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Last updated : Nov 2009
Trips around Europe in a van!
Rating: (5.0) (1 Vote)

Pamplona, Spain
July 04, 2004


Pros: The San Fermin Festival
Cons: Bullfighting!

*** 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 Old Town.

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 square.

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...