For the rest of the day (and indeed much of the week) we would shuffle
from bar to bar, dance in a the street (and in at least one fountain)
and then settle down in the festival’s market to huge plates
of stewed calamari, fried sardines, paella, tapas and ribs. Then,
stomach bursting, head to the fairground for any one of a number
of nausea-inducing rides. We’d finish up watching the fireworks
burst over the old fort, with a “chocolate con churros”
(Spanish donut with exceedingly rich hot chocolate). Fantastic.
*** The Running ***
Having stayed up all of Sunday night to watch the first running,
or “encierro”, Dave and I thought we’d have a
go on the Tuesday. We made our way onto the course just after 7am.
Just before 8am a crowd gathers on the first straight around an
inset statue of San Fermin. Whilst shaking newspapers (which they
later hurry the bulls up with) in his direction they ask the saint
to guide and protect them in the ensuing stupidity.
The course is 825 metres and the run generally takes about 3 minutes.
In certain stretches, the bulls cover 100 metres in about 6 seconds
– fast enough to put a horn through Ben Johnson with a good
deal of track left. The San Fermin website states that runners must
be sober, be in good physical condition and have good reflexes.
Well, at least we hadn’t been drinking.
We had found a spot at the end of the first straight on Santo Domingo
street so as best to watch the bulls burst from their corrals and
make their initial dash. There, sticking to the inside track should
also mean that the centrifugal force of some six tons of bovine
matter would carry them, in a wide arc, around us and into the city
The run starts promptly at 8 o’clock with the firing of a
first rocket. This signifies the bulls have been released from their
corrals. A second rocket sounds shortly after announcing the bulls
are now on the street. We didn’t need to be told twice –
the surge of people running and then diving for safety from the
charging black mass was sufficient evidence.
We broke into a lazy trot before cantering around the corner along
the relative safety of the inside line. When the bulls burst around
the corner a few seconds later and thundered past us it seemed like
I could reach out and tap them on their shoulder.
Another 10 seconds or so of confusion ensues while everyone confirms
that all the bulls have passed. Then three more tamed steers are
driven through to clean up any stragglers (six other aptly-named
steers are released with the main pack because the bulls, like all
flustered males, don’t like to ask for directions). Steers,
for those who didn’t grow up on a ranch, are male bulls sans
testicles. The humiliation of this, or more accurately the fact
that no nuts means no testosterone, leads to a more placid bull
that is in touch with its feminine side. Nonetheless, not having
enough time to complete a full genital inspection, there is another
moment of excitement as they trundle past.
Finally, a third rocket fires when the bulls reach the arena and
a fourth when they are safely tucked away in their pens. The time
between the first and last rocket was 4 minutes and 40 seconds –
unusually long for the run.
Walking up the course, it became evident what the bulls had put
their extra time into. 30 metres from where we stopped, a local
lay unconscious, presumably being trampled. Another corner and a
tourist lay receiving medical attention in his bloodied rugby-jumper
(the red rose on which led to one smart-arse Kiwi pointing out,
“It’s okay everybody, he’s English.”). He
was stretchered off to the applause of the crowd (the Englishman
that is, not the Kiwi). The Spaniards like you if you run, but they
absolutely love you if you get injured. Presumably if you’re
killed you’re made a saint or something.
While waiting to meet the others an American told us that someone
“got messed up real bad” in the entrance to the arena.
We would learn the next day that the local man had suffered a “serious
craniumencephalic traumatism” or, in English, had a bullhorn
put through his head and neck, by a lone black bull (unlike humans,
bulls are more prone to picking fights when alone). The day’s
run had left four people, including one Aussie, hospitalised in
a serious condition.
These injuries would, in wacky Spanish style, later come to be represented
on the fiesta website by cartoon symbols experiencing varying levels
of discomfort (see the picture). Ours was an eventful run apparently,
having a loose bull, a few injuries, and three gorings, one nearly
fatal. According to the cartoon, we just needed a pile-up and a
fatality to complete the set.
Most runners, author included, say two things about the encierro
– that they wouldn’t have missed doing it and that they
would never do it again (that said, the following day we would watch
a tour guide by the creative name of Kiwi Dave complete his 50th
run.) Me, I was just happy to have survived with all internal organs
still in their correct places, safe in the knowledge that we had
put forward a true contender for the 2003 Least Courageous Run award.
*** The Bullfight ***
Tuesday afternoon found us bargaining down ticket touts for bullfight
tickets at the Plaza de Toro (bullring). Despite hearing stories
of the cruelty (over 40,000 bulls per year are killed in Spanish
bullrings), I still wanted to experience it for myself since, like
it or not, it is part of Spain’s culture. Incidentally, some
“traditional” activities from other Spanish fiestas
include throwing goats from church towers, stoning squirrels in
clay pots and decapitating strung-up live chickens piñata-style
(why waste all that papier-maché?). You can’t say their
parties are unoriginal.
The 15-thousand strong arena resembles the Colosseum in style and
is packed with families and people of all ages. The sunny “sol”
area is the most boisterous and could best be described as a particularly
enthused Australian one-day cricket crowd. There are brass bands,
Mexican waves and, after the third fight, when much food is produced
on cue, the best food-fights you are likely to see.
But onto the show. Before even entering the arena, the bulls often
have their horns trimmed a few inches to affect the bull's balance
and prevent it from aiming properly. They’re also generally
beaten with sandbags and often sedated to make them slower. Despite
this, when the horn sounds the bull comes steaming out into the
arena. Firstly, at least three "peones" with capes tire
the bull out by attempting to get its attention and then, having
done just that, sprint like men possessed for the safety of protective
walls spaced evenly around the ring.
