Inside the San Fermín Festival in Pamplona

There’s a lot more to the San Fermín festival than the running of the bulls. In Pamplona, a skeptic learns what it’s really like to attend the biggest summer fiesta in Basque country.

Inside the San Fermín Festival in Pamplona

The Fiesta de San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain, is famous for its controversial bull-running tradition.

Photos by Markel Redondo

I went to Pamplona with dread in my heart. This dread was not born of an aversion to the mistreatment of bulls, although I am averse to it, and thoroughly so. Nor do I have anything against Hemingway. No, my dread was deeper, a knowledge hard earned by years of living among Spaniards. I love many things about my adopted country, but I have never embraced the profound affinity Spaniards feel for those citywide celebrations that, although ostensibly held for the purposes of parading around religious statues or commemorating long-ago battles, inevitably devolve into drinking, shouting, and crowding into spaces too small to contain them. Like African grasshoppers, Spaniards are nice enough on their own, but bring them into close contact with others of their kind, and the buzzing of limbs turns them into a swarm of locusts.

As every Spaniard knows, Pamplona’s San Fermín is the biggest, most orgiastic swarm of all. A citywide fiesta that starts on July 6 and ends eight exhausting days later, it is best known for its running of the bulls. But that event, which lasts just three minutes, leaves another 1,437 minutes each day for the pamploneses to fill with dancing, drinking, parades, competitions, and the occasional religious procession. “We’re actually the most conservative, most repressed people in Spain,” a friend from Pamplona said. “And then once a year we let it all out. Really out.”

Exactly what I didn’t want. And yet, there was something in the way the Spanish talk about San Fermín that left me wondering. Even sober-minded friends would crack a faint, mysterious smile when they recalled their time there. Could there be more to the fiesta than I suspected? I left my home in Madrid and went to Pamplona to find out.

San Fermín’s eight days of events were central to the plot of “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway.

San Fermín’s eight days of events were central to the plot of “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway.

Photo by Markel Redondo

I arrived the night before the festivities began, on a train that did nothing to allay my fears. It was packed, and even the attendants, sporting jaunty red scarves over their sedate suits, seemed barely able to contain their excitement. As my taxi moved through the streets, the city was quiet but tautly alert. The driver pointed out sites with a predictive gloom. “See that street?” he said. “Tomorrow you won’t be able to walk down it.” He shook his head forlornly. “That fountain? Full of vomit.”

My panic grew the next morning, when I realized I had nothing to wear. I had known that San Fermín involved a dress code—all white, with a red sash and kerchief—but I had willfully refused to believe everyone went along with it. All white, every day, for eight days? Who has that much bleach? Yet everywhere I looked I saw white shirts and pants. I hurried to the local department store, where I was gratified to find a special San Fermín section, decimated but with enough remnants to outfit myself. I pulled the sash extra tight and assumed it would do the job of keeping my new pants up.

The chupinazo, a noon fireworks ceremony that starts the festivities, was less than two hours away, and I had heard the best place to see it was the tiny square in front of City Hall. I hurried to the tourist office for directions. A cheerful woman named María took a slow look at me. “You’re thinking of going to the square?” Her eyes ran down my length, narrowing ever so slightly at my ill-fitting pants. “Oh no,” she said carefully. “I wouldn’t recommend that.”

What would Hemingway do? I ignored her and headed to the plaza. It was 11 a.m., and already my shoes were sticking to streets coated in spilled cocktails. Someone tossed a mix of red wine and flour into the air and I barely escaped the downpour, which left a couple of revelers looking like unfried mozzarella sticks. I tried to make my way through the crowd, but it was hard to breathe. Hemingway, I decided, would adjourn to the bar.

As I walked through the city, the mix of beer, wine, and I’d-rather-not-think-about-it that stuck to my shoes grew stickier.

I retreated to the Plaza del Castillo a couple of blocks away, grabbed an outdoor table at Café Iruña, and watched the chupinazo on the large screen the city had erected in the square. In the minutes before it began, everyone around me unwrapped their bandanas from their wrists and held them aloft, forming an expectant, low-hanging sea of red triangles. I considered joining them, but before I could, a rocket went off and cries of “¡Viva San Fermín!” erupted.

Whoa. In that moment, what had previously been a lively party turned into a roiling bacchanal that would not have been out of place in one of those Hieronymus Bosch paintings that depict every conceivable act of hedonism.

