On a 3-week holiday with my college best friend, we head to her grandfather’s hometown in Navarra, the Basque region of Spain, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
POSTED BY PINKY
Lucky me! My pal Carmen’s grandfather just happened to hail from Pamplona and her sweet dad, Tito Julio, was still close to his father’s family back in Spain.
So when Carmen suggested we go visit her relatives there, well, how could I pass up the chance? And what better time to go than during Sanfermines in July?
This trip actually happened almost a quarter of a century ago. Before the husband and the kids came along.
But more significantly, this was before the age of cellphones, the internet, and digital cameras!😱 Whuuut?!
Hence, the quality of my photos. Sorry about that.
But as you will see, the festival is still celebrated pretty much the same way. The parties may have gotten slightly crazier over the years, though, as more and more people are able to travel.
Carmen’s uncle, Tió Joaquín, arranged for us to stay in a nice little hotel along Avenida de Zaragoza near the Plaza Principe de Viana. It was central enough for us to get to the festivities on foot but far enough that we thoroughly got some peace and quiet when we needed it.
Just to put things in perspective, Sanfermines is celebrated for 8 days (not counting the day of the opening ceremony), with activities scheduled from morning till night, some of which are held everyday for the entire duration of the festival. So peace and quiet? Yup, we’re in!
The Festival of one of Navarra’s patron saints, San Fermín (the other patron saint being St. Francis Xavier), officially begins at 12 o’clock noon of July 6th with the txupinazo, a small rocket that’s fired from the balcony of the Ayuntamiento or City Hall facing Plaza Consistorial.
With the txupinazo, the partying begins as people symbolically tie red kerchiefs around their necks, as is the custom, then parade through the streets of the old city singing and pouring champagne or cava over one another. If you weren’t drenched, you didn’t party.
This partying lasts through the night for many, consuming liquid courage to prepare themselves for what they set out to do the next morning.
At 8 a.m. of July 7th, and daily thereafter until July 14th, the part of the festival that’s made Pamplona famous all over the world begins: the encierro or the running of the bulls.
Tió Joaquín and his wife, Tiá Olga, arranged for us to witness the start of the run – and the actual run itself – out of a friend’s balcony right in the middle of the old part of town. Dressed in the customary white tops and red kerchiefs, typical attire for all who take part in the festivities (San Fermín was martyred by decapitation, so perhaps that has something to do with it), we wait with anticipation.
Hundreds of people gather at the start of the line before 8 a.m. to hear the sound of the first rocket, the signal that the bulls have been released from the pen on Calle Santo Domingo and are now running down the 825-metre route towards the plaza de toros or the arena, where these bulls will eventually become part of the bullfight that’s set to take place later in the day.
While waiting, runners ask for the protection of San Fermín by singing the following chant three times before a small statue of the Saint:
“A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patron, nos guie en el encierro dandonos su bendicion.” (We ask San Fermín, being our patron saint, to guide us in the bull run and give us his blessing). When they finish they shout, “Viva San Fermín! Gora San Fermín!“.
A second rocket then signals that the last bull, the 6th one, has left the corral. A third rocket means that all six bulls have entered the arena, and finally, the fourth rocket signals that the bulls are in their pen and that the run has ended. The entire thing should take all of under 5 minutes, unless a bull gets stalled somewhere along the route for one reason or another.
Rules? What Rules?
Apparently, stricter rules are now being imposed on participating runners, rules I hadn’t heard about then. But I can certainly understand why they exist, specifically the rules prohibiting those under 18 years old and those intoxicated from taking part in the run.
I don’t know when these rules came to be, though, because when we were there, watching the intoxicated run from the bulls seemed like par for the course, and frankly, it was pretty amusing. (Oh wait, is that a bad thing?!)
Morning Procession for San Fermín
Now let’s get to the true meaning of this weeklong celebration. The reason for the encierro and all the partying that have given us visitors such a great time, year after year.
After the morning mass of July 7th, at around 10 a.m., the image of San Fermín is taken through the streets of the old city in a procession from the church of San Lorenzo, where the image or reliquary of the Saint is kept. This is also the only day in the entire year that San Fermín’s image ever leaves its home.
