Spain’s Sanfermines fiestas: don’t believe everything you’ve been told

Pamplona-based writer Miguel Izu debunks some of the myths perpetuated over the years

Sanfermines 2016 kicks off to a wet and wild start.
Sanfermines 2016 kicks off to a wet and wild start.LUIS AZANZA
Miguel Izu

Don’t believe what they tell you. Most of it isn’t true. It’s all just marketing ploys, myths and not-so-ancient traditions that have been designed to lure in the tourists and get them to part with their money. Since we lack the sun and sand, we have had to come up with something to attract people to Pamplona...

To begin with, we came up with San Fermín, the saint the July fiestas are named after. There is no historical certainty that a Saint Fermín ever existed. Until the 12th century, nobody around these parts had ever heard of him, but we clung to the fact that in the French city of Amiens, where Fermin is revered as a bishop and a martyr, the locals claim that he came from Pamplona.

It’s all a farce that will vanish on July 14 at the stroke of midnight, like Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage

The Catholic Church has his feast down as September 25, which is the date of his martyrdom in the third century AD. But ever since 1591 we have been observing his day on July 7 in order to make the most of the short Pamplona summer, and to make it coincide with the bullfights and fairs that have been taking place around that date here ever since the Middle Ages.

The march of progress is conspiring against bullfighting, “a bloody fiesta for a crude and fanatical people,” in the words of turn-of-the-century writer Pío Baroja, who spent part of his childhood in Pamplona.

Truth is, we’ve never had many bulls or bullfighters around these parts, but we bring them in from Andalusia, Salamanca and Madrid, and make them put on a show for the visitors while we head off to munch on our afternoon snack somewhere else.

Also, it’s been over a century since bulls were herded on foot to bullrings for a fight – today they are loaded on to trains or trucks instead. But we in Pamplona insist on building a walled path leading to the arena so the bulls can race there by themselves. Neither is it tradition for people to run in front of them, either. Far from being an initiation rite for young Navarrese men, as many outsiders naïvely presume, the practice in fact attracts many more foreigners than natives to put themselves in horn’s reach. But how else were we going to make the global headlines?

Oh, and be wary of our alleged hospitality. We pamploneses are actually rather stern, in the good and the bad sense of the word: noble-hearted yet sullen mountain folk who have a hard time getting along with strangers. Yet every July 6, when the traditional chupinazo firecracker is set off to mark the beginning of the fiestas, we undergo a remarkable transformation: we suddenly start to ooze friendliness, welcoming people from all over the world with open arms; we also pretend to be sophisticated city types even though we still lift rocks for sport, and seal eternal friendships over a bar counter or around a roasted pig. It’s all hype. On July 15, we go back to being our regular selves.

A newspaper is not much use for fending off half a ton of bull.
A newspaper is not much use for fending off half a ton of bull.Javier Lizón (EFE)

By the way, don’t even attempt to follow the legendary – and completely phony – route of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite haunts. The writer only came to Pamplona nine times, nobody paid much attention to him while he was alive, and we only adopted him when we realized he was good for business. The spot where the Casa Marceliano bar once stood is now occupied by a municipal agency that is closed during the Sanfermines. The restaurant Las Pocholas was converted into a chocolate shop. The Quintana Hotel shut down and was seized by the authorities in 1936. And guess what: Hemingway never spent the Sanfermines at the hotel where guidebooks claim that his room has been preserved the exact same way it was – yeah, the way it was when he did NOT stay there.

The list goes on. The bar counter inside Café Iruña, where a life-size statue of the Nobel literature laureate rests its bronze elbows, didn’t even exist back in Hemingway’s day. And don’t fall for the Ava Gardner spiel: she never came to Pamplona. The movie The Sun Also Rises was shot in Mexico because it was cheaper, not because the Franco regime had banned it. We created all these glamorous legends – with great commercial success – to get the foreigners to come to Pamplona.

An equally ineffectual method of stopping a bull.
An equally ineffectual method of stopping a bull.Susana Vera (REUTERS)

But sometimes it is the tourists themselves who make up the stories. In his novel The Drifters, James A. Michener places his characters at the beginning of the 1969 Sanfermines, where “in recent years Holt and I had developed an affectionate ritual” consisting of tying a red scarf around the neck of a bronze statue of Hemingway. Turns out this monument was only inaugurated in 1968.

