On the horns of a dilemma

An Irishman’s Diary: Why the San Fermin festival is mad but addictive

 “The first thing you notice about Pamplona during the San Fermin festival is that everybody wears the uniform.”  Photograph: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

“The first thing you notice about Pamplona during the San Fermin festival is that everybody wears the uniform.” Photograph: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images


The first thing you notice about Pamplona during the San Fermin festival is that everybody wears the uniform. Not the full thing, with its white trousers and red sash around the waist; only locals and a few hardcore tourists go for that.

But a white T-shirt and red neck-scarf are de rigeur. And with every shop in town selling cheap versions, the herd instinct soon impels you to blend in.

The second thing you notice is the festival’s crazed energy. Even in the early afternoon, when we arrived off a bus from San Sebastian, there was no sign of a siesta, except for the odd reveller sleeping off his debauches on a bench. It probably was a lull in festivities, all things being relative. It’s just that the lulls at San Fermin would qualify as highs anywhere else.

Somehow I had expected the event to be a pale or corporatised shadow of the thing described by Hemingway in 1925 when, as he wrote, it “exploded” at noon on the opening Sunday and continued in a frenzy for seven days and nights.

But notwithstanding Pamplona’s gratitude to the writer, expressed by among other things an ugly statue outside the bullring, the festival was around for centuries before he discovered it and seems to have absorbed the global fame of The Sun Also Rises with no ill-effects.

I didn’t run with the bulls during my visit, for reasons ranging from the vaguely ethical to a suspicion that such activity wasn’t covered by my travel insurance.

Besides, I was en famille: making a day-long detour on a Basque Country holiday.

By the time we arrived, the bulls had already done their running (it happens at 8am). We would be safely out of town when the sun rose on another stampede.

But I can’t swear that if we’d hung around long enough, I wouldn’t have been tempted. The madness gets to you, I suspect. And on replays of that morning’s encierro, shown repeatedly on televisions around town, I couldn’t help noticing that the bulls didn’t look very fast.

With the help of adrenalin, you’d be almost guaranteed a personal best for the course distance – about 800 metres. That ought to keep you comfortably clear of any horns.

The problem, however, is that you’re expected to run with the bulls, not from them. The bewildered animals just canter in straight lines, mostly, showing no interest in the eejits around them. But ideally, they should have a sporting chance of injuring you, if they take the notion. It’s considered bad form to be completely out of reach.

Maybe, if I was tempted, I’d be too troubled by the ultimate fate of the poor creatures to want to add to their stress levels. I didn’t attend the day’s actual bullfight either, but you could watch it live in the bars around town. And although fascinating, it wasn’t pleasant. Even with Hemingway’s ghost doing commentary, I struggled to see the event’s beauty.

There is more to San Fermin than bulls, in any case. The festival is a religious event too. It’s also a celebration of Basque culture and food. There are bands – brass usually – parading everywhere you look. And of course there are epic feats of drinking.

I say this as an Irish person, with due apologies. But having seen the bullfight fans preparing industrial quantities of Sangria on the way into the ring – pouring bottles of wine, brandy and fruit juice into five-gallon plastic buckets – I feel a little less worried about Ireland’s relationship with drink.

The noise is unrelenting during San Fermin. So even assuming you could get a hotel room locally, sleep must be difficult. For that reason, at least, it was a relief to get out of town again on a late bus and retreat across the mountains to San Sebastian.

Against which, in the days afterwards, I found myself devouring the Diario de Navarra for its daily festival coverage. The 24-page supplement usually led with the bull-run, especially if there were picturesque injuries, of which there were several.

Indeed, the closing weekend made for a bumper pictorial edition, thanks to a pile-up in which more than 30 people were hurt. The paper had many photographs of survivors, usually smiling from stretchers or hospital beds. At least one was female.

The festival is, by the standards applicable elsewhere, insane. Even so, having at last seen it in person, if only for a few hours, I almost understand. I’ve been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt (plus neck-scarf). Now I have a strange longing to go back.

fmcnally @irishtimes.com

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