The sea of red scarves first shimmied, then undulated wildly as the great mass flailed in ecstasy and broke out in singing and dancing, shouting appeals to people on balconies to douse those below with water. I made my way through the crowds over to the main boulevard, where three and four generations of family plopped themselves on the sidewalk for spontaneous picnics. Charming, I thought. Then a woman passing by lifted her skirt and squatted to pee in the street. As I walked through the city, the mix of beer, wine, and I’d-rather-not-think-about-it that stuck to my shoes grew stickier. At 2 p.m., a mere two hours after the official start, I saw a group of young men struggle to get their buddy into a cab, stopping only to allow him to vomit out the door. At 4 p.m., in broad daylight, a couple sat on the curb and had sex. After that, I lost track of time.

At first glance, San Fermín was exactly what I’d feared. But I forced myself to remember those wistful smiles I’d seen on my friends. Something else had to be going on here.

Tradition says festival-goers should only wear their red San Fermín scarves during the duration of the festival.

Tradition says festival-goers should only wear their red San Fermín scarves during the duration of the festival.

Photo by Markel Redondo

I got my first inkling later that day. I went to the encierrillo, which is the walk the bulls take from stables just outside the city walls to the corral in the center of Pamplona where they begin the run the next morning. Because it is conducted at dusk, and in silence, the encierrillo looms almost mythically in the Pamplona imagination, an event freighted with solemn beauty. I shared fence space with Iñigo, age 9, and Paco, 6, who seemed to be channeling Hemingway as the bulls walked past.

“This is their last night on earth,” Iñigo said to his younger cousin.

Paco turned to him with alarm. “What do you mean, ‘last night’?”

“Tomorrow they’re going to be killed.”


“Yeah, in the ring. With a sword to the back, and everyone watching.”

“Do you think it’s worse than dying alone?” asked young Paco.

“Well,” replied Iñigo thoughtfully. “It’s sad. Yes, it’s very sad.”

The next morning, I went to church. Believe it or not, San Fermín originated as a religious celebration honoring a third-century saint—that would be Fermín—who was born in Pamplona and later martyred for his insistence on preaching the Gospel. The San Lorenzo chapel guards his relics, and on July 7, his feast day and the first full day of the festival, his image is taken out in procession.

Something about the sheer joy of an entire community getting their freak on at 8:30 in the morning was irresistible.

Before Saint Fermín can go out, he has to be dressed in bejeweled finery. That job falls to the parish priest, Santos, whom I found behind the altar the morning of the procession. Having placed Fermín’s emerald-encrusted mitre on his head, Santos was handing out lollipops to local kids. He stopped to grab me by the neck. “The point goes in front,” he said, turning my scarf around. “To symbolize the blood spilled when they cut off San Fermín’s head.”

A young-looking 60, Santos had headed the parish for only two years, and he confessed to a bit of nervousness as the big moment approached. I asked him what it was like trying to hold a religious ceremony in the midst of all this pagan revelry. He smiled as if he didn’t understand the question.

I tried again. “Doesn’t all this drinking and dancing interfere with the religious significance of San Fermín?”

“Not at all,” he beamed. “We humans are like that, believing and unbelieving at the same time.”

Then he winked. “Besides, a glass of wine can be very religious.”

He had a point. In Pamplona, I noticed a similarity between the fervor of those who thrust a white handkerchief through the scrum of faithful to try to touch the saint’s foot, and those who fought their way to the bar for another round of kalimotxo—a blend of red wine and Coke. I saw fervor early each morning when crowds shuffled upstairs into the Casino, the grand club where the elite gather to gossip and smoke cigars. On the morning I visited, there was coffee and chocolate, but the gin-and-tonics seemed just as popular and were, in any case, more conducive to dancing. A band—a bad band, it must be said—belted out pop songs and encouraged everyone into a line dance that involved much shaking of rears. People of all ages, from the señoras in sensible heels to the thirty-something husbands who sucked in their stomachs every time a teenage girl passed, lined up with unselfconscious glee to bunny hop around the ornate salon. It felt like a bar mitzvah, and although those usually find me on the sidelines of the dance floor clutching a cocktail, something about the sheer joy of an entire community getting their freak on at 8:30 in the morning was irresistible. When an elderly man tried to pull me into a conga line, I let him.

There was fervor, too, in the journeyman’s dedication with which chef Jesús Mari Ansá and his family turned out fried tapas at Bar Gaucho. San Fermín is the county fair of Spanish cuisine: Anything that can be fried, is. Other bars specialize in fried mussels or fried hard-boiled eggs, but Bar Gaucho is known for its fried Roquefort with red pepper, and Ansá enters his sofa-size kitchen each morning of the fiesta at 5:30 to begin preparing the gooey morsels. The rest of the year, he is known for his refined tapas—imaginative bites like smoked eel with tomato gelée. But during San Fermín, he is guided by less artistic concerns. “You need to lay a good foundation to soak up all the alcohol,” he said.

