Ordinarily this time of year, Lief and I would be enjoying an adventure somewhere exotic and fun. This year this kind of travel is largely off the table, so we’re remembering adventures past… including the summer we participated in the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona.
In the spirit of helping to keep our collective travel dreams alive, I share my report from the scene…
Sleep is not part of the program.
As a friend used to say (when I was much younger and thought it a reasonable position)… and as everyone in the city of Pamplona this week seems to concur… you can sleep when you’re dead.
We’re in town for the around-the-clock carnival of music, fireworks, marching bands, clapping, stomping, and stampeding bulls that is the annual Festival of San Fermín.
The good people here in Navarra have been celebrating the feast day of their San Fermín since the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, they decided to move that festival from October (when the weather wasn’t conducive to outdoor parties) to July to coincide with Pamplona’s big annual trade fair… which centered around… you guessed it…
In the 17th and 18th centuries, bull runs through the center of the old city and evening fights were added to the program to help showcase the livestock.
Then, in the 19th century, the carnival hijinks appeared—women shot from cannons, stilt-walkers with huge heads, exotic animals paraded around town…
And then, in July 1923, something happened that made sure this annual saint’s day turned trade festival would become one of the best known and most widely attended in history…
Ernest Hemingway decided to bring his young wife Hadley down from Paris to watch the bulls and the matadors face off in Pamplona’s ring.
Hem and Hadley stayed in the Hotel La Perla on the Plaza del Castillo… from where I write today.
Hemingway went on to tell the tale of that expat adventure in his novel “The Sun Also Rises”… and, well, now, here we are to witness the final three days of this year’s goings-on.
Each new festival day officially begins when 12 bulls are set free from corrals to run through the center of the old town along the cobblestoned Mercaderes Street. The bulls are joined by hundreds of thrill-seekers who sprint alongside and in between and who sometimes end up underfoot or even with a horn in a side.
On average 50 to 100 runners are injured each year. We witnessed two spectacular collisions of man and beast this morning.
Each morning’s excitement takes place at precisely 8 a.m.
By 8:03 that day’s mad dash is history. The bulls are in the ring, where they’ll remain until that evening’s fights. The wounded are taken off on backboards for treatment.
And the rest of us wander off for breakfast.
From 8:03 a.m., when the morning’s run concludes, until 6:30 p.m., when the evening’s fights commence, the day is filled with more eating, live music, parades, and, as Hemingway made sure the whole world realized, drinking.
Here in Pamplona over the nine days of the Festival of San Fermín the bulls run and the wine flows… and it continues fueling the fun through the night and until the next morning’s 8 a.m. race along the cobblestones.
As I mentioned, we watched our first run from the balcony of the Hotel La Perla at 8 this morning…
The street the bulls ran down just hours ago is right now a sea of San Fermín pilgrims sporting the festival colors—white shirts and red bandanas and sashes. They’re shopping, snacking, dancing, drinking, breaking out in song, retelling the stories of the morning’s run… and waiting for this evening’s big event.