Also, please don’t wear white clothes and tie a red scarf around your neck thinking that this is our traditional outfit passed down by our forefathers. We’ve only been wearing this costume for the last 40 years or so, ever since the advent of mass tourism. We buy the white outfits at superstores, where the labels say they are made in China or Bangladesh. And save for the dancers (dantzaris) and flute players (txistularis), nobody actually wears a beret. Peter Viertel, the screenwriter of The Sun Also Rises and someone who was personally familiar with the Sanfermines, recommended to director Henry King that the characters in the movie shouldn’t wear them, either, but his advice fell on deaf ears.

Last but not least, do not come here attracted by the legend that the Sanfermines are a let-your-hair-down, no-holds-barred, mother-of-all-orgies type of event held in a lawless city where anything goes. The chaos is actually very well organized. In fact, one Navarrese university has just delivered the first ever course in Sanfermines Law. Cleaning and garbage vehicles still come out at their usual hours, tow trucks take away double-parked cars, and municipal agencies offer children’s activities, run lost-property booths and deal with all the cases of alcohol intoxication. Programmed events start with Germanic-like punctuality (the rest of the year we prefer the rather more relaxed Iberian punctuality), and a marching band is sent out in the streets early in the morning not so much to wake up the troops as to herd them back together after a whole night out.

Most people who run with the bulls vastly overrate their preparedness.
Most people who run with the bulls vastly overrate their preparedness.Javier Lizón (EFE)

So it’s your problem if you ignore this advice and come anyway. You risk spending nine days and nine nights partying non-stop, drinking and eating far beyond what you thought your digestive system could take, singing songs you thought you didn’t know, and dancing dances you felt you couldn’t dance, running into strangers who soon become your best friends, speaking with them in strange languages you thought you couldn’t speak, finding legions of bullfighting haters sitting in the bullring, atheists taking part in the Saint Fermin procession, and teetotalers drinking at all the bars.

But you’ve been forewarned: it’s all a farce that will vanish on July 14 at the stroke of midnight, like Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage.

Miguel Izu is a journalist and writer from Navarre. He is the author of the novel El asesinato de Caravinagre (or, The Murder of Caravinagre), a thriller set during the Sanfermines. This article originally ran in EL PAÍS in July 2015.

English version by Susana Urra.

Sanfermines: the facts

This year's Sanfermines fiestas will take place between July 6 and July 14, with a running of the bulls (encierro in Spanish) being held each morning at 8am (starting July 7) before the day's other activities.

Although a vast majority of participants in the encierros – 82% when polled last year – consider themselves to be “perfect runners,” data hardly validates this claim.

Most runners, in fact, have little experience and choose to participate in Sanfermines because they view it as a rare and novel opportunity. Still, in 2016, only one participant of Australian origin – out of 771 runners interviewed – admitted to being “completely useless,” saying that he hadn’t slept, did not know the rules, and was unaware of the dangers of the run.

At last year’s festival, as in previous years, the Australians, Brits and Americans were the least-experienced runners. Australian participants were on average the youngest, while Americans were the oldest. One in six runners chose to partake in the event after partying the entire night before, a stat that increased to one in five when only people from Pamplona were considered.

Aside from nationality, the demographics of the participants are relatively homogeneous. In 2016, more than 90% of the runners were men and 75% were under 35 years old.

The following is a complete list of bull breeders at this year’s festival:

Miura, de Lora del Río, Sevilla. Victoriano del Río, de Guadalix de la Sierra, Madrid. Hros. de José Cabada Gago, de Medina Sidonia, Cádiz. Jandilla, de Mérida, Badajoz. Puerto de San Lorenzo, de Tamames, Salamanca. José Escolar Gil, de Lanzahíta, Ávila. Núñez del Cuvillo, de Vejer de la Frontera, Cádiz. Fuente Ymbro, de San José del Valle, Cádiz.

English version by Henry Hahn.

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