But who was San Fermín? Said to be the son of a Roman senator in Pamplona in the 3rd century, Fermín converted to Christianity and became a priest. Ordained in Toulouse, France, he eventually returned to Pamplona to serve as its first bishop. On his way back to France on a preaching expedition, however, he angered some local noblemen, was captured then beheaded in Amiens, France.
But what of the tradition of the encierro or running of the bulls? It’s said that San Fermín met his end by being dragged through the streets by a herd of angry bulls. How he got decapitated is not certain. Was it as a consequence of being dragged through the streets or was it done separately after? Hmmm…
Another possible explanation for the tradition, however, is that herders used to pass through town to deliver the bulls from the ranch to the bullring. To entice them to move faster, the herders would sometimes run in front of the bulls instead of walk alongside or behind them.
Regardless, other ways of honouring San Fermín – asking and giving thanks for his protection – have sprung up over the centuries. Similarly, more events are now held in the different parts of the city as crowds continue to grow each year.
Jota to San Fermín
Music plays a big part in the traditions by which Pamploneses honour their beloved patron saint.
And we were lucky to hear such a fine example through a performance from the group of Tió Francisco, younger brother of Tió Joaquín, who was part of a music club or peña called Los Amigos Del Arte de Pamplona that traditionally sang the serenade or jota to San Fermín, from a balcony directly across the one we were on, while the procession passed along the street below us.
Baile de la Arpargata
Fortunately, Carmen’s cousin, Patxi, did our group proud by joining the run earlier that morning. After which, Tió Joaquín and Tiá Olga took us to the Baile De la Arpargata at the Nuevo Casino de Pamplona, where we met up with the rest of the family for some churros con chocolate and where, so early in the morning, we’d already begun dancing.
That’s right! No running with the bulls for Carmen and me just yet, but we’d already danced. And not just any dance. Only the Baile de la Arpargata for us, thank you very much! It’s a dance event held at said private club that’s traditionally done after the encierro.
Pinoys, think super fun maskipaps (“anything goes“), Zumba and line dance all rolled into one.
All that dancing will surely make anyone hungry. Which brings us to the subject of food.
This was the first time I discovered the beauty of ordering platos combinados, or a mixed platter of the specialties of the house. European breakfasts are usually just bread and coffee or hot chocolate, and maybe a glass of juice. But if you wanted a more filling mid-morning meal, platos combinados was the way to go. With wine. We’re in Spain, after all.
Everybody’s in a jovial mood after the encierro, of course, and we know people can do crazy things when they’ve had a bit to drink. Then add to that the excitement from believing they’ve just cheated death after running with the bulls and you could be in for a treat.
Like this guy we saw, also a tourist, who decides to climb to the top of this fountain in a small square.
When he got to the top, what does he do? He pulls down his pants (how he balanced himself, I don’t remember), lets go his grip of the fountain, spreads his arms out to the sides, and allows himself to fall to the huge crowd gathered below him. Ayayay. Oh, but only through the kindness of strangers! To this day I laugh just thinking about it.
I understand that in recent years, though, a few women have sadly become spectacles themselves. Wearing tank tops drenched in wine and no bra underneath, the tank tops don’t stay on for very long. Woops.
Now I’m not a prude – far from it, in fact – but in this digital age and with social media where everything travels fast and we have little to no control of what goes (and stays) out there, I’d be more careful. Just sayin’, ladies.
Comparsa de Los Gigantes y Cabuzedos
Part of staying true to the traditions of Sanfermines are these giants and “big-heads”, with this current batch of papier-mâché creations in use since the 1860s. The tradition has been around way before that, however.
They appear several times a day in the different events all over town, including the afternoon parade.
We have a version of these gigantes back home in the Philippines as well, brought in by the Spaniards during the colonisation and christianisation of our islands. There are also different versions of them all over Spain, but these particular gigantes in Pamplona are said to be the best.
