Guidepost cover, 5 July 1963
A GUIDEPOST REPRINT
By H. August Debelius
The fact that there are more people with a suicidal urge or a psychological need to prove their bravery than one might suspect is demonstrated annually at this time of year in Pamplona, where if the bulls do not get you the wine and dancing will.
Pamplona is a sleepy town of about 75,000 except for one week beginning July 7, the Feast of Saint Fermín, it’s patron saint. Then it becomes the scene of one of the world’s biggest non-stop parties, a marathon brawl of endless dancing, singing, drinking and bull-baiting, with about 200,000 persons taking part. There is no place for all those who sleep in Pamplona, but who cares? Nobody does much sleeping anyway.
Pamplona’s annual fling, made famous by Hemingway in his novel The Sun Also Rises out-Hemingways Hemingway. Instead of one Lady Brett Ashley, as in the well-known novel, the town will be bursting with Ladies Ashleys or good imitations thereof, hanging gaily, if somewhat tiredly, on the arms of a foreign and Spanish bullfight fans, young men who race through the streets every morning ahead of herds of running fighting bulls – and young men who thus put themselves in danger of receiving the same lamentable injury from which Lady Ashley’s lover suffered.
The bulls are released from their pens and allowed to pound through the streets for about half a mile to the bullring early every morning, preceded by a group of valiant youths who race down the streets just ahead of the death-dealing horns. Some runners do not get up early to run with the bulls; they stay up. What little sleeping is done during the San Fermines is done in bars with one’s head slumped over a table, on the sidewalks, in automobiles, on hallway floors. Pamplona residents sell their beds to the highest bidder. There is always some foreigner who foolishly thinks he is going to sleep and is willing to pay up to $15 for a piece of cotton ticking stuffed with straw and bedbugs.
Dancing and loud singing, sometimes accompanied by guitars, bagpipes or castanets, goes on in the streets all night; and the revelers carry botas (leather wineskins) of red wine which they offer to everyone they see. It is insulting not to take a drink when it is offered, but foreigners usually get more on their clothes than in their mouths until they get the hang of gulping down the thin jet of wine that squirts from the top of the bota when it is squeezed.
Most of the young men dressed in white sneakers, white trousers, white shirt and red scarf are natives of the region, but some foreigners plunge so completely into the spirit of the fiesta that they also sport the typical costume. But what you wear is unimportant. It is how you wear that counts, for it takes a strong liver and a steady hand to keep passing that bota for days on end. Pamplona is not for the weak gaping tourist; he is likely to be gaily trampled to death by the good-natured fun-seekers who keep the town’s narrow cobble-stoned streets rumbling with revelry and doused in wine day and night.
The most famous event at Pamplona is the running of the bulls. Many a man has been astounded at his own bravery when he has sobered up enough to hear friends tell him that he ran with fast-footed Basque youths in front of the stampeding beasts. Of course, there are a few who don’t make it every year; the law of averages is hard to beat. Amid so much gaiety, however, the goring of a few of the merrymakers is quickly forgotten. One or two of them die of bull wounds every few years. Many more think they are going to die from hangovers, but they live to drink again.
Although there is no record that any statistician ever toted up the exact amount of fermented grape juice squirted down gullets and shirt fronts during the San Fermin holidays, a quarter of a million quarts would be an extremely conservative estimate.
Habitual Pamplona-goers never make hotel reservations. If possible they go in cars and do their cat-napping in them. About the only time things settle down enough to sleep is at midday, when the sun is strong on a man’s bota and on his head. In the hedonistic heyday of Pamplona, one of the most high-powered tourist flings in the world, the spirit is – eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die… and if we don’t it’s not our fault.
A GUIDEPOST REPRINT: “PAMPLONA: IF IT’S CROWDED, BLAME ERNESTO, ” https://www.guidepost.es/a-guidepost-reprint-pamplona-if-its-crowded-blame-ernesto/
A GUIDEPOST REPRINT: “THE HORNS OF PAMPLONA, SAN FERMIN: PARTY ALL NIGHT, RUN WITH THE BULLS AT DAYBREAK,” https://www.guidepost.es/sanfermines-back-to-back-2/
HEMINGWAY’S PAMPLONA IN MADRID, https://www.guidepost.es/hemmingways-pamplona-in-madrid/