Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Running of the Bulls

As Ernest Hemingway says in 'The Sun Also Rises', ''Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters.'' Although bullfighters, do live an exciting life, I won't say mine is half bad - especially since I got to go to Pamplona last week and see something I have always wanted to see - the Running of the Bulls. For hundreds of years people have been gathering in Pamplona to celebrate this fiesta, and now more than 1 million enthusiasts come from not only Spain, but all over the world.

In the 1400s, Pamplona began having summer commercial markets. Sellers brought their goods from far and wide, so it's not surprising that cattle farmers pulled their cattle along to the market too. From here, bullfighting became part of these summer markets.

The religious side of the festival - honoring Saint Fermin - was celebrated since he became Pamplona's first bishop in the 3rd century. In 303 he was beheaded on a preaching trip, and soon after became the patron saint for Navarra - the Spanish region that Pamplona is in. Some people confuse his death with a much more exciting and Running of the Bulls style death - where Saturnin, his mentor, was killed by being dragged through Pamplona's streets by bulls.

All of this talk of being killed by bulls is of course exactly what we didn't want to see when we set off at 5am on Friday morning. With this early alarm clock call we were able to get to Pamplona at 6am and start looking for a spot to watch the Bull Running. The combination of the summer commerical markets, bullfighting and celebration of Saint Fermin were finally combined on 1591 to be celebrated starting July 7th - as it is now.

The festival offically starts with the chupinazo at noon on July 6th with the sound of a firecracker from city hall overlooking a huge sea of white-dressed people. With their red scarves in hand, as soon as the firecracker goes off the scarves are tied around everyone's necks and are only supposed to remain there to honor San Fermin until the end of his festival. Buying a scarf was first on our priority list after we arrived.

Next was seeing the encierro - the actually running. Each day of the festival 6 bulls run down a 1/2 mile stretch of road through the Old Part of Pamplona. At 8am on the dot a firecracker goes off, signalling the first bull has left the cage. When the last bull has left the cage another firecracker goes off and then the running begins. Old men, young guys and even some girls all clad in worn-in tennis shoes run for their lives as the bulls race down the narrow corridor that is blocked off by wooden barriers. Normally the run only lasts for about 2 minutes, except in the case when a bull turns around and starts running back the wrong way as it did when we were watching it. We were standing right on a corner and after everyone had rounded the corner, all of a sudden they came screaming back, jumping through the wooden barrier to the safe area. In the end no one got hurt, but as the 2 ton bulls whizzed past, I was just happy that I didn't run. I mean, maybe someday, but I will probably need to work out a strategy or something first - although I am sure the only and best game plan is don't fall and don't die. It seemed to be other people's idea, becuase as the bulls neared people were jumping through the wooden barrier to safety like they were jumping from the Titanic! From our spot it just seemed like a quick blur of action - a mix of white, red and some brown bulls mixed in. I managed to snap some photos, but you can't see much. I guess in my mind I would capture shots like you would see on a newspaper cover, but that was not the case - so I hope you're not too disappointed with the photos!

After racing through the streets, the Running finishes in the Bullring - Plaza de Toros. When all 6 bulls are in the bull ring yet another firecracker signals it, and last but not least the 4th firecracker signals all the bulls are in their pens, where they will remain until 6:30pm when the bull fights start and eventually each will die. With the morning event over, we headed to get some much-craved breakfast and basically directly after our morning café con leche, headed to the car to get the beers, because not only is San Fermin bullfights, but an all-day party in the streets.

Cervezas in hand at 9:30am we headed back to the city center to check out the many events going on throughout the day to celebrate the fiesta. We started by walking through the park, where many people sleep after the bars close and it was littered with extra beer cans, garbage, etc. With so many visitors in a short time span of two weeks, I would hate to be the person who has to clean up after all the drunks! In the park we stumbled upon some rural sport contests. It immediatley made me think of Lake Sacajawea at the 4th of July and the wood-cutting races because what where they doing when we arrived? Chopping and slicing wood! Home sweet home!

Because it was so hot and the sun was beating down on us we decided to move on and watch the parade of the Gigantes y Cabezudos (Giants and Big Heads). Eight huge figures - four couples - were paraded around the city, as they have been doing for 150 years when they were originally painted. Made to represent the 4 different Kings and Queens of different places (Europe, Asia, America and Africa), these racially diverse 12 foot giants wander the streets of Pamplona accompanied by smaller giants who run after the children and salute the crowds.
The parade stalled for some time in the main plaza where La Perla Hotel from 'The Sun Also Rises' sits. The rest of the plaza was full of partiers streaming in from the many streets that led out of the square. Each street out of the center was packed with hundreds of people, and it was quite impressive to see so many people - all different nationalities, all with different languages and skin colors - wearing white clothes and red scarves and happily drinking side by side. We managed to finaggle our way through the crowd and into a bar for a sandwich.

Although I have already seen a bullfight, I had never seen the inside of the bullring in Pamplona, so we headed that way to check it out. The majority of the seats in the shade were already full so we toughed out the sun for a bit to check out the 'previews' of the evening's bull fight. Bull fighters practice during the day with little cows - that somewhat seem big until the end when a regular bull for that night's fight comes out to bring the baby bull in. They practice their skills and their Olé voices and in the process give the onlookers a good taste of the corrida (bull fight).

Between naps in the park (right along with the passed out people), drinking, wandering through the crowded streets and eating, we managed to pass the entire day in the sun on a beautiful San Fermin day. By 6 o'clock we were ready to head home and get some much needed rest. As today is the 14th of July, it is the last day of the festival. The entire San Fermines will end tonight at midnight with a candelit crowd standing where they stood for the chupinazo to open the festivities but instead of cheering, tonight they will sing Pobre de mi - Poor Me - a sad song to mark the closing of the world-loved party...until next year!

The next time I go to San Fermin, because of course there WILL be a next time, I think I will actually run. That probably gives Grammy a heart attack, but don't worry, I run fast! Until then, I will remain content with my first Running of the Bulls experience and even more impressed that I made it home with a white dress that wasn't stained by sangria!


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