Festival of San Fermín
‘At noon of Sunday July 6th the festival exploded, there is no other way to describe it.’ Hemingway’s description in The Sun Also Rises (published as Fiesta in Europe), captures the moment but hardly does justice to the build up.
The streets at the heart of the city are cordoned off to all but essential traffic – drink deliveries, street-sweepers, ambulances – as we join the tide of humanity flowing inexorably down cobbled streets with boarded-up windows, towards the Town Hall where the opening ceremony takes place.
The correct outfit for San Fermín is a white shirt, white trousers and a splash of red – a neckerchief, a sash – in memory of the blood spilt by the saint himself when he was beheaded, or, some say, killed by bulls, over a thousand years ago.
What seems to be absolutely obligatory is that you drink as much as possible and what you don1t drink you spray all over your friends. So bottles of cava, Spanish sparkling wine, are popular, as is a cheaper alternative called kalimotxo, a mixture of wine and Coca-Cola made to a simple recipe – buy a litre bottle of Coke, drink half and fill it up with wine.
From our camera position at a third-floor window we watch a group of young men and women, some in green plastic hospital gowns, rush into the square carrying a bucketful of booze, two large bags of flour and a stack of egg boxes. Now I know why half the balconies are shrouded in plastic sheeting. Within minutes flour and eggs are flying from all sides.
With half an hour still to go before midday, the crowd is glued together in one single, sticky mass, a pulsating human pancake, dancing, shouting and chanting on a carpet of slime and broken glass. A boy with short, spiky, peroxide blond hair leaps onto one of the columns on the town hall façade and, thrusting out his chest like a modern-day St Sebastian, screams at the crowd to throw things at him. Bottles of cava are shaken furiously and released in a thousand mini-orgasms as the crowd hysteria builds towards the one great unifying climax of the midday rocket.
It sounds like hell, but it is a hell of exuberance – a manic, but largely good-natured, yell of liberation. I’m just noting down this bon mot when there is a crack on the glass, followed by a roar of approval as a second egg whistles in, scoring a direct hit on our sound man.
At a minute or two before twelve, those cameras not disabled by edible missiles can send their viewers throughout Spain and the rest of the world pictures of the town officials, in braided frock coats and old-fashioned tricorn hats, stepping out on to the ornate Town Hall balcony to an immense reception.
‘San Fermín! San Fermín!’
Trumpeters step forward and blow a fanfare which no one can hear, after which, accompanied by one last cataclysmic bellow, the midday rocket goes up and eight and a half days of non-stop partying begins.
Below us the mass of people squeezed near to suffocation point begins to shift and break up as it spills out of the square and into the surrounding streets, which are full of sodden, egg- and flour-encrusted groups imploring those on the balconies above to tip buckets of water over them.
Up one side street is a drinking fountain with a central tower about fifteen feet high. This has been colonised by young Australians and New Zealanders who dare each other to climb up and throw themselves off. The only safety net between them and the pavement is the crowd itself.
By the time we get back to La Perla the Plaza del Castillo has been transformed. Young, unsteady people of all nations are swaying about. A flopped-out figure wakens to find his friends have tied his hands to the bench he’s been sleeping on. High-pressure water jets scour the space around the bandstand sending an arc of plastic and glass bottles scudding across the ground towards the circling garbage trucks.
I talk to two regular American visitors. Curly is tall with a stack of grey hair; his friend, who introduces himself, without irony, as John Macho, is short and stocky. As the rubbish swirls by behind them they declare themselves Pamplona addicts. They love the fiesta, the people, the bulls.
Most of them know somebody who has been hurt in the bull-run and Curly has had his leg broken. His injury, as with most others, was not caused by a bull but by someone trying to get out of the way of the bulls. A fifty-something man from Austin, Texas, offers me several reasons why this will be his fifth consecutive year on the bull-run, of which the most intriguing is: ‘It’s an aphrodisiac, Michael. Believe me.’
Believe him or not, I can’t help thinking Viagra would be a lot easier.
Whoever you speak to, the talk is all of the next high – the encierro (running of the bulls) which will begin tomorrow morning at eight o’clock sharp.
There is not much rest to be had in Pamplona tonight. Those who have run with the bulls before will try to sleep as best they can. Those who haven’t will, likely as not, have been awake most of the night saucing themselves up. Those of us who are here to film have to be getting into positions on the course by six o’clock. And the noise goes on. It’s like the night before battle.