Almost on an afterthought, E and I decided to head to Pamplona a few days ago to catch some of the Festival de San Fermin. The weeklong Basque festival kicks off each morning with a ceremonial running of the bulls made famous – for us Americans, at least – by the late, great Ernest Hemingway. It is an event attended to by Spaniards with great pride and emotion – a way for men young and old to prove their salt.
Foreigners also descend upon the small village in abundance, and though their celebrations are equally spirited, I’m not sure it would be accurate to ascribe any sort of high respect for tradition to their ebullience. I have never seen so many wasted people!
A diary entry I made back in Pamplona:
7/11/2014 – 10:30 a.m. – Pamplona, Spain – Cafe Jamaica
O, bleary, surrealistic mid-morning! How you do confound me.
We hopped a luxe bus out of Barcelona at 10 p.m. yesterday even after wolfing down some tasty Chinese noodles and fried rice. We hit the green, rolling province of Navarre around 3 a.m. and rolled onward into Pamplona at 4. The bus station and its environs were littered with tipsy piles of humanity. That, plus copious amounts of piss and broken glass. Everyone accoutered in red-and-white swag and covered in sangria stains and dirt. The vibe was rowdy, jovial, and occasional violent. Sober, disoriented, shivering, and riveted, we wandered the filthy, screaming, teaming streets until dawn broke.
On one particularly raucous street corner, I met a friendly, wasted Spainard who regaled me with tales of his exploits in the USA – he races on a go-kart team that competes annually in a Vegas-to-Los-Angeles circuit. (“This race is very important in the United States.”) That, plus lists of his favorite American things. (“I love to eat the best barbecue hamburger!”) All the while he was gesturing wildly at me with a cup of sangria sloshing dangerously close to the lip. I forgot to ask his name.
We sat in the main square around 5:30 a.m. to eat bocadillas from home (queso, jamon, tomato) and I slugged down two innocent cans of beer, just to promote a festive mood.
We watched a few wasted extranjeros street-surfing with an ironing board plucked from the trash can, then we took shelter beneath the awning of a five-star hotel. It, too, smelled like piss, but it was a bit warmer, and there among the sleeping revelers, we met a Spanish kid who stopped to admire the patches on my backpack. He told me of his dream to visit Senegal one day, although as of now, he has only been to Italy. He handed me the last quarter of a hash joint before he departed. I asked his name. He said something that sounded like “Joan.” Mucho gusto, Joan.
At 6:30 a.m., we headed to Calle Estafeta No. 61, where we’d arranged to rent a balcony overlooking one of the main streets the bulls would come tearing down at 8. Doña Elena greeted us with coffee and a dry continental breakfast of Danish tin cookies, little ham sannies, jugo, and leche. Doña Elena opens her two-floor family apartment to spectators each year. It’s a large, fancy, slightly moldering kind of place, but Elena seemed only slightly dismayed and surprised when E innocently asked her if it was a nursing home of some kind. Kid’s lucky he’s got such a great smile. The extra cash comes in particularly handy these days, Elena told us, as she is out of work. She is 45, and she was once quite beautiful, I think, as evidenced by a million-year-old portrait of her hung on a wall. In the picture, she is maybe 20, and she is banging a drum, with her dirty blonde hair tucked behind her ears and her smile faint. She has a certain sadness to her.
We sat on a small, cushioned balcony to watch the street below fill up with the red-and-white-clad machos who would soon test their mettle against a stampeding herd of terrified chattel. The air was literally buzzing with nerves and energy. A gun fired from far off, and down the narrow, cobbled street they came – a few small, tight herds, flanked on all sides by running, leaping, shouting mobs who grabbed at their horns and pulled on their tails for the sheer bragging-rights and honor of the thing.
The air smelled like that inveterate piss, plus also aliveness and also fear, and the tidal wave of noise and chaos passed beneath us in a matter of seconds. Then, the mob hit a hard corner and disappeared left.
The instant coffee, the two beers, and the hash joint did a flamenco dance on my mental state. I felt a surge of adrenaline that quickly tapered off as we said our goodbyes to Doña Elena and stumbled back into the morning streets. From there, we made our sleepy way to the bullring, where we paid 3 Euro 50 each to watch the bold and brash and drunken hordes chase untried, pissed off calves with taped horns around the dusty stadium. The crowd was boisterous, and understandably so. I tried to absorb some of their energy.
When it was finished, we recommenced our wandering until we’d located a cafe serving (second) breakfast. I am beat, but in good spirits. Enamored of this pretty little Basque town and its festival din. Outside Cafe Jamaica, men in uniforms are sweeping up great piles of trash and hosing down the streets with gallons and gallons of bleach. The drunkest of the drunks have slithered off to their hotels and hovels and holes, some coughing and spitting and vomiting as they go. Others are still at their drinking, gearing up for the noontime parade, but by day, the festival reinvents itself as a family-kind-of-affair. Long, languorous meals at outdoor tables, little tikes in red and white banging drums and waving red bandanas at each other, and plenty of live music. Others still are about their normal daily business – butchers, bakers, tortilla makers.
And then there’s us. Feet dragging but bolstering our flagging energies with shitty cappuccino and Fanta for a few more hours of exploring before our 6:30 p.m. train back home to Carrer Sicilia in Barcelona. Olé and all that jazz. What a day!