The matador bends his knees slightly as he slowly raises his sword. He stands in the center of the plaza, a thousand drunken fools looking down at him. The bull is directly in front of him, huffing in all the air his massive body can hold to keep up with the blood flowing out from between his shoulder blades. They’ve been dancing for quite a while now, spinning and spinning by nothing but the flash of a red cape. And for these few glorious seconds, the drums stop pounding, the bottles of sangria stop swinging, and the whole arena is watching the two lovers.
This is how Pamplona was the few quiet days before San Fermín officially began. The whole city was preparing for the blow. We sat at a restaurant and watched bus after bus unload visitors, all coming to town for the fiesta. The local restaurant owners rented out their spaces, the families packed their bags and headed out for a week-long vacation, and then there was me – caught somewhere in between a local and a visitor. Sure, with some patchy Spanish I could tell you how to find the cathedral, where the bulls ran, where Hemingway stayed…but I was just pretending. And I loved every second.
San Fermín officially begins on July 6th, and this year that was a Thursday. I was to meet my friend Laura at the entrance of the pool at 9:30 am, and I was to not be late…oh geez. So at 9:30, I am jogging to the bus station, a little worried about time because I didn’t have my phone, and there is a bus outside of the pool so I get on. After the bus pulls away, I realize Laura and her friends are not on it, so at the next bus stop I get off and jog back to the pool. She’s not there, so I jog through Zizur, trying to find a bus station on the other side where maybe she will be, and at all costs not miss the bus on its loop around the neighborhood. The bus and I find the station at the same time, so I load on to the crowded bus, sure she must be somewhere on it. The bus starts to move, and we are on our way downtown. I felt pretty good, I didn’t miss the bus or anything – but then I see Laura. She is waiting at the last bus station out of Zizur. She’s alone and the bus doesn’t stop. I felt so insanely bad. I couldn’t believe she had waited for me. So we unload in Pamplona, and I run into some other girls I know. They say Laura will be on the next bus, and so I waited there…for an hour. It turns out later that she had gotten off at a different bus stop than me.
So here I am, alone, in a crowd of one million people, hopelessly searching the crowds for a familiar face. But the clock is ticking, and the streets are getting tighter and tighter – so I head to the heart of the Chupinazo in front of the town hall. The streets were so crowded that even the Plaza de Castillo, where people just watch the Chupinazo on a projector was full of people. However, I had an advantage. I was alone, with no tailing friends or even a bottle bumping against people, just me. I wove my way through the crowds, following behind the broad-shouldered German or slipping alongside the edges of buildings. Soon I look up and I’m in the middle of the madness. We sing, we jump, we drink (or if you’re me you just get sangria squirted in your eyes) – and at twelve o’clock we untie the red bandanas from our wrist and raise them to the sky. We go on like this for a while, all the while swaying as one massive crowd. One second I was falling into the arms of an Australian man, the next I was pressed so tightly against someone who only spoke French. Hemingway was right – the fiesta didn’t just start, it exploded.
I followed my Chupinazo star-crossed lover out of the crowd and we went walking through the streets – taking in the fiesta. Men poured buckets of water from the balconies on to the eager crowd, and the parades began.
A shower and change of clothes later, I went back out to the fiesta. After the typical Heath struggle to find her friends – I found them in the Plaza de Castillo. There was a group playing music in the gazebo and we all jumped in to dance. Day was turning to night, bodies were moving freer, and we all spun around to the tune of the happy flute. The best part was the little girls dressed in their red and white – nothing but their curls and shoulders bouncing up and down as they tried to copy the flick of their mothers’ feet. Eventually, we fell out of the crowd and headed to buy bocadillas (my favorite is the tortilla patata – so so good). We sat in the grass waiting for the fireworks and told bilingual jokes – seeing if the other could understand. They asked me how the fireworks compared to the ones on the Fourth of July.
At night, we danced until the bulls ran through the streets. Every day of the fiesta ends or finishes (depending on your age/tolerance) with the encierro. At about 5 am, everyone heads to mark their spot. You can either watch in the street or the Plaza de Torros where they have somewhat of a show following the encierro. The first morning, I went here with my friends where we watched the arena fill with men, shortly followed by six massive bulls. They corral the bulls, and then release smaller bulls with dull horns to toss some guys around in the dirt. The crowd cheers for the bull, and the locals yell at the occasional guy that tries to conquer the bull – pulling its head to the ground or yanking on its tail. That’s the special part about San Fermín that I think a lot of people don’t see. Yes, they kill the bull, but they also highly respect them. The matadors spend years in the Basque countryside, working with the bulls and learning how to turn what otherwise would be a slab of meat into the art of bullfighting. We catch the bus and head back to Zizur to dream about the next day of San Fermín.
The fiesta continues like this for six more nights and seven more days. Each day I fall more and more in love with San Fermín and the city of Pamplona. Somewhere along the way, my friend Sophia from Barcelona joins the fiesta, a gypsy steals my phone on Calle de San Nicolás, and I lose my friends from 3 am to 4 am. Every day we go to run with the Toro de Fuego, a bull with fireworks attached at the top chasing kids down the street, we watch the fuegos artificiales at the park, and my white clothes get more brown/purple every day.
On Friday, July 14th the fiesta is coming to an end. My friends and I spend the last encierro watching from the street. We see the men warming up and bouncing on their toes, waiting for the bulls. At 7:58 am they chant to the statue of San Fermín in the wall with their rolled-up newspapers, “Vive San Fermín…¡Vive! Gora San Fermin…¡Gora!” Then, at 8 am, a firework symbols the unleashing of the bulls – and wow… they are massive. They trample towards the already moving crowd, bowing their heads to the ground and raising their horns to sky. We hop in the street behind them, crowding into a bar to watch the injuries that follow. A couple of concussions, the occasional gore…my friends and I laugh over the fact that most of the injured are Americans as we head to get churros. They also laugh at my inability to roll my r’s without sounding French, while I am trying over and over again to say “churro” or “perro” correctly. The churros were amazing by the way – served hot with rich, melted chocolate to dip them in.
The last night of San Fermín is a bittersweet time. We are all happy – it is a Friday night, the firework show was good, and the town is still bustling. However, we know the end is coming and no one wants the fiesta to end. The lovers of San Fermín head to the Ayuntamiento for the Pobre de Mí celebration. The gypsies sell wax candles for a euro and we group together in front of the stage. The crowd sways, the candles are lit, and we sing, “Pobre de Mí, Pobre de Mí, que se han acabado las fiestas, de San Fermín” (Poor me, poor me, for the fiesta of San Fermín has come to a close). Then at midnight, the fiesta is over with a firework, and we move our red bandanas from our necks back to our wrists. The aficionados are crying.
Vive San Fermín. Gora San Fermin.