Running the Bulls in Pamplona: Blood, Torture, and Sangria
Every July, for a week, the world news media ends their regular news programs by showing short video clips of throngs of people running along the narrow, cobbled streets of Pamplona, that small, ancient city in north-western Spain made famous by the writer, Ernest Hemingway.
These people are being chased by bulls and, often enough to make it interesting for the media, a few of those people, mostly too-bold young men, are gored or stomped to death. What isn’t considered newsworthy enough to be shown, however, is what happens in Pamplona during the other twenty-three hours and fifty-six minutes of each of those eight days. This is a pity because, as Hemingway knew, it is when the real human drama happens. In fact, Hemingway never actually ran the bulls.
When I was young enough to still be stupid about such things, I decided it was necessary go to Pamplona and participate in this famous ritual. My son, then just-graduated from high school and feeling the need for some sort of rite of passage into adulthood, came along. We made the nineteen-hour drive from our home in the middle of Germany, across France, and over the Pyrenees into Spain at a hundred miles an hour in a small, shrieking Peugeot that should have had a five-speed transmission.
We arrived in the early evening and found a campground about two miles outside of town. In our innocence, we set up our tent figuring that, after running the bulls and then spending the days leisurely hanging out in town, we’d drive back to the campground and relax around a fire and share stories before going to sleep. It would be a nice father-son experience.
We were soon to learn that during the Festival of Saint Fermin during which the bulls are run, sleeping is not possible or even desirable. This should have been obvious when we set up the tent. The campground was over crowded with young people from around the world having also come to run the bulls. They were mostly young men from Australia and New Zealand on walkabout and they were, all of them, very drunk.
The only spot left for setting up a tent was right in front of the door to the men’s toilet and shower facility. There was a bright light just above the door and this meant that we would not only have no darkness to sleep by, but we would also be in the immediate path of raucous, all-night boozing, vomiting, pissing, laughing, and/or fighting. In the end, it didn’t matter. We spent just one night trying to sleep there. Once we got into Pamplona itself, we didn’t leave town for three days. We only went back to the campground at the end of the week to reclaim what was left of the tent.
I had been to Pamplona a few years before, arriving by train the day after the feria ended. It was a peaceful place and perfectly picturesque with narrow, cobbled streets, and a wonderful, large central square, the Plaza del Castillo. Around the Plaza were cafes and restaurants where locals sat enjoying coffee or glasses of wine and maybe some tapas. There was something, though, that put us off a bit—something in the air. In fact, the whole town reeked and I was to become well acquainted with the source of that reek: The streets were filled with the stink of old urine. And more interesting than that, it was the stink of old urine mixed with sangria, a drink made from red wine, fruit juice, and brandy. The term sangria comes from the Spanish word sangre which means bloodletting and gore. I was to learn sangria is exactly the same color as bulls blood.
The Festival of Saint Fermin honors one of the many Catholic saints of the region and the running and later the fighting of the bulls in the city’s bullring is an integral part of the celebration. It all starts at exactly noon on July 6. Until that moment, the scene in the square is one of thousands of people milling happily about dressed in white and holding up red scarves.
At the precise moment, a large fire cracker is set off and everything changes. The scarves get tied around necks and the dancing starts. Music comes from live bands and celebrants form conga lines and start moving. The lines are long or short, all men or all women, or a blend of men and women. It doesn’t matter. Everyone is happy—very happy. These lines move like great joyous serpents around the square and up streets and down them again, growing longer or diminishing as people join in or drop out. And everyone is swilling bottles of that sangria.
And the thing is, this never stops, not the dancing or the swilling. Not for more than seven days, not late at night, not in the early morning, not for breakfast or dinner or lunch. The party goes on and on and I figured they must work in relay teams. Dance for an hour or two, rest for a while, eat, get something to drink other than sangria—like water, I would think. I would also think that locals could, when they were exhausted, simply go home, take a shower, sleep in a real bed, and recover for the next round. In Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, the book that made all this running, swilling, and dancing immortal, Jake Barnes and his pals somehow manage to score hotel rooms and sit down in actual chairs at nice cafes to eat good meals.
This, of course, was not possible for us. We had no home, no bed, no showers. All the hotels in Pamplona are booked a year in advance, all the restaurants are flooded over with happy drunks, served by exhausted waiters who inevitably become surly. They are especially surly to those of us who tried to use the toilets in the restaurants without having first found an open table at their cafe to sit at and order a meal. No table, no meal, no toilet. This explains that all-pervasive urine-sangria reek; revelers simply did their thing anywhere and everywhere and smashed their empty sangria bottles on the pavement.
But did we have fun? Were all cares entrusted to loving hands of blessed Saint Fermin for three days? Were bottles of sangria bought and consumed and the bottles smashed? Did we dance, and piss, and laugh with drunken abandon? Did we, at three o’clock in the morning, sleep next to—or with—total strangers on the grass of the Plaza? Were breakfasts ignored and raging hangovers treated with liberal doses of the hair of the sangria dog? Did we cheer on the almost-naked young women who, in the middle of a screaming crowd, and soaked with sangria, allowed themselves to be lifted high on a man’s shoulders while they stripped off their tops and raised their arms in pure hedonistic glory? Did we admire the guy who, also almost naked, could shotgun a quart of beer through a rubber hose and then, lifted onto the shoulders of a compatriot and spun in circles, spew that beer onto our upturned faces? And, finally, did we run the bulls?
Yes. And here is the truth about that: It takes a great deal of courage, courage of the foolish, sangria-fueled kind, to run with the bulls in Pamplona. I know this is true, because if it hadn’t been for sangria and my son shaming me into it, I might have chickened out.
