I think that every traveler has a little bit of Hemingway in them. His writings are equally inspiring and interesting. My favorite Hemingway book is The Sun Also Rises. Of course, this brings our hero to Pamplona, Spain for the Fiesta de San Fermin, which is more commonly recognized as the running of the bulls. Ernest Hemingway wrote reverently about the festivities that he witnessed and brought them to the attention of the wider world for the first time. Today, thousands of runners, wannabe runners, thrill seekers and party goers make their way to this small town each July for the eight day fiesta.
Upon arrival by train in Pamplona, you are greeted by scores of locals offering their flats for a fee. Hotel rooms are scarce in Pamplona during the fiesta so my three friends and I ended up staying on a foam pad in some little old lady’s flat for three days. Although there wasn’t much sleep to be had, it did give us a place to safely leave our backpacks.
San Fermin is a festival that runs all day everyday for eight days and the partying is truly 24 hours. The streets of old town Pamplona are packed with tourists and locals alike enjoying the local vinos and cervezas. We arrived at night and just put our bags in the room and went straight out to the streets to see what was going on. We were shocked at what we came into. After a “few” drinks, we met some British guys who filled us in on all the local information and most importantly about “El Encierro” – the running of the bulls. It takes place every morning at 8am followed by the bullfight in the plaza de toros where the run is completed. After a long night of singing Spanish songs that we didn’t know the words to with all the locals in the bars and streets of Pamplona, it was starting to get lighter out. That meant only one thing, that the bulls were to be running through the streets shortly.
At about 7am, they start to barricade off the streets, and the course the bulls run takes shape. They block off the streets with large pieces of wood fencing that they stick into the ground in previously dug holes in the cobblestone streets. The fence is about six feet high and is made of two cross bars of thick wood, one for stepping on to get over the top and the other as the top. The fence also had large gaps on the bottom for people to slide under if they are being chased by the bulls and want to make a quick escape because the hole is too small for the bulls. Of course during the running, there are thousands of people watching on the fence and it isn’t that easy for the runners to hop under or over the fence because of all the people.
At about 7:30, they take a hose and water down the streets making them very slippery. I still don’t understand the reasoning for this because, as I would soon find out, the bulls go full speed around corners and slip and fall into the barriers and everyone cheers. It is a very strange thing that was never explained to me.
I was unsure whether I was going to run the first day because I had no idea what to expect. I had a front row seat right on the fence at the main turn where the bulls fall and the straightaway begins toward the stadium. I looked at all the runners warming up and practicing their techniques. The streets were so narrow and the bulls are huge and I couldn’t imagine that this many people would be too safe on the street at the same time so I stayed put the first day and watched as the horn sounded and the bulls were off.
It took the bulls about 45 seconds to get where I was and I watched the runners preparing themselves and my heart was beating with them. All of a sudden, the bulls and steers came flying around the corner and the runners started running and clogging up the streets. I was terrified sitting behind the fence as I saw the bulls and people alike slipping on the wet street and sliding into the specially enforced barrier.
As I watched the bulls and runners race past me, they are supposed to close a gate that stops the bulls from turning around and heading back where they came from. They are supposed to complete the course into the bull-fighting stadium. However, there was one bull that had slipped and hit the barrier and became disoriented. The bulls are basically blind and are attracted to movement and the steers that guide the bulls in the right direction had all gone past the gate already so all the runners were held at the mercy of the bull. The experienced runners tried to guide the bull in the right direction by making sudden movements toward the stadium, but the bull was going all over the place. Some runners were being stupid and getting really close to the bulls’ horns. I saw one guy get flipped by the bull against the wall of a building and then land on his head. I saw another guy get gored in his leg. Blood was dripping all over his traditional white outfit with red bandana around his neck. It’s funny because they keep statistics on how many people get gored each day and the people cheer when someone gets injured. The man was alright, but seriously cut nonetheless.
Finally, the bull was steered in the right direction and all the bulls had entered the stadium for the sheer entertainment of those who had gathered for the bullfight. The bullfight follows the run, where the bulls that ran that morning will meet their death from professional matadors. However, before that happens, they are all in the main stadium where all the runners have gathered for a short torture session before the bulls die. The runners taunt the bulls and they get chased around the ring by the dozens. This is extremely dangerous and we saw many runners get gored and some even thrown over the walls of the bullring. The bulls weigh in excess of 1500 pounds and are quite strong. Finally, after the bulls can no longer garner the energy to chase runners around anymore, they are summoned into the stables awaiting their chance to challenge a matador, as if they have any choice.
