If this was how all religious festivals were then I’d renounce my atheism in a second and join Jesus arm-in-arm to march around the streets with cartons of sangria, our shirts soaked in wine, watching the Spanish girls go by and slapping friends on the back. Unfortunately they aren’t, so I’ll keep my lack of faith…yet Sanfermín, a weeklong party in Pamplona, Spain dedicated to the eponymous patron saint of Navarre – made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and by the daily ‘running of the bulls’ – attracts almost a million revellers each year for some reason. I attempted to discover the reason, and the only way to do it properly was to leap headfirst into the experience, without any arms stretched in front for safety. So I spent four days and three practically-sleepless nights drunkenly roaming the streets with friends, sifting through the cesspool to find some meaning.
The celebrations started on the 6th of July when bus after bus of foreigners and Spanish youths rushed into an already bulging city. I checked-out of my hostel at ten and slipped into a party that had been alive for hours. Everyone was marching around in wine soaked shirts; men were shooting great streams of sangria into the air, then drawing the cartons to their lips for good dousing. Meanwhile small children were imitating their elders with ketchup and mustard bottles. Tradition necessitates that the entire population of Pamplona dress in white shirts and trousers, with a red belt and neckerchief, for the entire seven days in order to honour the Basque colours. But the whites become pink and then crimson red as the day goes on. Within ten minutes I was soaked and my shirt had been ripped off by a teenage girl. I bought another and joined the crowds who had gathered behind the marching bands. Middle-aged men tried to parade up and down the now-blocked streets, taking swigs from their leather bota bags as the tempo relaxed for a second; then it all started again with a blood-racing clatter that sent the dancing crowds into a frenzy. This was all good fun, but I was still a solo reveller. My friends were not to arrive until five in the afternoon and as I wandered through the city, trying to kill time with a lonely carton of sangria in my hand, I got the fear that descends on the sober when surrounded by the drunk. Not a fear for safety; no, it was the fear that the party may end before I had the chance to join in.
The drinking begins…
Thankfully, I was somewhere where the party never stops. By the end of my stay I had learnt that Sanfermín a hedonistic Boa Constrictor that squeezes the normality out of you, making you nocturnal and diurnal, leaving you famished and wide-eyed. A parallel universe you never want to leave. By the time my friends arrived I was six cartons in, but my head was cool and my vibrations were getting better. The five of us jumped into a supermarket and loaded two large bags full of sangria, bottles of wine, and small cans of alcohol. When you can get wine for one euro, sangria for 0.80 cents and an eighteen pack of beer for five euros, it is no surprise of the levels of drunkenness this city sinks to. Another reveller pushed a shopping trolley crammed with sangria out of the shop.
“How many cartons do you have?”, I joked with him.
“About seventy”, he replied in a thick Aussie accent. Jesus I thought, they’re are planning an invasion. I was already wary of their huge numbers the week before in San Sebastian and now they are here stocking up on supplies. He handed me one as a present; ‘to his new Pom friend”, he said. We shook hands and made an empty promise to meet later in the day.
“How much was all that?” I asked as we parted.
from left to right: Jimmy, Jonas, me, Tim, Luis.
That evening started with a few hours of dedicated drinking as we did our best to finish the bags of alcohol. We sat in the middle of a historic plaza, where the buildings date back centuries and are lined in posh cafes and restaurants. Gentlemen sit and cut delicately at chunks of steak and other meats covered in fine sauces; and sip at never-corked bottles of wine, chilled in buckets of ice; and make small talk to their wives, who are dressed in spotless white dresses. A very strange scene indeed, as hundreds of drunks rampage around them. Smashed bottles carpet the pavements and the grass is stained a pinkish colour; men lie comatose, faceplanted on the grassy banks; others line up at the bins staring at the ladies and gentlemen in the restaurants as they leak all over the streets.
After a good few hours of solid drinking the night turned into the kind of night that drunk early-twenty-year-olds relish. One friend decided on trying to climb up to the balconies, another went on a mission to find a toilet cubicle and ended up in a bush. A band started. We were in the middle. The noise was good. I pushed a friend. He pushed me back. Soon the five of us were forming a mosh-pit that the Spanish girls looked on with tuts and the Spanish men did their best to get involved. Soon the pit was twenty strong. Men were sent flying…then jumped up, took a swig and gave their aggressor a massive hug. Twisting circles of men arm-in-arm were started and the scene took on pure ecstasy. We lifted a friend up and tried to crowd-surf him, but he feel on the floor and bounced straight back up. Around four in the morning we arrived at a park and collapsed on the grass for an hours sleep. Four of us covered ourselves in a large sleeping bag and packed in close together.