To run the bulls in Pamplona, the runner needs to work his way through a nearly impenetrable, roaring mob that has gathered along a narrow, cobbled street made narrower by a sturdy double wooden fence that has been set up to guide the runners and the bulls from the starting point to the bull ring. To do this, it was necessary for me to get down on my hands and knees and crawl and shove and slink my way through a forest of human legs and shuffling feet. But when I stood up, there I was, in the street where six bulls, guided by a number of oxen, and all desperate with confusion and terror, would soon come charging along at a four-minute/mile pace.
The bulls are released from their pen at the bottom of the street at exactly 8:00 a.m. A large firecracker goes off when the first bull emerges from the pen and again when the last bull is out. The bulls are less dangerous if they are running in a group. A lone bull on a crowded, narrow street is a deadly bull and so you listen for the firecrackers to determine if they are running close together or if they are strung out.
Runners carry a rolled up newspaper, the idea being to show your courage by touching a running bull with the paper. So while you wait for the first firecracker to go off, you are standing in the street shoulder-to-shoulder with many hundreds of other people holding your rolled up newspaper in the air and chanting “Ole! Ole! Ole!” The sound of this chanting, as the morning sun shadows the cobbled streets, and as your fear rises through your hangover and tightens around your heart, is a powerful experience and I was surprised by my reaction to it. It was the power of the mob, I realized later, that left me suddenly, utterly fearless, uncaring whether I lived or died. I was, very briefly, willing to give my life for—what?
Then the first gun went off and we started moving, slowly at first, just walking, everyone looking over their shoulders, back down the street from where the bulls would come. When we saw the people behind us start to run, we started jogging, slowly at first and then faster and faster until we were running hard, dodging and leaping and shooting glances over our shoulders to see the bulls coming. And here’s the other thing about running the bulls: Most people who are injured are injured not by bulls, but by other runners, by getting knocked down, by tripping and falling and getting stepped on.
So, then I was running with the bulls. The bulls are fast, much faster than the runners, and, as it turned out, on this day, strung out in two groups. As the first group passed me, I stepped aside into a doorway and watched. Then I was out in the street again, running, until the next group came past. This time I held my ground and stayed in the street. All around me were men who were younger or faster or braver (more foolish) than I. They jumped in at the bulls, touched them with their rolled up papers, and leaped away again.
And then it was over, the bulls all gone by. But still the mob ran and I ran with them, not understanding why. After a minute or so, we arrived at the entrance to the bull ring. The great double doors were being swung shut but the mob ran toward them, squeezing and fighting to get past them. I found myself jumping up on the backs of those in front of me, climbing over them as the doors shut behind me. And then I was actually in the bull ring, in the middle of it. The crowd in the stands was cheering and there were bulls running around and the mob was spread out inside the ring chasing them, still trying to touch them with their rolled-up papers.
This then was the final phase of the running of the bulls. After the mature, fighting bulls have been run into the arena, they are herded into a separate paddock and young steers with leather caps on the tips of their horns, steers that are simply terrified and not particularly dangerous, are released into the bull ring. A certain number of the runners are allowed into the ring and the doors closed. These runners then chase the steers about for a while trying to touch them with their rolled up papers and occasionally getting tossed into the air for the approval and entertainment of the crowd.
That afternoon I went back to the arena, bought a ticket, and sat among a crowd of handsome young Spanish men and women and witnessed the actual bullfights. It was during these fights that they would kill the bulls I had run that morning. They say there is a long list of Americans who have seen a bull fight and a very short list of Americans who have seen two bull fights. I will remain on that first, longer list. This is because, Hemingway be damned, the inconvenient truth is the glorious tradition of bull fighting with its powerful metaphors for courage and the eternal struggle between life and death, involves torturing animals until they die.
During the highly ritualized bullfight, a bull is released into the arena. Powerful, aggressive, and frightened, they are first stabbed in their neck muscles by picadors, men on horseback wielding lances. (In Hemingway’s time, the picador’s horses were unprotected and were often gored by the bulls, racing around the ring with their intestines dragging behind them.)
Then banderilleros stick barbed flags into the bull’s neck. All this serves to cut the animal’s neck muscles and encourage bleeding. Then, exhausted and in a weakened state, the bulls are confronted by the matador. The matador, after a flashy—and, yes, brave and skilled—display of taunting the bull with his cape, delivers the tercio de muerte, the “part of death,” by driving a sword down between its shoulder blades and into its heart. There is a great deal of blood and during the first fight, I began to feel weak, light headed and nauseous and I thought I must be getting sick. By the third fight, I realized the spectacle I was witnessing had put me in a state of shock.
The night after I ran the bulls and witnessed the bullfights, having not slept in three days, I felt emotionally depleted and physically exhausted. My son, who I had hardly seen during the feria, had cut the side of his hand open on a shard of glass from a sangria bottle and I helped him find a medical tent where such emergencies are handled. Then he disappeared again and I was once more alone.
I hung around the Plaza in a daze, drinking water and chewing on a loaf of bread. There was a small group of musicians from Peru playing music in one corner of the Plaza and I lay down in the grass near them and fell asleep to the sweet sound of their flutes and guitars.
Outside the bull ring in Pamplona is a granite bust of Hemingway. It’s a herculean image of the writer, coarse and powerful and enigmatic. It was here my son and I had arranged to meet the next morning. We made our way back to the campground, which was by now a scene of unspeakable filth and disorder. We didn’t sleep. We pulled the down the tent, packed it in the Peugeot, and headed back across the Pyrenees.