The Fiestas of San Fermin
The Running of the Bulls is what put the sleepy Spanish town of Pamplona on the map, but this pub dare gone way too far is merely the pointy end of a larger fiesta held there annually.
Ernest Hemingway, Pamplona’s favourite backpacker, wrote of San Fermín in ‘The Sun Also Rises’. He said that by the end of the week-long party, it no longer makes sense to think about consequences.
I was in Spain on the trail of the famous expatriate hobo writer, wanting to experience at least a sliver of the rabbit-hole of hedonistic oblivion he described. And I was off to a good start.
I had touched down in the gothic quarter of Barcelona, in a humble abode of 20 vagabonds, the kind of place where you’re still discovering new hidden nooks and corridors days after settling in, all of which are now converted into someone’s bedroom. My belongings never did find a permanent address within that place — it was like my backpack was backpacking.
Alcohol was banned from the premises. When you find yourself in a dry zone, you know you’re either in the company of either religious fundamentalists or party fundamentalists. People who ball so hard that to bring the fiesta home to the place of their post-balling convalescence would spell the end of their health and sanity. People who ball so hard that a panic room must be established, a brief recharging respite from the vicissitudes of the endless summer.
A few weeks later, sofas and bunk beds were traded for bus seats, and we headed to the Adelaide of Spain: a town where a year of partying is condensed into a week, during which the population spikes from 20 thousand Basque locals to 100 thousand professional party people.
In typical Spanish fashion, the festival began with a fight. The Spanish seem to love to throw things at each other (tomatoes, grapes, wine, bulls…). The celebrations kicked off in Plaza Consistorial, a place built long before population density or fire safety were factors in town planning. Thousands of us were pressed into the world’s sweatiest cuddle puddle, all wearing the traditional white-with-red sash, like the most difficult page in Where’s Wally. Forget bulls — the real risk of San Fermín is being trampled by a herd of humans.
I remembered a cautionary tale from a fellow traveller who had fallen over in the square, dehydrated and heat-exhausted, only to come to some time later to find most of her clothes had been torn off by foot traffic. Party, or die. I planted my feet and prayed to the Converse gods.
The mayor announced the imminent beginning of the fiesta, but could have saved his breath: full bottles of sangria were already tracing arcs over the crowd, and locals from every balcony on the plaza rained beverages down on us as punters returned fire. It didn’t take long before we were completely blanketed in sticky warm fluid from excited strangers: a bukkake of sangria and beer.
On one of the lower balconies was a beautiful woman, beautifully dressed and inexplicably unsoiled, dancing and drinking. A shirtless suitor from the crowd began to climb, doing well to make it up to the threshold before an angry boyfriend emerged from the apartment to punch him hard in the face. He dropped, limp, eliciting cheers and whistles from the crowd. The señorita retreated through the door, blowing a kiss to the crowd before flipping us off.
The chupinazo flew overhead, a customary firework, marking the official start of San Fermín, and the fiesta was released from the plaza, engulfing the town completely. Street parties appeared in puffs of cigar smoke to blockade the narrow alleyways with long tables replete with bread, meat, cheese and red wine (which didn’t seem to dissuade drivers, whose extremely slow commute I couldn’t help but regret). Parades of gigantes, characters with oversized paper mâché heads, danced around the tables, harassing terrified toddlers before colliding with parades of marching bands in a gridlock of merging super-parades. A mortar sounded and a swarm of children ran toward me, pursued by a pantomime bull covered in fireworks, raining sparks down on the under-prepared. A fight broke out nearby, then ended promptly and amicably.
After seven relentless days of this, I was starting to forget that the sun also rises. My San Fermín ended where it had started: in footsteps of a famous alcoholic, at Hemingway’s bar. I immediately lost my friends in the heaving throng and made a new one. She was Spanish, but not from Basque country, staying in town for the week with friends. Her accommodation? The Plaza Consistorial. Like, the actual plaza. A corner staked out amongst the cobbles and chaos, presumably with guard shifts: a true global hobo at heart. Afterwards, she planned to continue her pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, but was acting distinctively non-Catholicly before a man appeared, argued fiercely with her and took her away, thankfully without punching me off any balconies.
I went on my own short pilgrimage to buy an Iberian beef baguette — you can run with, fight, or eat the bulls here, apparently. But you can also ignore them entirely: whatever your feelings about the bull stuff, San Fermín is a party you’re warmly invited to.
Spain is internally divided on its views of bullfighting, but united in its love of a fiesta. In this way, the country often feels like a bunch of mismatched housemates than a cohesive nation with passports and borders. Upon leaving town, I spotted graffiti stating in plain, universal, unambiguous English: “This is not Spain; you are in Basque country”. Then there is Catalonia, with its recently renewed enthusiasm in seceding from the rest of the country. It’s a cultural mashup glued together, sometimes literally, by sangria — packed so tightly into a country-sized plaza that you have little choice but to smile and throw some beverages at each other.
Photo by Ethan Weil