It was like stepping into my favorite novel.
My first breath of Pamplona, Spain air somehow forced every line of Hemingway’s delicate prose to rush back. The entire weekend I couldn’t help but feel like I was walking in his footsteps, completing some American rite of passage. Hemingway and his time in Spain are part of our collective national history. You either love or hate our famous expat/writer/playboy/alcoholic, but regardless, if you’ve read The Sun Also Rises, you know that the festival in Pamplona is not something to miss.
Luckily, I didn’t.
Picture this: an entire city bathed in white and red. Every person you meet donned in snow-white clothing with a popping red scarf. Everyone wearing the same uniform for nine days, but somehow retaining their individuality, creatively accessorizing within the strict guidelines of the festival’s color scheme.
And when you put it on yourself, you know you’ve made it. Walking out into the streets of Pamplona proudly following the dress code, I felt energized, like I was part of something much bigger than myself. I was part of the collective fiesta of Sanfermines.
Now, I come from Louisiana, so I have seen my fair share of city-wide debauchery and festivity with Mardi Gras, but Sanfermines was different. At Mardi Gras, everything is a spectacle: people flash each other in the street, attend the massive parades or make appearances at the glitzy, star-studded balls. At Sanfermines, people party all night long for nine nights, but no one is obnoxious. Everyone loves each other and plays nice. Ask anyone for a cigarette, a light, a drink from their goatskin of wine, or even the sweater off their back, and they will surely give it to you with a smile and not an ounce of disdain.
The festival is held every year from July 6th through the 14th and features many different events, everything from traditional Basque sports to the daily bullfights. But none is more famous—or perhaps infamous—than the encierro, the running of the bulls.
Every morning at precisely 8 o’clock, a rocket goes off, signaling the release of the bulls at the start of their 825-meter mad dash to the ring. Making their way through the city, the over-500kg beasts negotiate the hundreds of runners who take their lives in their hands to say they’ve “run with the bulls.”
Though I personally did not attempt the feat, I did have the unbelievable luck of getting a prime spot to watch it happen. After an entire night out, imbibing in the nonstop party of San Fermin, I climbed up to my seat on the spectator gates around six in the morning. Anxiously waiting, I was constantly checking my watch as I chatted with a friendly Spaniard who patiently taught me the delicate difference between the pronunciations of ‘todo’ (all, everything) and ‘toro’ (bull).
But suddenly, our conversation was interrupted by the sound of a rocket exploding in the distance. Sure enough, my watch read exactly 8 a.m. as I witnessed the suffocating hush that fell across the entire city. Slowly, we heard a frenzied gallop growing louder and louder as the excited bulls and corredores approached. In a blink of an eye, the entire procession was before me. Spectators were screaming enthusiastic cheers as their hearts leapt out of their chests, but in another instant, it was gone forever.
It is a funny thing to witness such a highly anticipated event, one that’s full of danger and anxiety, when it’s compacted into a mere two seconds. You are left feeling somewhat cheated, but somehow undeniably satisfied. I experienced a centuries old tradition, drenched in custom and repetition but still utterly unique, never to occur the same way again.
What I really enjoyed, though, were the moments just after the run. I slowly wandered back to my bed, lifting my head above the streets of Pamplona, the sun also rising…
I never knew why Hemingway titled his novel in this way until experiencing firsthand the comforting feeling of the early morning sun, brightening the fiesta-soaked city after hours of hazy bars and the clamor of nightlife. Everyone walks away from the run seeming confident, having achieved something whether they ran or not. No matter what, they were part of Sanfermines. They were part of a collective celebration that is truly unique in every way possible.
Walking home in the gentle light of the madrugada, I smiled, acknowledging the moment before doing it all again tomorrow.
~Carey Camel '17
© 2014 Princeton Traveler