For a while, I looked on the Sanfermínes with hostility. Named for the pudding-shaped Bishop of Pamplona, San Fermín, these 8 days in July have become dedicated to bullfighting and partying. Bullfighting – in case you didn’t know – is a sport in which a matador (read, killer) confronts a bull and with some ritualised swishing of his cape and prodding of his sticks, agitates and fights it to the death. Partying here can be equally brutal – in the féria of 2016, a girl of eighteen was raped by a gang who called themselves as the Manada (wolf pack). Given insufficient evidence that the girl’s relations with the Manada were non-consensual, the perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice. When in Bilbao last year, I heard shots fired into the air to mark the start of the bullfighting season, it only confirmed my prejudice that the Sanfermínes were a celebration of macho aggression.
I never thought I’d actually go, but when a group of friends said they were, I went along, unable to slake my curiosity about this event that I was predisposed to hate. We planned to take the 7:30 pm bus to Pamplona, party all night and leave at 8.30 the next morning, after the running of the bulls. The week leading up to our adventure, I collected more San Fermín horror stories – pickpocketing, brawls that broke out at the drop of a hat and stumbling tourists gored by bulls. As I tied the red pañuelo I brought from the bus station around my neck, I wasn’t expecting to have fun, just to survive.
Contrary to the awaited temper-raising 38 degrees, Pamplona was surprisingly cool when we arrived and there was even a chance of rain. There was time to watch the sunset from a high terrace; time to notice variations on the white shirt, red necktie and belt uniform – most striking were the necklaces of toy monkeys and t-shirts spattered with red paint or wine, to mimic blood. There was even time to go to the main square and seek out the city’s delicate Hemingway motif – the hotels he stayed in, La Perla and the other one, that got turned into a crappy bar. I think Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises/Fiesta, was where I first learned about the Sanfermínes. I enjoyed the book when I read it eight years ago, but it didn’t imprint much and I certainly never thought I’d make it onto the set.
Soon enough, it got dark and I realised that even now, at the beginning of July, the nights were starting to draw in. And what we had ahead of us, was a night that had to last until the 8am running of the bulls. Nights this long become an adult version of Disneyland, where everyone can get their wish, at least when it comes to music and ingestibles. Yes go the long way round that anecdote, follow this marching band and imitate the folk dance; yes, back to the Hemingway square because there’s live music and that’s better than recorded; yes to a TP (tactical piss) stop; yes to finding an ice cream; yes to still another drink, even though its warm and going up in price by the minute. Yes to anything, everything that will wage a war on sleep. We won’t get that till we’re back on the bus to San Sebastián.
After a while, things get grubby, walls stream with human sewage, people are drunk and irritated with craving. It’s advisable to find someone to kiss*, not least because it makes the time go faster and you look up and the one-percent rain prognosis has come true, which itself precipitates – excuse the pun – a discussion of what a one-percent chance of rain actually means…
By which time it’s blue-eyed dawn, swallows are making dizzying circuits around spires, pastry shops are open and people are queuing up to watch the bull run. We stand behind a row that has already formed and the only view of the track is between a stranger’s legs. So I look above for a while, at the sleek, ambassadorial crowd who stand on balconies they’ve paid 1000 euros for. I feel sick as I contemplate what will happen – the people running and the terrified, sacrificial bull set after them. After a while, I see a rash of human limbs, but no quartet of furry black legs. ‘We have to go’, says timekeeper, ‘or we won’t make the bus.’
Two of my friends maintained they saw the bull; two of us didn’t. So for me, it remains as mythical as the minotaur, this charging creature that provokes against its own will. By 8:30 am, sleep-deprived and unnerved by such phenomena as a hot air balloon landing soft as thistledown, an incongruous patch of green in dried yellow grass, I wonder if the festival could function as well with the simple idea of a bull and no animals being harmed.
*Unless you’re the manada reading this, the person you’re kissing should want to kiss you back.