There are four pairs of kings and queens, each about four metres in height, to represent what they thought then as the only four parts of the world: Europe, Africa, Asia, and America. Then these kings and queens have an entourage or comparsa. There are five cabezudos that accompany them – a Mayor, a Councillor, a Grandmother and two Japanese figures (why, I don’t know). There are also six kilikis meant to “protect” the royals. And finally, completing the entourage are six zaldikos – half-man, half-horse characters – which sometimes “attack” innocent young children who get too close to the kings and queens along the parade route.
At 6:30 p.m., so begins the end for these bulls. One can stay in the sol or sunny side of the arena, but we chose to sit in the sombra or in the shade. You do pay a premium for these seats, but for people like us who hail from the tropics, a couple of hours from the sun could do us some good.
Did I enjoy the bullfight? Let’s just say I liked the energy of the crowd every time they cheered for the bullfighter. One might easily assume that the bull has practically no chance of winning. That it would take either a really bad accident or a case of extreme bad luck for the bullfighter to lose. Perhaps. But no one can deny the showmanship and the skill required of the bullfighter whenever he takes the kinds of risks that he thinks would earn him the respect and approval of such a demanding crowd.
And on that particular evening, the name to remember was Jesulín de Ubrique. I say no more.
Evening Fireworks (Nothing to do with Jesulín, I’m afraid)
I really enjoyed the after-dinner walks in town with Carmen’s family. Temperatures were cooler and pleasant even in the month of July. It also gave us a chance to relax and get to know everyone better after a typically hectic day during Sanfermines.
Then an hour before midnight, the place to be was at the park of La Ciudadela or the Citadel.
Here you’ll be amazed by the fantastic fireworks show. I certainly was. It was the first time in my life that I had ever seen fireworks that “danced” to the rhythm of classical music. I had never seen anything like it before and to this day, I’ve yet to see one in that magnitude. It seemed to go on for a really long time.
And it was a great way to end the day.
Pobre de Mí
Finally, we get to the culminating event of the entire festival that’s held at midnight of July 14th. The ceremony where everyone gathers again in the place where it all began just days prior. In Plaza Consistorial in front of the Ayuntamiento, to bid farewell to Sanfermines.
Everyone brings his own white candle, preferably cradled in a plastic cup to catch the melting wax, then all together sing the words:
“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).
Until the following year, that is.
So, did we ever get to run with the bulls? Hell, no!
But do check out the other great things to see and do within and around Pamplona. It’s under 2 hours away from Bilbao and just a little over an hour’s drive from San Sebastián.
If joining Sanfermines, do check the schedule of activities here before you go. And plan early!
I realise that we don’t all have the luxury of having families or friends in the places we travel to, people who can show us what their city has to offer and what living there is really like. And even if we did, normally we wouldn’t want to impose.
But I’m grateful that I had the chance to travel with my friend, Carmen, my oldest friend who I’ve remained close to over the years and who’s godmother to my eldest child.
I also want to take this opportunity to thank Carmen’s family, the Antùnez clan, who were the first to introduce me to Spain and made me fall in love with it – Tió Joaquín, Tiá Olga and their children, Tió Francisco and family, cousin Patxi Ibañez (son of Tió Joaquín’s oldest sister Mari Cruz), friend Trixie Cacho, and more family from Madrid: Tiá Margarita, her daughter Margarita and husband Gonzalo (Paloma I met only briefly as she was about to get married). They all welcomed us into their homes, hosted lunches and dinners, showed us their city, and simply made sure we had a wonderful time in Spain. And that, we most certainly did.
I will also never forget my first glimpse into the world of txokos, exclusive all-male Basque cooking social clubs that Tió Joaquín was a part of. I remember the txoko he belonged to would meet in an interesting-looking cellar and, though at the time I couldn’t figure out how men could ever be better than women at preparing food, now being married to a man who enjoys the same things has made me understand completely.
And to the person who made it all possible – this wonderful privilege to be part of his family as well on the other side of the world – Carmen’s dad, Tito Julio. I knew you were looking down from heaven as I was writing this, Tito. This one’s for you!