The Festival of San Fermin-Tourist or Traveler?
It’s been almost ten years since I traveled across the Atlantic with my brother Juan and our good friend Carmelo to run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. It seems like it was only yesterday and I’d really love to go back. I went as neither a tourist or traveler but a combination of the two. Pamplona was only a small part of our three-week trip to Europe, but it was definitely the most memorable part of it. The interactions we had with the people, the absolute mass of people in Pamplona for those seven days in July, and engaging in the celebration and the Festival to the extent we did makes it seem more like taking up temporary residency as opposed to touring or traveling. I mean we toured as in we planned it, and we traveled on a very nice plane to get there, but tourist or traveler doesn’t do it justice. As I sit here on family leave, spending time with my daughter Emma, thinking of those long-past youthful adventures, I fondly remember the week we spent in Pamplona and have come to the realization, that on my current salary, and newborn infant, I will never be able to afford to tour or travel to far away places again.
For those who don’t know, the Festival of San Fermin is a seven-day event named after the patron saint of Pamplona. I think it would be fair to say that San Fermin is a combination Mardi Gras, Carnival, Indianapolis 500 and the Kentucky Derby all rolled into one. I can only guess this because I’ve never actually been to any of these other events, but I’m pretty sure it would take a combination of each to match the all-around atmosphere of Pamplona for those seven days in July. The Festival is 24-7 and starts each morning at 7 a.m. with a whistling rocket and bull run or “Encierro”. We were all very proud Basques from the other side of the mountain, and we wanted to get a little culture, see the Old Country and meet up (show up unannounced) with a few distant relatives we’ve never met. We figured what better way than to travel to the Spain, party a bit, and run with the bulls and party a bit more. We were single and carefree. We flew into Paris and took the overnight train to Pamplona.
As any athlete will tell you, when you’re in the Super Bowl you’ve got to check the condition of the field, run around a bit and test your footing and cutting ability on the turf in advance of the big game. In a World Series, if you’re a pitcher, you have to check out the mound, kick some dirt, determine the gaps and hitting alleys so you know where to place your screwball. These are games of inches and so is the Encierro. Now, since my best forty-yard dash time is about ten seconds flat and I can’t even run a mile anymore (but when I could my time was around twelve minutes) the condition of the playing field in Pamplona was a very important consideration before placing myself inside those fences, in a very narrow street, in front of charging fighting bulls weighing over two thousand pounds each, with horns the size of traffic cones.
To be honest, I had done a lot of my prep work before actually traveling to Spain. I learned the distance of the Encierro is a little over four hundred yards and it is run down a very narrow street that winds its way to the arena where they hold the bull fights each night. It includes several thousand guys doing the running, six bulls and four steers (to keep the bulls grouped together along the route). All the bulls that run will fight that night. I figured that the run was about a quarter mile total. It takes the bulls less than two minutes to run that distance and they can really rumble down those streets except for one hairpin corner known as Estafeta Street. Here the bulls sometimes fall or crush the runners against the barricades as they come ripping around the corner. Based on this information, I realized that it would be foolish if I didn’t have a big head start from the get go and that I needed to stay away from that corner. My brother who is just slightly faster than me concurred. Carmelo however, who used to run track in high school and has never smoked a single cigarette in his entire life, knew before we even got on the plane that he was going to run the entire route. I think he had actually trained for it in advance.
We arrived in Pamplona on the morning of July 6. The first Encierro was July 7. It may have been the 5th and 6th, but it’s been almost ten years. There were tens of thousands of people in the streets and the parks, the pubs and tapas bars. Music and marching groups of people (kind of like marching bands, but a bit sloshed) stopping every so often for pictures and a hit on the bota bag for some more sangria before rolling on to the next block. Food and drink was anywhere and everywhere.
The night before our first run, the three of us walked the narrow streets of the Encierro, an Amstel in one hand and Sangria in the other. This made it kind of hard to actually smoke a cigarette (since quit), which at the time was kind of fun to do when drinking, but we were able to stage frequent planning conferences and occasional stops in the many pubs and gathering places along the route, which made this somewhat possible. We started our pre-Encierro expedition at the doors of the arena where the bull run actually finishes and eventually stumbled our way to the corrals from where the bulls charge out in the morning after the morning rocket blasts off. This took us about four or five hours. We would have to work on our speed the following day. I figured, for scouting purposes, it would be best to start at the entrance to the arena so that by the time we actually saw the enormity and demeanor of the bulls in the corrals where they are kept each night, we would have consumed enough courage so as not to bail out from doing this the following day.