Every city in Spain has a festival and nearly all include bullfights. What distinguishes Pamplona’s is not just the fact of the bull-running but the function it serves.

San Fermín is full of these rituals, less famous but more delightful. There are the guys who heft rocks and pull logs in a kind of Basque strongman competition, and the four generations of women at La Mañueta café who snip huge coils of churros into sticks for the long lines that form at 6 a.m. Also on hand at that hour every morning is the city band, which marches through town, trumpets and tubas blaring, to roust the few citizens who have somehow managed to sleep. Late in the festival, a different musical group called the Struendo plays pots and pans to revive everyone’s spirits with a midnight jamboree.

During the rest of the fiesta, the Struendo spends its afternoons bringing a snack to the back door of the bullring. There, while fat picadors on horseback wait nervously for their turn in the spotlight, the Struendo members serve beef stew to the bullring workers. Spooning meat into his mouth, the Struendo’s founder glanced at the carcass of a recently speared bull being hauled into a refrigerator truck, and explained, “It’s our way of giving back.”

One day, just before lunch, I rounded a corner and ran straight into a massive head: the parade of Giants and Big Heads that takes place every morning. The Giants are four pairs of elegant, 13-foot-plus papier-mâché figures resembling mythical kings and queens, that, mounted on actual humans, move with a solemnity befitting nobility. But the Big Heads are grotesquely comical, and they are accompanied by kilikis—men dressed in oversized masks to resemble life-size bobbleheads—who go about thwopping bystanders with Nerf balls. This is intensely amusing to the children, who can identify each kiliki the way American kids know Bert and Ernie. One girl taunted a grouchy kiliki named Vinegar Face. It was so adorable I hardly noticed when the cigarette of the inebriated person next to me scorched my hand. As I turned to glare at the culprit, he took a Nerf ball to the head. Almost against my will, I found myself laughing.

The Giants and Big Heads parade comprises papier-mâché figures that resemble mythical kings and queens.

The Giants and Big Heads parade comprises papier-mâché figures that resemble mythical kings and queens.

Photo by Markel Redondo

It would be impossible to keep track of time during San Fermín if it weren’t for two events that stand fixed in the day. One of them is the bullfight, held daily at 6:30 p.m. The other is the encierro, or running of the bulls, which starts at precisely 8 a.m.

The two are closely related, since the encierro was born of the simple necessity to get the beasts to the bullring. But what should have been a utilitarian activity became much more interesting when some creative locals decided to throw themselves in front of the animals. Hemingway happened upon it in 1923 and, via a little novel he wrote on the subject called The Sun Also Rises, turned it from a quaint local custom to one of those things middle-aged American men put on their bucket lists.

What to make of the running of the bulls? The easy machismo earned at the cost of animals who seem plainly terrified disturbed me. But I could also feel the adrenaline, and the strange pleasure that comes from gathering at dawn with thousands of others to witness something so communal and so deeply rooted.

Maybe that explains why Juanpe Lekuona returned to the encierro. The year before, the 39-year-old had been badly gored. But the morning I met him, he and his buddies had just reached the bullring and were comparing times. All of them are divinos—regular runners who stay as close to the stampeding bulls as they can. They are both celebrated for their bravery and reviled for their hot-doggery. When I ran into Juanpe the next day, he pointed out that he had made the front page of the local paper. But that, he said, had nothing to do with why he had run each of the past 23 years. “At first, it’s like a religion,” he said. “Then it’s a calling. Finally, it becomes an addiction.”

As the week went on, I became exhilarated with each new discovery—the sight of old men selling braids of garlic; the puckery effervescence of the champagne and lemon sorbet slushie that is one gastronomic club’s San Fermín special. And by July 14, a lot of the tourists had left, so the city felt as though it had been returned to its proper owners. There was a relaxed, almost familial, happiness.

A peña sees the bullfight less as a competition between man and bull than as a contest among peñas over who can throw the best party.

On that last day, however, the dread returned. I had a date to attend the bullfight. I have been to many bullfights and, thanks to one or two really good ones, understand why many Spaniards consider them artistic and thrilling. But I could never get around the recognition that bullfights are also base torture.

I was going with the peña La Jarana, one of the social clubs to which pamploneses devote a loyalty rarely seen outside Mafia families. The peña is the basic social unit—the people with whom you share your Sunday aperitivo and your annual soccer tournament—but San Fermín is its true reason for being. A peña sees the bullfight less as a competition between man and bull than as a contest among peñas over who can throw the best party. It was suggested that I might want to wear protective gear.

