Party time in Pamplona

by Andrew Knight

Pamplona hosts one of the wildest, weirdest parties on earth, but there’s more to the running of the bulls in San Fermin than male machismo and hard drinking, as Andrew Knight explains

It’s just before noon on July 6 and thousands of revellers are crammed into a tiny square in front of an old town hall in northern Spain waiting for the crack of a rocket that will herald the start of one of the wildest – and most dangerous – festivals in the world.

Already, the crowd are in good spirits after almost two hours of popping champagne corks and liberally sharing their beer and sangria. The balconies around the square are packed and the crescendo of noise matches that of a packed football stadium on Cup Final day.

Down below, the increasingly sweaty throng is chanting for water – “agua, agua” – to which those above readily respond, flinging bucketfuls down on the sea of upturned faces.

The heady cocktail of languages betrays the fact that this crowd has convened from every corner of the globe for this shared experience – everyone now dressed in red and white, and waiting eagerly for the pyrotechnics which will mark the official start of the festivities.

Many of those in the square have been preparing for the best part of a year for this moment of hedonistic excess – a memorable explosion of sound and colour that will launch a whirlwind nine-day fiesta of drinking, dancing and running with the bulls.

For this is Pamplona in the Basque country – one of the last places on the planet where the normal rules of behaviour are temporarily suspended while a million partygoers enjoy the ritual immortalised – and popularised – 80 years ago by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises.

“If this happened in America the streets would be lined with lawyers,” says a former New York policeman who has been coming here for the past eight years. He’s encapsulating one of the biggest appeals of the fiesta for Americans and Europeans alike – that staging such an event anywhere else in 2010 would be effectively unthinkable.

For the British, there’s the sad recognition that having this many people drunk in one place would spark a riot – but the legendary bonhomie associated with San Fermin miraculously keeps most visitors good-natured and out of trouble.

The chupinazo

When the rocket explodes at noon during the chupinazo – that unforgettable opening ceremony which is actually more dangerous than running with the bulls, thanks to the combination of a heaving, surging crowd and an abundance of broken glass on the unforgiving cobbles – it signals the start of one of the longest and most exhausting parties in the world.

The fiesta

Most guests will fly in for two or three days of celebrations – with the French and other Europeans invading at the weekend when their jobs allow – but despite the bacchanalian excesses, there’s an emotional aspect to the fiesta that’s hard to ignore.

The rituals, the religious overtones – and the fact that the local community embraces the event so wholeheartedly – are all part of the appeal.

It’s not that there are NO rules governing people’s behaviour – it’s just that they are so laid-back and undemanding that they provide a welcome antidote to those whose normal lives are so tightly controlled by social conventions, government diktats and petty officialdom.

Smoking – and drinking – is allowed virtually everywhere at all hours of the day and night. Loud music blares out from café bars and marching bands patrol the narrow streets of the old town, with their trumpets and drums reverberating off the ancient walls around the clock.

The encierro

The highlight of each day is the morning bull run at 8am, when hundreds of men – and a growing number of women – of all ages and nationalities hare through the narrow streets alongside some of the most dangerous fighting bulls in Spain.

It’s a spectacle accompanied by its own rituals. The crowds gather from 4am to secure the best positions on the barricades, while the police and town officials scrupulously sweep every vestige of glass from the cobbles before the runners are released.

Those who prefer to watch from the balconies may have paid 70 euros or more for the luxury of a prime position where they can witness the two-and-a-half minutes of mayhem when the bulls race from their holding pen to the bullring, with several thousand human targets in their path.

Statistically, the risk of death on the horns of a bull is relatively low. Only a handful of people have actually died on the run in the past 50 years. But statistics lie – at least in the sense that since there is no way of guaranteeing immunity from the horns of a charging 600kg bull, participating in the run is one sure-fire way of reminding people that they are still alive.

In 2009, a 27-year-old from outside Madrid DID die on the run. Daniel Jimeno Ribero suffered a fatal goring on the Telefonica stretch outside the bullring. His was only the 15th death since records began in 1924, and he was an experienced runner – but it reminded everyone taking part in the run of the potential risks. Strangely, perhaps, the impact on the fiesta appeared almost fleeting – although long-time runners were eager to pay their sincere tributes and a mini-shrine of red scarves tied round one of the barricades registered the fact that his death did not go unnoticed.

Perhaps the serious runners more than anyone realised and related to the sentiments of Ribero’s family, who were quick to testify that he would not have wished to die anywhere else, or in other circumstances.

The bullfight

The chance of being run over in the street in London may be far higher than that of being gored by a bull in the encierro, but the sense of trusting in fate and submitting to your destiny pervades the machismo of San Fermin.

Indeed for the serious runners, the addiction lies in being able to get ever closer to the scared but intimidating animals who a few hours later will die in the bullring in an atmosphere reminsicent of a Roman amphitheatre, to the roars of 20,000 aficionados.

True, the more self-fixated revellers who have poured into the city by bus, train and car may struggle to grasp the significance of the fiesta beyond its most obvious carnal and convivial attractions.

Drink may not be cheap any more – but it is certainly plentiful – and the single-minded determination of so many to enjoy the occasion to excess guarantees convivial companions for those separated from their immediate friends.

But many of those returning year after year will take newcomers aside to share their own insights into what makes San Fermin different from any other event in the European festival calendar.

The rituals

The fiesta’s precise origins are lost in the mists of time but are thought to stem from two separate medieval events – commercial fairs staged when cattle merchants came into town with their animals, and religious ceremonies honouring the saint. The religious overtones provide a welcome and sometimes startling contrast to the secular over-indulgence.

Every run begins with a prayer to ask the patron saint’s protection, where the runners sing three times: “A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición" ("We ask Saint Fermín, as our Patron, to guide us through the encierro and give us his blessing").

The pobre de mi

And the closing ceremony, the ¡Pobre de mí!, staged back in the Town Hall square at midnight on July 14, is an altogether more emotional and thoughtful occasion as the candle-waving crowds lament the ending of the party for another year.

The crowd is smaller, there is none of the raucous pushing or sangria throwing of the opening ceremony and there’s a genuine sense of sadness that the normality is about to return to a city that for most of the year is a sociable, mellow backwater best known as being one of the stopping-off points for weary pilgrims hiking the 780km route through the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela.

By the following morning, when the last of the revellers have finally found their way to the bus and train stations, the formerly obligatory red-and-white “uniform” has been discarded and the town is returned to sleepy chilled-out normality. It’s as if the party has never happened at all, although in the minds of countless weary fiesta addicts, the memories are still alive – and the countdown to next year’s celebrations will have already begun.

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