After a few minutes of this, the bull is bored and looks generally
dazed and confused. Out ride two horse-mounted "picadors",
carrying long pikes. They encourage the bull to try and gore them,
which it invariably attempts. The bull pushes heavily against the
heavily-padded horse and the now lowered pike which drives deep
into its back, further weakening it. The horse cops the force of
the half-ton bull. Not that the horse can see it coming - it is
mute, being blindfolded and (usually) having its ears stuffed with
wet newspaper. Sometimes its vocal cords are even cut to prevent
it distracting the crowd.
The picadors trot off and the now bloody bull is toyed with a bit
more. On come the "banderilleros", so named for the short
coloured "banderilla" spears they carry. In the only skillful
part of the show (in my opinion), they prance around the bull and,
as it charges them, attempt to stick two banderillas in the bull's
back, narrowly dodging its horns. These further weaken the bull
and have the ancillary benefit of tearing much of its back muscular
structure, preventing it from bucking up unpredictably.
Finally, some 10 minutes later, the matador makes his appearance.
These guys are heroes in Spain. They have fan clubs, books and websites.
Their posters adorn shop walls everywhere. The star of our evening
was a 22-year-old “explosive athelete” (according to
his own movie coming out late next year) called David Fandila or
“El Fandi” to his mates.
Anyway, back to the fight. The matador spends an eternity enticing
the bull with his cape. Only the matador has a red cape –
the others are relegated to pink. Not that the bull cares –
bulls are colour blind. Nonetheless, aiming for the shimmering cape
seems to be so ingrained in the bull’s instinct that the matadors
make it look exceedingly easy to dodge the charge or to “dominate
the bull” (which, in fairness, could well be the definition
of any “athlete” at the top of their sport. No, not
dominating a bull - making it look easy).
Every few charges the matador wheels off to acknowledge the VIPs
and bask in his applause from the crowd. He stands there, legs apart,
back arched, groin thrust forward while the bull catches its breath.
Watching him, one can only assume that the celebrity status of the
matador is not due to their bravery in facing a bull but rather
for their bravery in donning their outfits. Teasing a dying herbivore
with curtain off cuts isn’t brave. To wear a gold embroidered
short suit a la Michael Jackson 1980 with knee-high hot pink socks
in front of a packed stadium and national TV audience – that’s
brave. I suspect that’s why the bull never goes for the matador.
It may be bloody, dying and made to look slow and incapable, but
deep down I like to think it knows which one of them out there really
looks stupid. It probably just feels sorry for him.
Finally, after entertaining the crowd and almost lulling at least
one Australian onlooker to sleep, the matador collects a long sword
from the fence and, after hiding it under his cape and theatrically
pointing it at the bull, drives it deep into the bull and attempts
to pierce its heart. Occasionally this succeeds, but more often
then not the heaving bull lumbers around while its internal organs
get diced up. Often the peones return to make the bull dizzy. Eventually
it falls and is put out of its misery with short knife to the brain
or spine before being dragged off by horses.
The band then pipes up and there crowd works itself into a MCG-Bay-13-Merv-Huges-on-a-hatrick-style
frenzy. Quite bizarre. This process gets repeated six times during
the night and it is, principles aside, utterly boring. The fight
is cruel and uneven and its outcome is always the same. The defeat
is drawn-out and painful. But then again, an unknowing Spaniard
would probably say that about The Ashes.
*** The Arena ***
Our last morning in Pamplona saw us in the arena again, this time
viewing an infinitely more entertaining spectacle. We’d paid
five Euros to get a good seat in the arena and watch the finale
of the morning’s bull run.
Less than thirty seconds after the first rocket, the first “runners”,
mainly tourists, stroll into the arena where their lack of bravery
in never having even seen a bull is greeted by loud boos and projectiles
from the crowd. The following runners become slightly more urgent
in their entrance and are now greeted by applause. But you know
when the bulls are about to enter. Even from 50 metres away you
can tell by the facial expression that these guys are now literally
running for their lives. The entrance to the ring is narrow and
featureless and notorious for being the place of numerous fatalities.
As they run out they dive sideways to escape the pack of bulls,
which, still guided by the steers, streak straight across the arena
to their pens on the opposite side.
The door to the arena is then shut and now the entertainment really
starts. Many of the runners that make it to the arena now form a
kneeling vigil in front of the door to the bullpen. Apparently it
is good luck in Spain to be touched by a bull’s hoof as it
jumps you. Presumably it is worse luck to have the 300-kilo animal
bless the guy in front of you and, as a consequence, trip and land
horn-first on you. Still, undeterred the crowd wait dutifully until
a bull, admittedly a smaller one with taped horns, comes barrelling
out and skittles everyone like ten-pins.
Forget matadors – this is where the fun is really at. The
bull proceeds to run around the arena, pausing only to consider
which tourist it will launch skyward next. Meanwhile the runners
tease the bull and hurry it with rolled-up newspapers. This chaos
reigns for about fifteen minutes when a steer is released to go
any persuade the bull to call it a day. The bull normally obliges,
but on at least one occasion the bull seemed to be getting so much
genuine pleasure out of bruising people that it took a lot of coaxing
to get back into the pen.
Despite the arena anarchy, there were seemingly some rules. First
and foremost, don’t hold onto or manhandle the bulls. More
than one person was savagely set upon by locals for attempting to
wrestle the bull down by its horns. A chivalrous sentiment perhaps
but a touch hypocritical given the previous evening’s bullring
entertainment consisted of slowly bleeding bulls to death. Still,
the chaotic entertainment finished some six bulls later and a well-sated
crowd shuffled out. It was, without a doubt, the best five Euros
I’ve ever spent.
much reluctance, and not a little admiration for Spaniards' party
endurance, we picked up our hire car and pushed north for the sleepier
pace of San Sebastian...