Running with the Bulls in Pamplona

LEADpamplonaThe clock ticked down. At 7:55 a.m., a small shrine to Saint Fermín was set up in a wall, and everyone chanted some ancient screed, rolled newspapers waving, to the 12th century saint for safety and well-being. Not knowing what they were saying, I shook my fist and chanted with the rest anyway. The sun broke over the tops of the narrow streets as I heard the first fireworks go off. Everyone started running.

July marks the beginning of the weeklong Sanfermínes festival in the city of Pamplona in northeastern Spain. The ancient celebrations to honor the patron saint of Pamplona and the entire Navarra province are best known for the running of the bulls, or encierro, made internationally famous by Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises (1926).

That morning, I muscled into the surging crowd, trying to get to the main square by noon for the “official” beginning of the festival. Donning the traditional white shirt and red sash, plus the ubiquitous red bandanna, I joined the march.

I saw an undulating sea of white and red, people moving, dancing, shouting. Packed, glistening crowds of mostly young, semi-inebriated men and women stood shoulder to shoulder in the narrow streets filled with the laughter of thousands.

I made it to the Plaza Consistorial, and the old City Hall building with its Renaissance facade. Amazingly, as I got closer, champagne and wine bottles littered the street — by the hundreds. People were leaning from rows of balconies overhead, pouring liquid down onto the crowd below.

The streets smelled like stale alcohol and sweat, but it was warm and the music was honking — a bizarre chaotic scene, but somehow, fun.

I then did the only thing any right thinking person would do — clamored to the nearest wine shop and bought a bottle of Cava champagne. Nothing great, but at least it was cold.

Even all the musicians of the roving marching bands — playing accordions, drums, and trumpets — had drinks in their hands. I met a group of locals, eager to try out their English on me.

One woman from nearby Bilbao chatted easily in English, and a big bear of a man named Juanto, warned me about the bulls.

“Don’t touch them,” he said. “And don’t run on the weekend, too crazy.” I asked him if he had ever run with the bulls. He smiled sheepishly and said: “No.” We both laughed.

I joined their festive group and we all passed around bottles of Cava, the white-sparkling wine made in this region.

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