The next two days existed in the same fashion. Our levels of drunkenness were constantly topped up, never too high, never too low. But things were evolving and improving. The month before I had met a few other solo travellers in Paris from the website couchsurfing.com. The site’s main purpose is to allow travellers to stay at other people’s houses, dossing on their sofas or floors. When I lived in Brighton we were visited by several German teenage girls and a French vegan chef. But the site also allows you to create an activity…so someone did. It simply read ‘I will be in Spain for the 2012 San Fermin festival. Anyone else going or is in Europe at that time and would like to go?’. By the 6th of July forty-three people have joined the group and agreed to meet. So on the second day we walked to the bus station and waited as almost twenty guys and girls showed up. We formed a large circle around another stash of cheap wine and sangria and talked for hours. The group was a real international mix. To give a quick description… there was already Luis from Argentina, Jonas of Sweden, Jimmy from somewhere in the United States and me, from Britain. This was added to by Rory from Northern Ireland, Valeria and Jackie from California, a Brazilian, Indian, Chinese, and another splash of Americans.
That night took our twenty-strong crowd back into side streets of Pamplona where the marching bands were roaming again. Flags spread across the streets as a throng of players and dancers descended on the darkness with noise and gusto. We bounced along for hours. Whenever the lights of a tienda were spotted we all jumped in for a litre bottle of beer. Restocked we chased back out into the streets and continued the party. The Brazilian amongst our group, a crazy dude called Johannes who turned up with an inflated life-preserver and plastic trumpet, disappeared for ten minutes and came back with more trumpets and plastic drums. We formed a little marching band and blew out our own tunes through the streets (incidentally, we learnt the next day that he had fallen asleep on top of a car that night and had woken up in the morning to the car’s crazed owner screaming at him) . Later in the night we came across a group of younger revellers who seemed more than happy to share their wine with us, taking some pleasure in squirting great shots from their souvenir bota bags. On the last day I awoke from an hours sleep in a park with my glasses stolen, my friend has his shoes and socks stolen. Another had his passport, shoes, socks and shirt stolen and we saw him walking back to his bus-station locker barefooted in his shorts. He didn’t look out of place!
Who says there’s no such thing as a free hotel…or is it meal? Sod it I got both
To deviate a little from the decadence and drunken madness, I would like to tell a story of kindness. One of the many people who joined thecouchsurfing group online couldn’t make it as his flight had been cancelled, however he had booked a hotel room. He said if we wanted to, then we could have the room for the night, to have a shower and a decent night sleep. So on the second day (before meeting with the twenty other revellers) four of us traipsed through the town to check-in. I imagined it was going to be one of those hostels where no-one sleeps and the rooms have swung from untidy to a complete shithole. But what did we find?… only a four star hotel with a king-size bed. The bathroom had a power shower and wet room. A 32” television sat on the wall. When we checked out the next day we were to find out that the room had cost five-hundred euros for the night.
So what did we do with this room? Well, we exploited it of course. That night we packed twelve people in there. Every now and then a knock would ring out on the door and everyone would drop down on their chest, out of sight. It would turn out to be yet another friend who managed to find his way back. In the morning we went down for breakfast. This is quite funny…
One of the group had taken on the room from the person who couldn’t make it, so was entitled to breakfast. The rest of us weren’t. Three of us were sat around a table enjoying melon, salami, orange juice, fruits, coffee, etc – pure luxury – when the receptionist came around with a list of names to tick off. I hadn’t noticed, but one of my friends had and snuck away. She came to me. At this point in the story I should let you know that I had no voice left and could only speak with a husky guttural noise. I panicked when she asked me my name. “em…..”. Finally I went with John, thinking that almost every nationality has a form of ‘John’ and is quite common. As she look down the list so did I, and I spotted a Jean-Luc. That’s it. I put on a French accent and said, “oui, c’est moi, Jean Luc’. She somehow bought it. Not wanting to stick around in case the real Jean-Luc came around, I threw some bread rolls in my pocket and rushed off back to the room.
The encierro – getting head-butted by a beast
Back to the madness. On the last morning we decided to do the ‘running of the bulls’, the thing we and everyone else had come to do. Everyone I knew told me to be careful because it was dangerous…since 1924 fifteen people had been killed. I can’t be bothered to do the maths, but given the numbers who run each year I guess you are more likely to die riding a motorbike, or doing something humdrum like washing up. Admittedly over 300 people are injured each year, mostly from falling over other runners…but we’re getting away from the matter, no one who does the ‘run’ cares about statistics or about the health risks…that’s the point; they care about the thrill, the excitement, the vibrations you get from running alongside a five-hundred kilogram bull, a few metres away from the beast, facing it eye-to-eye.
