Thursday, June 25, 2015

In Pamplona, they party like it's 1591

A poster from the 1929 Festival of San Fermin.
From the Toronto Star, October 27, 1923 -- "In Pamplona, a white-walled, sun baked town high up in the hills of Navarre, is held in the first two weeks of July each year the World’s Series of bull fighting. Bull fight fans from all Spain jam into the little town. Hotels double their prices and fill every room. The cafés under the wide arcades that run around the Plaza de la Constitución have every table crowded...As far as I know we were the only English speaking people in Pamplona during the Feria..."

This was Ernest Hemingway's first trip to Pamplona, and it provided some of the material for his 1926 novel, "The Sun Also Rises." Today the top bullfighters still come, but now there are mobs of English speakers.

We are just a few days away from the start of the annual nine-day Festival of San Fermin, collectively referred to as the sanfermines, which is a combination of commercial fair, showcase of Spain's top bullfighters, and international debauch whose most memorable images are of people in red kerchiefs running down medieval streets chased by a stampede of bulls.

Hemingway was a latecomer. The earliest mention of bullfighting as part of the sanfermines was in the 14th century, and the festival was moved to its current dates in 1591 in order to coincide with the annual agricultural fair and thus produce more traffic for merchants. (The most comprehensive information about the festival is in Wikipedia, which has links to many historical references.) 

Some facts and figures

  • The running of the bulls actually occurs eight times during the festival, each morning at 8am, from July 7 through July 14. 
  • What we call "the running" in English, is called the encierro, or enclosure, in Spanish, because the bulls are kept within wooden fencing and narrow streets as they are herded up from their corral by the river to the bullring, 825 meters (a half-mile) away. (From
  • The first bull ring was built in 1844. The current one opened in 1922 with 13,600 seats and was expanded in 1966 to just under 20,000 seats. It was brand new when Hemingway first went there. 
  • A search for ticket prices yields ambiguous information. 90% of the tickets are unavailable to the public. They are owned by members of clubs and are passed down through families. Each day of the festival, the other 10% go on sale and are snapped up by scalpers. The face value of tickets is evidently about 20-40 euros and foreigners often pay 100 to 200 euros for a seat. Proceeds of the event go to the House of Mercy, a charitable organization. 
  • Hotel occupancy during the sanfermines this year is expected to be  70-72% in the city's 17 hotels. The city has a total of 4,500 hotel rooms and hostels, according to a local daily newspaper. Many others stay in nearby cities and take trains or buses into the city of 250,000.
  • None of the newspapers quoted room rates, but I am told that a typical room that usually costs 75 euros a night will cost about four or five times more, 350-400 euros. The hotels closest to the historic center and bathed in the Hemingway mystique might get 1,000 euros. 
  • Our landlord informed us in January that our rent would be 15 times more per night during the sanfermines, 350 euros a nightso we decided to leave two days before and get a room in Madrid. He and other private apartment owners are giving a lot of competition to the hotels. If you want to get a cheaper room, book the middle days of the festival -- July 9-12, for example. There is less demand. 
  • Americans, Japanese, and French are the most numerous foreign visitors during the festival. The hotel Ciudad de Pamplona said 95% of its guests were Americans.
The sanfermines have been an excuse for partying and getting drunk for centuries. 

"All night long the wild music kept up in the street below. Several times in the night there was a wild roll of drumming, and I got out of bed and across the tiled floor to the balcony . But it was always the same. Men, blue-shirted, bareheaded, whirling and floating in a wild fantastic dance down the streets behind the rolling drums and shrill fifes." Hemingway, in the Toronto Star.
Since 1910, 15 people have been killed in the encierro. In 2011, the local government began keeping statistics on the number of people who actually run with the bulls. In 2014, 17,126 people participated over the eight days (many of them participate within the bull ring itself), of whom 56% were foreigners. Twelve runners were injured. 

Hemingway and his wife watched the encierro from inside the bullring, where 20,000 people had gathered:

"Then down the narrow fenced runway came a crowd of men and boys running. Running as hard as they could go. The gate feeding into the bull ring was opened and they all ran pell mell under the entrance levels into the ring. Then there came another crowd. Running even harder. Straight up the long pen from town. 'Where are the bulls?' asked Herself (his wife). Then they came in sight. Eight bulls galloping along, full tilt, heavy set, black, glistening, sinister, their horns bare, tossing their heads. And running with them three steers with bells on their necks. They ran in a solid mass, and ahead of them sprinted, tore, ran and bolted the rear guard of men and boys of Pamplona who had allowed themselves to be chased through the streets for a morning’s pleasure."

Over the last two weeks or so, we have seen lots of metal fences being erected around public gardens and green spaces near the center of town. This is protection from the mobs of people. 
Hemingway still hangs out at Cafe Iruña in Pamplona.

Lots of people I know leave town during the sanfermines.  Too much noise, too much traffic. Too many drunks, both foreign and Spanish. 

Hemingway has a lot to do with this. His novel and his nonfiction work about bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, created an American audience for the spectacle. A large bust of the writer stands outside the bullring (left), and the inscription thanks him for celebrating the festival and making it world famous. 

We will watch what we can on television from our rented room in Madrid.

All the Hemingway quotes are from his article in the Toronto Star, reprinted in The Sun Also Rises: The Hemingway Library Edition. Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Ban of the bulls in Pamplona?

Update: Several leftist and populist parties acquired more political power here in Navarra in the May elections for local government positions. One of the parties, Podemos, is 100% against bullfighting. Catalonia, home of Barcelona, has already banned bullfighting, leaving two big arenas empty. My local friends believe that the leftists would like to impose a ban, but they believe there would be too much local opposition. 


20,000-year-old cave art and the north coast of Spain
Barcelona's art and architecture make it a favorite
Cordoba's main attraction: mix of Jewish, Moorish, Christian cultures  
Basque language has mysterious origins 
Andalusia has different flavor from rest of Spain  
Tapas or pinchos are our favorite foods in Spain  
Pilgrims still come to honor St. James in Santiago de Compostela  
We didn't run into a lot of Americans in Spain 

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