Blood and sand and sangria: Frank Barrett on last week's sorry spectacle in Pamplona
Sunday 11 July 1993
The Feria y Fiesta de San Fermin (Los Sanfermines), which is held each year in honour of Pamplona's first bishop, St Fermin, was made famous by Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel Fiesta. The festival starts on 6 July, the eve of St Fermin, and lasts until 14 July. In the evenings are the bullfights, but each day starts with the famous encierro ('enclosing') of the bulls, which are driven through the streets, surrounded by crowds of dodging men and boys in a test of their virility. On 7 July Pamplona stages a parade of gigantes ('giants') and cabezudos ('big heads').
5.30AM, 7 July, Pamplona's Calle Estafeta: a beautiful dark-haired girl aged about 17 sits slumped forward on the pavement, her head cushioned against her knees. Her white 'Eh] Toro] Eh]' T-shirt is stained red with wine. She lies between mounds of broken glass, apparently unaware of the razor- sharp bottle shards. From between her feet spreads a fresh pool of vomit. In the disco next door the dance floor is still crowded and the noise is deafening.
Even before the girl contemplates the prospect of staggering back to her feet, a council gang emerges out of the darkness. From the back of a truck they begin unloading posts and timber. Slowly they start the daily task of erecting the double wooden barrier that marks the route which in a couple of hours will be followed during the encierro, the Running of the Bulls.
For about 30 minutes irritable council workers and drunken revellers collide in a confused jumble. For the fence-erecters this is the start of their day; but for the revellers the encierro is the final act in a long, mad night.
Disturbed by the hammering of posts, the drunken girl is finally stirred into life. She stumbles up and, cheered on by her friends, dances forward into the street, her fingers clicking over her head in an inebriated fandango. And now the sun also rises as dawn breaks: the Fiesta of San Fermin begins a new day.
'La beautiful people no viene' ran a headline in the Pamplona newspaper Egin on Thursday. In a long article of complaint, the writer wondered why the rich and famous are no longer drawn to los sanfermines, the Navarran capital's week-long San Fermin fiesta which began last Tuesday and continues until Wednesday. Despite its Hemingway connections, the article noted that la beautiful people prefer the attractions of the French Riviera.
The real problem for Pamplona, however, is not the absence of beautiful people but the massive presence of an ugly, drunken, partying mob. Each year several thousand young people - largely foreigners - move into the city on 6 July and remain camped there for a week like an army of occupation.
'I hate San Fermin,' a restaurant owner told me: 'Pamplona fills up with people who have no money and who behave like idiots.' Attempts to discuss this with the local council were vigorously rebuffed. I was told that Pamplona will offer no assistance to journalists: 'Newspapers just want to print articles about the crazy madness and bestial behaviour,' I was told by way of explanation.
But if journalists tend to concentrate on the bad behaviour, this is because there is rather a lot of it about. And while, on the one hand, Pamplona council wants to play down the negative images, its tourist industry is built around the crazy world of los sanfermines.
The blame for it all can be laid at the door of one man. In his recent biography Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences, James R Mellow reveals that Hemingway was worried that the Pamplona fiesta would be damaged by publicity. Asked to write an article about San Fermin, Hemingway declined, saying that too much coverage for the fiesta would be a mistake. He thought that Thomas Cook would begin running tours there and ruin it.
'Practically all the people that deserved to be at Pamplona were there this year,' he wrote. But shortly afterwards, in 1927, Hemingway produced Fiesta (published in America as The Sun Also Rises) whose instant popularity effectively ruined los sanfermines much more thoroughly than any travel feature ever could have.
Inspired by Hemingway's virile prose, for many years San Fermin attracted generations of thoughtful travellers - largely American - for whom the fiesta was more of a Hemingway theme-park experience than a test of manhood.
They are still here in numbers. Cliff from New York is in his thirties and commands a Patriot missile battalion in the US Army. He describes running with the bulls as 'the best adrenaline rush'. On Wednesday morning he proudly displayed his shorts ripped by a bull while running into the arena. 'I got gored today - bull got an inch out of my arm, there are four stitches there,' he said pointing to a bloodied bandage.
His friend, a sales manager of a medical equipment company, talks about the camaraderie. 'Every year we send each other Christmas cards saying 'only six months to San Fermin'.'
Among these people, Pamplona is a spiritual experience. Bomber, an old American hippy who has been coming for 23 years, talks of 'the aura of the bulls'. 'The aim is to be at one with them. You want to be accepted by the bull and to take it down the street. There is no fear, only adrenaline - it's a 'for sure' thrill.'
But now, lining up at the Plaza Santo Domingo for the start of the daily 8am running of the bulls is the new breed of fiesta-goers. For these travellers, principally Australians and New Zealanders, Pamplona is not a celebrated place in a famous book - it is just another desirable halt on the new Euro-tourist circuit.
'Basically there are two big events in Europe every year: the Munich Beerfest and Pamplona,' says Bruce Millar of Top Deck Travel, a London-based operator which specialises in taking Australians and New Zealanders on the European Grand Tour. The Top Deck party of 300 is installed in a tented village on a campsite one hour's drive from Pamplona.
