San Fermines Part 2: Post Run Celebrations

August 1, 2011

After the bull run, we gathered our belongings and made the short descent down the apartment stairs to the main street. Right before the run, Carlos had mentioned the apartment across the way was owned by a Tour de France winner who had bought the place only to enjoy the San Fermines festival. We exited onto the freshly washed street and headed toward the bull release point. As we walked down the cobbled stone, I noticed the short distance of the run (825 meters).  That we had viewed the event from a second floor was a privilege and an honor.

After visiting the now-empty corral where the bulls had slept the night before, we headed to a “casino” where we partook of a traditional post-run breakfast of hot chocolate with churros. The “cocoa” which our host grumbled was not hot (and it wasn’t) was nonetheless delicious. Just imagine drinking smooth liquid milk chocolate, accompanied with a doughy cinnamon stick. Carlos told us that a firmer stick was more traditional, but I was happy with the soft form.

Next we entered a giant room where a band played traditional music. Everyone joined a chain by placing hands upon the shoulders of those in front of them. Soon we left the room in a caterpillar formation, only to circle back inside. Later, a mix of other songs had our toes tapping and hips swinging. Though I couldn’t understand the verses, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, particularly one silly song, much like the “chicken dance” here in the States, except the dancers imitated the playing of various instruments like the flute and the violin.

From here, we hit the street to enjoy a tradition begun in the 16th century – the parade of “gigantes.” These giant characters are a source of amusement (and sometimes great fear for the children). These characatures represent authorities that carry a stick and a sponge. The idea is for the child to run up and tag the character while calling out for the giant to use the sponge for punishment.

Our meanderings then lead us to a two-man magic act. My daughter, Lindsay, got asked to assist on a card trick. Later, our host, Carlos became the helper on another act. We happily doled out coins for the show and moved on.

All around us, people played drums and live bands performed. Despite heavy drinking and smoking, everyone seemed to get along. We stopped for a snack off and on, visited the old and new city sections, popped into shops to buy souvenirs, and navigated crowds. When we visited Carlos’ friend’s tavern, the man who had arranged our balcony space with another woman restaurant owner, several “politicos” arrived and we ate tapas in their midst.

Lunch in Spain is typically the main meal of the day. Carlos had darted into restaurants periodically throughout the morning to find a place that could accommodate our party of seven around that time with no luck. At around 1:45 pm, he led us to an Italian restaurant. He whispered something in the greeter’s ear and in moments our party was seated at a large table.

The food was fabulous. Later, he admitted that he had name-dropped to secure our table. He had told the greeter that his friend’s “politicos” had indicated that this Italian place was the best restaurant in town and that Carlos should take his American guests here. Hence, the available table.

After a long, leisurely lunch, Carlos escorted us to the area where the “clubs” gather to parade into the bull ring. A giant procession of strangely clad groups navigated the narrow streets. Each group had a signature. Some dressed like Egyptians, others wore big yellow hats reminiscent of Philly cheeseheads. As we stood watching, I told Carlos how disappointed I was in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I had no clue that San Fermines was so much more than a bull run. Then, Carlos exclaimed and hugged another spectator that was passing by. A flurry of Spanish and cheek-kissing ensued between Carlos and his family and this elder gentleman. Then he turned to me and introduced me to his uncle – a man who had on occasion sat and smoked and conversed with none other than Hemingway. I would have liked to ask the gentleman questions about the famous author, but between the language barrier and the obvious joyous interchange going on within the family, I chose not to intrude. Watching this impromptu family reunion seemed a fitting end to a day that had been rich in timeless Spanish culture and tradition.

San Fermines Part 1: Bull Run

July 16, 2011

There are days and there are days. The birth of a child, the death of a loved one, and the day I watched a Pamplona bull run. By the end of this day, I would have witnessed a unique culture and have met a man that sat with and smoked a pipe with Ernest Hemingway.

The running of the bulls was not what I had envisioned, which is not to say it wasn’t exciting. We arose at 4:45 a.m. and traveled from Gexto to Pamplona. It was necessary to arrive by 7:00 a.m. because the police begin to clear the streets for the run and we would not have been able to get to our balcony.

I had seen the run before on television. The first surprise was that everyone, and I mean everyone in town, not just the runners, wear white shirts and pants, a red belt and red bandana. Despite the early hour, hundreds of people hovered around the streets, many of them drunk. What you don’t experience on the television is the smell and the trash. So many clear, disposable cups, beer and wine bottles, that at times, it was difficult not to step in the narrow streets without the crunch of plastic. Also, the cobbled roads were wet. Not from rain, but from spilled fluids. The stench of spilled alcohol, vomit, and public urination filled the air in some areas. The bottoms of our shoes threatened to stick to the crusty ground as we meandered through the town. Our host, Carlos, had warned us that because we were attending on a Saturday, the crowd and their leavings would be particularly bad.

Carlos had been gored by a bull during the run back in 1986 and had spent three months recuperating. He said, even today, the hair on his arms stands at attention prior to the bull run. I could feel a mix of anticipation and fear crackling in the air as we drew closer to the route of the bull run.

We were fortunate that Carlos had arranged for a balcony view along the main street of the bull run. The street was at an intersection where doctors would eventually be stationed. Carlos shuttled us to the second floor of an apartment building. As we settled into our viewing area, the preparations below were already in progress.

First, the regional police wearing red caps began herding the crowd of men and women, reluctant to abandon their partying, toward a central cross street. Gates closed behind the group as a mass of white-cloaked people adorned with red belts moved in our direction. Once this section of the street was cleared, the local police, clad in green vests, collected the party-goers at the opposite end of the narrow street.

Meanwhile, a street sweeper with large brushes proceeded up and down the area, cleaning up cans and plastic cups. Manual collection of the larger beer and wine bottles soon commenced. Despite the volume of trash and extent of the spilled liquids, the cleaning process took only about 30 minutes.

Next, the town mayor walked the established route of the bulls and runners to determine whether the street was satisfactorily clean. A line of police then formed to allow the runners stuck at the far end of the route to have access to the area in front of the bull pen. When all was ready, the runners chanted to the statue of Saint Fermines three times, a fireworks crackled and a minute or so later the first runners appeared on our street.

I craned my neck looking for the bulls in the distance because I had expected a gap between the six bulls and the runners, but the animals were centrally-located, surrounded by a sea of white-clothed humans. In a matter of seconds, the animals had passed underneath us. Then, further up the street one of the bulls slipped and fell scattering the human participants like a flock of startled chickens. It regained its footing and the bulls disappeared from sight, where the would enter a ring for the bull fight.

I had thought the show was over, but San Fermines is much more than matadors and bulls. Part 2 of my will cover the post-run festivities.