Fiesta de San Fermin (1)
For one week every year, the Spanish town of Pamplona parties so hard that the foothills of the nearby Pyrenees start to shake. Nothing can prepare you for your first Pamplona experience: the constant flow of beer and sangria, the outrageous drunken partying, the hordes of excited people in the streets, and, most of all, the early morning terror of the encierro, the daily bull run. You’ve got to hand it to the Spanish; they certainly know how to host a phenomenal party, and the Fiesta de San Fermin is simply the scariest, loudest and most raucous one you’ll ever come across. It’s the Bruce Lee of world festivals: it hits you hard and fast and leaves you feeling like you’ve been run over by a bus – or, more accurately in the case of the slower runners, a bull.
The festival is a celebration of Pamplona’s patron saint, San Fermin, who was excruciatingly beheaded – the bright red neckerchief worn at festival time serves as a reminder of this. His official day, July 7, has been celebrated with a religious ceremony, fiesta and bullfights since the early sixteenth century. No one is sure when the daily ritual of the encierro began, but it has been the most prominent feature of the event for at least two hundred years. However it came about, the bull run was soon adopted as something of a rite of passage for young men of the region who still see it as an important step in adulthood.
The San Fermin antics could only take place in Spain. No other country would tolerate an entire town being taken over for more than a week of non-stop drunken partying. And that’s before you consider the reckless irresponsibility of letting people take part in the bull run.
The Spanish, however, just take it all in their stride.
The timetable runs as follows. The fiesta is officially declared open at noon on July 6, but, like kids at Christmas, the locals can’t wait for the start of the biggest bash of the year so the partying is already going strong by nightfall on the 5th. The first bull run is held on the morning of July 7. Then the ritual of all-night partying followed by a morning bull run followed by a few hours of sleep is repeated until July 14, when, after the last encierro has been run, adrenalin and alcohol levels recede to normal and the town gets on with the business of clearing up.
So intense is the partying at Pamplona that you are wildly optimistic if you think you can make it from start to finish. The best schedule would be to take in four days including the off-the-Richter-scale partying of the weekend. Things calm down a little after this, but whenever you come, the action is guaranteed to be going
There are really only three areas you will need to know to make the most of the fiesta. The first is the main town square, Plaza del Castillo, which is surrounded by packed bars and is the focal point of the partying for the locals. The bandstand in the middle of the square is a great place to take your afternoon siesta in the sun and a good rendezvous spot when you inevitably get split up. It’s also only a few hundred metres away from the start of the bull run.
Up the road from the square lies the Casco Viejo, the old part of town, which houses another slew of bars including the famous Mussel Bar at the top end. The bar itself is nothing special – in fact, it’s usually shut and just serves beer and sangria through a window. The attraction lies in its location on a small square, the Plaza de San Jose, and the suicidal sport of leaping from the top of the five-metre-tall St Cecilia statue, often wearing only a thin veil of bravado, into the arms (or not) of the crowd below – a favourite pastime of Aussies, South Africans and Kiwis (see box opposite). Even if you’re not into diving yourself, the courtyard is a great place to hang out any time of day, as you will always find a big group of people drinking, singing and egging each other on to climb the statue. The atmosphere is very much of the party-till-you-puke-or-pass-out variety – a tiny part of Australia in Spain.
Finally, you’ll spend some time around the Plaza del Toros bullring, either by charging triumphantly through the narrow entrance with a snorting bull hot on your tail (unlikely) or by watching other fools attempt the same thing from the safety of a ringside seat (more fun). Bullfights are held every evening, involving the six bulls that ran earlier in the day – worth watching if you’ve had the shit scared out of you by them during the morning’s encierro.
Europe 5 – Fiesta de San Fermin
Fiesta de San Fermin (1)