I met up with a friend, who I had lost the night before, at five in the morning to wait another three hours as the streets became packed with other runners. Gates went up around us and so did the noise. Chants became louder. People sipped on beer cans, one eye towards the policemen who operated their only zero-tolerance policy at this stage. At eight the first firework went up to say the bulls had been released – six bulls, and six steers to guide the herd through the 850 metre course) – then another a few seconds later to say that the entire herd was now out. People panicked. The street was no wider than twelve metres, cobbled and now crammed with people. A few chased off towards the stadium, where the run ends. We stood our ground. The clatter of hoofs could be heard. A crowd of twenty men went over us and everyone fell in an untidy mess. I jumped up and ran. I saw one bull pass to my left about five feet away. Then a few others passed at high speed. I could see the stadium and the entrance.
Then the fear took hold. A bull had stopped a few metres away from me, turned around and began chasing back into the crowds. I stopped running but a mass of bodies went over me. On my knees I saw the bull coming towards our pile. I don’t know how but I rolled away and was quick to my feet. (Later I found out that three runners were gored at this moment). Meanwhile someone tugged at the bull’s tail and eventually it made its way into the stadium, and we followed.
The spectacle inside was pure craziness. The bullring was brimming. Seats were packed with spectators whilst the sand filled ring was packed with us runners. Emotions rose. Everyone slapped each other on the back. Friends hugged. I found my group and we leapt into a celebratory circle of dancing. Then a cheer went up and the first of the bulls was re-released into the ring. Waves of men and women parted as the beast chased around. Some people tried to get a touch of the bull whilst others were more daring and either tried giving it a wrestle or tried to jump over it. The end result was the same as the bull threw them up into the air and horned them to the ground. Someone was dragged to the ground and gored by the horns…thankfully the organisers had stuck two corks on the horns, or else the man would have had a hole ripped in the side. One man managed to leap fully other the beast and a loud cry went up from the spectators. But the noise was nothing compared to the cry when someone got hit hard by the bull. Five minutes later it was sent back down into the holding pen and another bull was released. Pure ecstasy. Pure emotions. Pure vibrations. I chased into the middle and got a slap on the bull’s ass as it tore past. My friend grabbed onto its horns and tried to turn it. He failed. Two more bulls came and went. Each time the craziest of bastards would sit in front of the gate where the next bull would charge from and dodge it at the last minutes. I retired to the side of the ring and sat on the small wall to see the action. A bull was tearing in a circle around the edges, making everyone circle after it. Suddenly it turned and chased into the crowd around me. It caught me right in the chest, not with the horns, but with its massive head. I was sent sprawling backwards off the wall into another pile of bodies. The adrenalin made it painless and as we helped each other up we patted each other on the back and exchanged laughs. Half an hour later it was over and the crowds made their way outside. A few of the women stopped to have their photo taken with a madman who wore only a pair of Y-front pants (with run written across the ass). The half-mad fool. He smiled for those photos like he was the main show. Outside I met up with the others and we made off to the bus station for our departures and goodbyes, joining the throngs of other Pamplona zombies, sleep-deprived, half-drunk, half-mad, soaked in wine, with bodies aching and heads numbed.
They say that one day in Pamplona takes two days to recover. I was there for four days and I needed a week to get myself back together; so the advice it pretty much accurate. In the end I had no voice left, my head ached, my body was bruised, my stomach wouldn’t t accept good food and after sleeping for fourteen hours I was still tired. Yet this was the punishment for having a good time. I met friends I will most likely never see again, but would gladly travel half way around the world to visit. I had dropped to levels of excess that are only condoned in specific places and times; but for these four days I lived, and did not just exist; and in the decadence I saw the best of all generations who were similarly affirming their lives. But there was more to it than this. There was genuine human kindness. Despite the huge quantities of alcohol I saw no fights. The only altercation of the four days was between two pensioners arguing other a choice of song to play. Neither was there a hostile mood. Conversations could be started with anybody, at any time. It is the kind of place where you can meet and become friends with people from all five continents in a queue to get a sandwich or stood outside a bar with a bottle of beer. It is an experience that will stay with me my entire life, although in my mind I am already planning Sanfermín 2013. Cheers!