All the runners vacate the ring and head up into the stands and await the arrival of the matadors. In Spain, at San Fermin, you are expected to wear white in the stands and those who don’t, which are almost always tourists, get pelted with tomatoes and red wine. Needless to say, we didn’t know this custom and were promptly greeted by being doused with wine from everyone in our section. We quickly realized we should go down and buy a white T-shirt and we all did. However, to our dismay, when we returned to our seats we were pelted again. We kind of looked at each other and then collectively started throwing whatever we could get on hands on at whoever was in the vicinity and then all madness broke out. We were red from head to toe and we were loving every second of it. After about a minute of this, we had earned the respect of the locals and they actually offered us wine to drink and we were no longer on their pelt list. So we sat, drenched in vegetables and wine and got ready for the fight to begin.
Six matadors fight the bulls. The first arrives in the center of the ring to a tremendous ovation. He is traditionally dressed, armed with sword length knives to thrust into the backs of the bulls. Suddenly, the bull is released and he charges the matador, who promptly olés the mighty toro. The bull charges two more times to no avail and rousing applause from the packed stands. Then, on the fourth charge, the matador strategically jams two knives into the back of the mighty beast. The knives are intended to slightly wound the bull and not kill him yet. The bull is to charge him two more times, both times with the same result, two knives in the back. Each one inflicting more damage in succession to the point where the bull can’t move anymore and is just standing there motionless panting for life. The matador then approaches the bull head on with one sword and raising it with two hands, he surgically thrusts it into the back of the bulls’ neck. The bull dies instantly, falling like a ton of bricks to the ground. The people go nuts like Spain just won the World Cup or something. I seriously almost threw up from the sheer savagery of the spectacle. But to add insult to injury, they then drive a small vehicle in and hogtie the dead bulls legs with a long rope and drag him across the ground and out of the stadium. This is again met with cheers and the matador is lauded with roses from the stands. I was disgusted by what I was witnessing and thought that it couldn’t always be like this. However, after watching for another five bulls, I realized it was.
For as much fun as we had with the wine fights in the stands, my friends and I decided to not attend the bull fights anymore while we were there because of the brutality of it all. Hypocritically though, I decided that I was going to join the fiesta as a runner the next morning.
As they fenced up the streets for the run that morning I stood there in the streets, thinking to myself, what the hell am I doing? But I knew I couldn’t leave Pamplona without doing this; I would never forgive myself. I stood in a mass of people and all I could think was that these people were going to trample each other and then the bulls would trample us with their 1500 pounds. All of a sudden the horn sounded and I became anxious. I was standing right where the gate was to be closed and the straightaway began. I wanted to have the bulls run beside and past me and then I would run into the stadium past the huge statue of Ernest Hemingway. Then I would leave before the fights began.
Quickly the bulls rounded the corner and everyone started running, without even thinking I ran with the crowd because there was nothing else I could do. I was on the right side of the narrow street that leads to the stadium and I saw a bull pass me on the left, I was in awe and shocked that I was still standing. I then peeked back and saw the other 12 bulls and steers coming racing at me.
What a rush, it was truly amazing to have these huge beasts running with me, two of them were literally inches from me and I reached out and patted two different bulls. They quickly made their way past us and into the stadium because they run so fast. As all the runners made their way into the stadium, the crowd greeted us with a huge ovation, which I hadn’t seen the day before because we got locked out by the gate before they eventually let everyone in after all the runners have entered. I was in awe of actually being on the floor of the ring with thousands of people cheering and oohing and aahing as the bulls charged different groups of runners. After a rush of the bulls toward where I was standing, I had had enough and hopped the fence to safety and to meet my friends.
I had never experienced something like that before. I was at the mercy of a blind, three-quarter ton bull. I have done many crazy things but all were controlled and were made by human beings. These bulls were trying to kill people, and every so often they actually succeed. I can say that running with the bulls was an amazing experience that should not be taken lightly because it is deadly if you make a mistake. However, if you stay with the crowds and don’t do anything stupid, it is an indescribable feeling of triumph.
Personally, as a very humane person, I can do without the bull fights and watching them slaughter the bulls, but the overall experience at Pamplona was a unique one and I will treasure the memories forever. As for Hemingway, he accurately described San Fermin to the world, and they do have a massive statue outside the plaza de toros of him. He is viewed in Pamplona as a hero and as a fan I am glad that he also wrote about African safaris where no animals are killed and you can view them from afar.