My guide to this maelstrom of gaiety was Patxi Jiménez. Stocky and a bit severe, he pulled me through the cheaper sol seats where the peñas congregate until he found enough room on a concrete bench for us both. At first he answered my questions brusquely. Yes, La Jarana has a lot of members—nearly 300 adults. Yes, we wear blue scarves instead of red, to distinguish ourselves.

Around this time, someone had replaced my beer with a plastic cup of sparkling wine. I had taken only a few sips when Patxi took it out of my hand. “Have some cider,” he said, filling a new container. I ducked when someone in the crowd tossed a cup of wine in the air. “Oh, do you want some of that?” Patxi asked, handing me yet another cup. Soon, a midbullfight picnic had begun. Each peña member supplied a specialty: Iosu shared some stewed red beans, Carlos the salt-cod puree ajoarriero, Mariví a stew called menudicos made from lamb’s feet and stomach.

For dessert we had fried custard and chocolates, plus Bailey’s. As the whole peña got to its feet, singing loudly, Patxi put his arm around me. I did the same with the man on my left, and together we swayed to the music. By now, Patxi had opened up. He told me he was born just 50 meters from the bullring; then he threw an ice cream sandwich at me. Mariví took off her blue scarf and tied it around my neck. No one paid the slightest attention to the bulls.

When it was over, we escaped through the bullfighters’ entrance. There was the Struendo, cleaning up from that afternoon’s charity stew. There too was the divino Juanpe, moonlighting as one of the guys who pull the dead bulls off the sand. I asked him why he did it. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I just love animals.”

Spain’s San Fermín festival attracts approximately 1 million visitors each year between July 6 and 14.

Spain’s San Fermín festival attracts approximately 1 million visitors each year between July 6 and 14.

Photo by Markel Redondo

After the bullfight, I went with La Jarana from bar to bar. I ate lomo (pork tenderloin) sandwiches with them on the steps of the cathedral and stopped in with them to visit Mariví’s daughter, who was tending bar. Scarfing down tapas of ham, egg, and cheese—fried, of course—we swore undying friendship. Before I knew it, it was midnight.

We crowded into the square in front of City Hall. I snagged a spot on a balcony where I could look down on the crowd. I spied Santos, the priest, and Juanpe, the divino, and Jesús Mari Ansá, the tapas master. My two young philosophers, Iñigo and Paco, were there. And there, too, wearing their distinctive blue bandanas, was my peña.

Looking at all of them as the fiesta drew to a close, I realized that San Fermín made a certain kind of profound sense. Every city in Spain has a festival and nearly all include bullfights. What distinguishes Pamplona’s is not just the fact of the bull-running but the function it serves. The encierro provides structure. It gives the community, normally so straightlaced, an excuse to come together and let loose. It’s the reason to crowd into the Casino at 8:30 a.m. (you’re up anyway, you may as well line dance) and to eat all that fried food (since you’re up, you may as well drink, and you’ll need something to sop it up). It’s the reason to stay up all night, since the encierro is only a few hours away.

But its function is not purely temporal. It took me until the last day, but I finally realized Hemingway was right: The encierro is what gives San Fermín its weight. Together with the bullfight, it’s a reminder that even in the midst of revelry, there is always the threat of death—not just for the bull, or even the matador, but for all those who run in front of the beasts or love people who do. The shadow is there for the whole community, and if Pamplona is unrivaled in its ability to let loose, it is because it feels both joy and its absence so collectively. Other Spanish fiestas have their competitions and their social clubs, their bacchanals and their wacky rituals. But only Pamplona has this reminder, never more than a few hours away, of what holds a community together.

As the mayor stepped onto the balcony of City Hall, I smiled to myself, and at that moment, I bet my expression wasn’t very different from that of my reminiscing friends back in Madrid. Everyone untied their kerchiefs from their necks and again held them aloft. Together, we broke into the traditional song that signals the end of San Fermín. Poor me, poor me, San Fermín is over. We sang the same ridiculous line some 300 times or so, until even I believed they were the most poignant lyrics ever written.

When it was all finally done, I walked back to my hotel, only to find the entrance blocked by a small band playing rumbas. It was after 1 a.m., but a group of elderly couples, middle-aged adults, and young children was still dancing, as if willing the band to keep playing. It was happy, and sad, and none of us wanted it to end.

>>Next: A Survival Guide to Spain’s San Fermín Festival

Lisa Abend is a journalist based in Madrid and the author of The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià's elBulli. She is also a contributing writer at Afar and correspondent for Time magazine.
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