What do antipodeans particularly like about Pamplona? 'They enjoy the festival atmosphere,' explained Mr Millar.
To get the full flavour of this 'festival atmosphere', take a stroll any time after about 8pm to the Calle de la Naverreria, popularly known among its devotees as Mussel Bar Square. By early evening the compact area around the central fountain is a Hogarthian jumble of men and women spilling out of the surrounding bars, everybody with a litre bottle of sangria in their hands. When these bottles are drained, the empties are casually tossed to the gutter or thrown towards the central fountain - wherever they fall they smash to smithereens. The glass crunches underfoot like frozen snow.
The several hundred occupants of the square are in various stages of inebriation, ranging from the garrulously intoxicated to the lying-in-the-gutter-dead-
drunk. The crowd has a few Americans and some South Africans, but is almost wholly Australian or New Zealander.
Occasionally the crowd pauses from its boozing to engage in a heated exchange of shouting: 'Aus-sie]' . . . 'Ki-wi]' . . . 'Aus- sie]' . . . 'Ki-wi]' . . . This is rounded off (to the tune of 'Ere we go, 'Ere we go, 'Ere we go) by: 'San Fermin, San Fermin, San Fermin . . .'
A drunk Aussie computer programmer throws his arm around my shoulders. 'Yer Aussie loves a party, that's why they come here, mate. It's a festival, it's friendship.' He was interrupted by a young man pushing past us to pour a bottle of sangria over a girl's head; she responded by showering him with beer. 'That's friendship. Spit beer on yer mate, and he'll spit it right back at yer. That's having a good time.'
Proceedings had been further enlivened by the appearance of a firework seller who had a selection of rockets, bangers and crackerjacks for pounds 1 each. The shortage of unbroken bottles proved to be no barrier when it came to launching the rockets: one man dropped his shorts, inserted the rocket stick into the cleavage of his buttocks and invited a friend to light the blue touch paper; another man placed a rocket in his mouth and launched the firework from between his teeth. 'Oh, my God] I've burnt me fuckin' nose]' he screamed as the rocket whooshed away through the crowd.
The main event at Mussel Bar Square is the Fountain Leap. Nobody knows how or why this began, but for the new generation this ritual has become as much a part of San Fermin as the encierro. At intervals throughout the night, people climb up the 20- ft high fountain and after suitable contemplation launch themselves in a swallow dive into the linked arms of their friends below.
The processes involved in this endeavour require careful calculation, explained the computer programmer. 'Y'see, you have to be pissed enough to want to do it in the first place, but not too pissed so that you fall off as you climb up. And your mates have to be sober enough to make sure that they catch you properly.'
In the infernal chaos, considered judgements of this sort are rather hard to make. Bruce Millar of Top Deck Travel says that his clients are warned not to attempt the Fountain Leap: 'We advise them 100 per cent against it. I say what it's like there; every night it's thud . . . ambulance . . . thud . . . ambulance.'
The Mussel Bar Square crowd is full of stories of jumpers falling to their deaths: 'A guy died last night, went straight down and split his head open on that pillar. Pronounced dead on the spot. Two died the night before last. Six died last year.' Deaths are difficult to substantiate but a visit to the local hospital provides living evidence of serious injury.
Back in the square, one young man, not satisfied with flinging himself off the top of the fountain, clambered up to a first-floor balcony and leaned off the railings. Aware perhaps of the folly of his action, he paused. 'Jump, yer bastard, jump, jump, jump,' screamed a man next to me: 'break your fucking neck.'
Another sangria fight erupted: a chasing man slipped and fell, slicing his arm with a broken bottle: his group hooted with raucous laughter: 'You're bleeding, you daft bastard.'
The talk in the local papers in Pamplona is that if the fiesta is to continue, changes will have to be made. Local journalist Javier Solano says that things cannot go on as they are. 'Over the San Fermin week, 48 bulls are run through the streets - with that many bulls in such close proximity to so many thousands of people it's a miracle that more people haven't been seriously hurt.' In fact, in the narrow parts of the streets the bulls do not actually have the space to run - they have to pick their way through the crowds like shoppers in Oxford Street on the last Saturday before Christmas.
The last deaths during the encierro were 13 years ago when two men were killed on a single morning. 'There could easily be more deaths, then people in authority would hold their heads in their hands and say 'What have we done?' '
Senor Solano suggests that action will have to be taken to limit the number of runners. But if the council intervened, it would be a tacit admission of responsibility for the safety of the participants. And, curiously, for a city whose international celebrity is built on the 'adrenaline rush', Pamplona is reluctant to admit that its Unique Selling Point is an activity that can fatally damage your health.
I asked the sales manager of the medical equipment company what it felt like when he heard the rocket announcing the start of the bull run. 'My testicles pull up into my scrotum and I think: 'Christ, what the hell am I doing here?' ' But he will be back next year.
Photographs by Tom Pilston
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