A GUIDEPOST REPRINT: “Pamplona: If it’s Crowded, Blame Ernesto”

ArchivesBlogs & ArchivesNewssliderSpainSpain DestinationsTravel


Ed’s note: A fun and authoritative article for today’s read, 40 years after it was first published in Guidepost. Its author, Muriel Feiner, is one of the foremost authorities on bullfight, then and now. And she’s American!
Inline present-day photos of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, including the featured image, courtesy of Pamplona Fiesta. 

A Reprint from Guidepost
8 July 1977

Cover of the 8 July 1977 Guidepost issue

First page of “If it’s Crowded. . .”

Cont. of the article








Pamplona: If it’s Crowded, Blame Ernesto
Muriel Feiner

A hard-working but relatively quiet Spanish town in the northern part of the country is going through the mass invasion of tourists to which it annually falls victim at just about this time of the year. Perhaps the blame for this periodic inundation of multi-nationality fun-seekers can be placed on Ernest Hemingway, who immortalized the town’s festivities in his novel The Sun Also Rises.*

The name of the town is, of course, Pamplona and the city’s 150,000 inhabitants have been busily dusting off their ‘BIENVENIDO – Welcome – Bienvenue Wilkommen’ mats for all the people of the world. It is estimated that some 800,000 in number will knock on the doors and fill the streets.

Fortunately the invasion lasts for only a week (finishing July 14) and the Pamplonians are a hearty people, since the celebrations entail much drinking, very little eating and no sleeping. Those not prepared to join in the festivities abandon their homes for the duration, leaving the city to those natives who carry on the torch of tradition and those outsiders who flock in from the four corners of the world, anxious to take a part in it.

According to time-honored tradition, every Spanish city and hamlet has its own Patron Saint. Valencia commemorates St. Joseph’s Day in March, Madrid solemnizes St. Isidro the Farmer in the month of May, but surely no other Saint can boast of such intensive celebrating and veneration as the black patron of Pamplona, San Fermín.

San Fermín, appointed as the first bishop for Pamplona and the entire Navarre region, lived in the early middle ages. His preaching on behalf of his faith took him to Amiens, France, on the other side of the Pyrenees, where he suffered a martyr’s death. Every year, thousands of Spanish pilgrims visit the Cathedral of Amiens, where his remains are buried.

It all began somewhere around 1750 when the first San Fermín Fair was officially proclaimed by a Royal Decree. It now all commences on the evening of July 6 with the firing of the first rocket, the ‘chupinazo’, before the Pamplona City Hall. This is the signal for the initiation of the marathon street dancing and frolicking that will continue non-stop throughout the Fair.

A typical day in Pamplona during the ‘Feria’ goes something like this. The municipal band wakes you up at around 6 a.m. as they parade through the streets playing the regional music of ‘dianas’ and ‘jotas’. That gives you plenty of time to get dressed and take a place in the street along the double wooden barrier, which lines the route the ‘encierro’ (the running of the bulls) will follow.

If you prefer a more comfortable vantage point, you can purchase a seat in the bullring and watch the frantic mob of men and animals make a mad scramble through the narrow entrance into the arena. (The ‘encierro’ should really be seen at least twice, once from the street and once from within the ring itself).

Once men and animals have assembled within the ‘plaza de toros’, the bulls of that afternoon’s corrida are taken out and small cows are let loose for those boys who remain in the ring and still guard the mad wish to stand before a bovine creature. Due to the overpopulated arena, there is little opportunity of doing any serious work with the cow, but likewise there is little possibility of being seriously injured. The result is usually very amusing.

There’s time for breakfast – hot chocolate and ‘churros’ (fried dough rings) – in the Plaza del Castillo Square before 10 a.m. when the religious processions begin and the statue of St. Fermín is carried throughout the town. On subsequent mornings there is the March of the ‘Cabezudos and Gigantes’ to be seen – a dancing parade of huge statues and big heads, reminiscent of Disneyland.

At noon it’s back to the bullring. The City Hall organizes a variety of free cultural events for the week – and exhibition of regional folk dancing, a ‘becerrada’ bullfight for novice toreros, a wood chopping contest – a typical Navarra sport, popular with the robust northern people, a comic bullfight, and a concert, among other spectacles.

There’s time for lunch and a quick siesta before the bullfights proper begin at 6 p.m. Get to the ‘Plaza de Toros’ early to see the boys clad in white with red berets, scarves and sashes as they parade into the bullring with at least twenty marching bands and waving banners. They probably make up the most exhuberant, boisterous crowd a torero’s ever had to face.

At the end of the corrida, the young men throw themselves into the ring and the twenty-odd bands all start playing in simultaneous confusion.

More sedate regional and dance music can be heard in the Plaza del Castillo until 11 p.m. when the fireworks are schedules to go off. From midnight on, you are left to your own devices. If you haven’t gone to Pamplona with friends, you are guaranteed to make them as soon as you arrive there.

Then it’s up at 6 a.m. the following morning – that is if you did manage to go to bed – for the next day’s ‘encierro.

We can henceforth conclude that the San Fermín centers around two basic themes: the ‘bota’ wine-drinking of the white-shirted and red-sashed ‘peñistas’ whose entire agenda of activities seem to unfold directly in the city streets, and, of course, The Bulls.

The expression The Bulls does not refer exclusively to the bullfights in the afternoon featuring the top matadors of the season and full-grown, ‘unaltered’ bulls from the most renown ranches but also to the phenomena – for lack of a better word – of the ‘encierros’ which take place in the morning. Prohibited throughout most of Spain due to the imminent danger involved; the ‘encierros’ are a respected, even venerated tradition in Pamplona.

Decades ago, before the advance of trucks and crates, the easiest and most efficient way of transferring the bulls from one end of town to the bullring corrals, at the other was running them though the streets late at night under the vigilant eyes of the ranch-hands and in the company of a herd of tame steers. These rawhide-style journeys proved to be quite a spectacle with many people staying up late to watch – from a secure and distant observation point. Eventually the more gallant lads of the town, in the hopes of impressing an indifferent girlfiend, would run along beside the animal and even tease them, though some may have lived to regret it.

The ‘encierro’ or ‘enclosure’ was eventually moved up in Pamplona from 3 or 4 a.m. to 7, a more comfortable hour, and the lingered on to become a very essential and popular tradition. Despite innumerable precautions taken by the highly conscientious city authorities, the risk to life and limb has not been decreased to any considerable extent, but quite the contrary, due to the ever increasing number of participants in the ‘encierro’, the danger has possibly been augmented. Through a myriad of injuries  are the result of each ‘encierro’ – from bruised elbow to more serious gorings – only nine deaths have been recorded throughout the entire history of the ‘encierros’.

It is difficult to understand the need and desire to run with the bulls. It seems to be a fairly absurd idea at first – so why do they do it?

Perhaps the whole experience must be lived to be fully understood and appreciated, not just the ‘encierros’ but the spirit and philosophy and ‘joie de vivre’ of this peaceful little town that wakes up on July 7 and does not go back into a peaceful slumber again until July 15./MURIEL FEINER


*Hemingway:  Soon after dawn the first day of the fiesta . . ., hundreds of youths gathered at the edge of town near the railroad station. Men climbed upon six big cages, reached down and opened them. Out walked six bulls, blinking in the sunlight. They were strong, lithe, handsome, each branded with the mark of Don Ernesto Blanco. They looked around, uncertain what to do, until from the crowd of youths came a yell: “Hah! Hah! . . . Toro!” The bulls lowered their heads, charged the crowd. The crowd took to its heels, the bulls stampeding in pursuit.