The first thing I noticed when we got to the corral, was that it was an immediate uphill run of about 60 or 70 yards before the narrow street flattened out. My brother and I immediately nixed the idea of starting at the starting point. Running uphill in front of a bunch of bulls that were just let out of their cage and were raring to go made absolutely no sense to me. Why start at a starting point anyway. You gotta think outside the box. We eventually strategized that we would be better off starting about two hundred yards from the narrow entry into the arena. That way, since it was pretty level from there we figured if we didn’t trip and fall we would be okay since it was just a leisurely jog into the bullring. As mentioned earlier, Carmelo had already made up his mind to start his run in the very front of the coral and get as close as he could to the bulls both before and during the actual run. Juan and I wished him good luck and that night we gathered all his valuables for his family back home. He wanted to run with the bulls and touch the bulls and mess with the bulls, whereas Juan and I only wanted to run somewhat close to where the bulls would be, bail to the side-hug some wall, avoid all hazards, and follow them into the arena for the last 200 yards or so. Then party for most of the rest of the day. You wouldn’t believe how many people had the exact same idea as we did.
Morning came after a long and sleepless night. During the seven days of San Fermin, the bars close for only one hour each morning so the cleaners can hose off the streets and sidewalks, waking many of the people who had fallen asleep on those same streets and sidewalks so they can get up and get ready for the run (I am not kidding). No, I was not one of them. When we got there we had just missed the hosers which was kind of cool since we had come all decked out for the encierro in white shirts, white pants, red sash and red kerchief. The streets were clean and I must say, so were we. We cut under the fence to take our positions in what was already becoming an absolute mass of people at six in the morning. We all bought a Spanish newspaper that we rolled tight so that when we ran we would be able to fend off these massive beasts if they came too close and threatened our safety (I had seen this done on television). Juan and I bid Carmelo farewell and told him to run very fast and we would see him in the arena laterhopefully.
It was one giant sea of people inside the narrow streets and by 6:30 a.m. It was choked with a couple thousand sweaty, stinky dudes, many of whom had clearly failed to find their hotels the night before. I guarded my wallet and tested my newspaper on my brother’s head. It seemed to anger him and I think he actually snorted. He was fired up and ready to go and so was I. Until the barriers dropped however, nobody was moving an inch, and it was getting uncomfortable. We took turns chest butting each other until we were out of breath. It was already unbearably hot at that time of the morning and the spectators (yes-we were athletes so there were many spectators involved) overlooking the street in the balconies above us answered the chants of “aaaaqua” by dousing us with bottled water. That was good because we were thirsty from the night before.
At exactly 7 a.m. the rocket whistled, the barrier was removed and the crowd surged. My brother and I started jogging in the middle of the street, knowing that we had a couple hundred-yard head start on the bulls. Runners surged past, we checked their faces and saw fear. We kept looking behind us for the bulls that would be rumbling down the narrow street in just seconds. Then it started, with a low rumble. It kind of reminded me of that final scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan’ when the German tanks were coming into the city and the U. S. Army Rangers were all hunkered down in a bomb-crater in the street and the ground was quaking. Okay, well maybe thats a bit extreme but you can kind of get the idea of what I’m trying to tell you tourists and travelers. You could see these huge black mounds with horns rolling through the runners as they parted down the middle. As my earlier training kicked in, I immediately dashed to the wall and hugged it and prayed for my Mommy. Then I watched as two thousand pounds of black twisted steel sprinted by me, and then past me. I said nothing to antagonize these giant beasts as they glided by and I was spared from death. I think one bull actually looked at me and smiled. At least I think he smiled-it may have been somewhat difficult for the bull to see me since I was very much a part of the wall as he rumbled on by. There was however, only about five yards separating me from a gruesome goring or even death and I could literally taste it. Then again, it could have been the chorizo or maybe even the Sangria from the night before, but as I look back on it doesn’t really matter.
So we make it into the arena and it is full of people. The bulls are herded into corrals in the back and the runners stand around on the dirt. The crowd is cheering. Then, when all the big bulls are put away, they let out one baby bull (they only weigh about a thousand pounds) at a time with little rubber knobs on the tips of his horn. They just haul around the dirt plowing people and the crowd roars. It was great fun for an Americano like me. You really have to be watching for the little bull to come stomping around knocking people over though, because they really do hurt people. After about an hour of that everybody leaves the arena and the party continues.
Now my wife and I have been blessed with a brand new baby girl, and she truly is a blessing We have been trying to have a family for so long. I met my wife the summer I came back from Spain and you know that one of the first things we talked about was Pamplona. I can’t wait till my daughter gets older (actually I can) so I can tell her about Daddy’s adventures as a tourist and a traveler, in far away places when he was young and could actually move around some, I’m sure this Pamplona story will get even better with time. Maybe I survived a major goring and wrestled a bull to the ground. Could be I had to save a fellow runner from a certain death. I don’t know-I guess I’ll have to play that one by ear, but one thing I know I will definitely tell her is that if you mess with the bull, you get the horns.
Tour and travel on.