When I think about the San Fermines of my childhood, I find more of a lack of memories than their real presence, something that I regret to no small degree. Because in childhood, when you experience things as a natural occurrence, something that has always been there – as I suppose must happen to Parisians with, I don’t know, the Eiffel Tower – you don’t appreciate them. You almost disrespect them, quietly arrogant, as though it was nothing to do with you. As if you were above those people who, possibly with a healthier attitude, get mixed up in the party, fully aware that things that are local can also be exceptional.
So on those mornings that my mother tried, unsuccessfully, to wake us to go to the running of the bulls, to see them from the balcony of a friend’s house in the calle Estafeta, my memories are little more than shadows on the wall seen through bleary eyes, and not the wonder of seeing before me a parade of beasts running as though they were posessed. Perhaps otherwise I would have seen someone get gored, the great tearing of a runner’s flesh when faced with the tremendous strength of a miura bull with horns like the claws of a giant crab. Perhaps that memory would have been burned into my mind like the sinister gesture made by a condemned man that Pio Baroja saw hanged in the Ciudadela park in the dark, dying years of the nineteenth century.
Perhaps that unexpected vision of blood and pain, of the fear of that animal thrust into a violent and strange context would have somehow crystallised within me, and this piece would be the story of those first images of that lawless fiesta. To make up for all of this, one morning during the 2003 San Fermines I got inside the fencing, in the same run as the six bulls; six, that passed by while I stood to one side. A spectacular race in the town hall plaza.
On the other hand, I do remember the excitement of the days running up to the fiesta, which in my house we barely tasted before escaping Pamplona for the beach or the countryside. From my window on the Paseo de Sarasate, I watched the stalls being put up – a type of desert tent made out of red canvas in which the black people could set up their travelling stores. And I say ‘black people’ because that was how they were called, with no intention whatsoever to insult. They were ‘the black people’ because the colour of their skin stood out; they were the first Africans that we saw in Spain in the early 1980s, the Spain that was dusting itself off after decades of delayed history and closed borders, closed to culture and human migration.
In among all of this intrigue where a decade before were celebrated, to the wonder of all and sundry, part of 1972’s Encuentros de Pamplona, with installations by Isidoro Valcárcel, the spotlight rested upon a peerless character known as Donan Pher, an exotic anagram of ‘Fernando’. Known also as ‘the biro emperor’, he dedicated himself to the sale of that object: both immortal and simultaneously out of place in among the chaos of Sanfermines. Childlike, I used to sidle up to this strange hawker with his adventurous air and pith helmet, all topped off with several photos of himself with an enormous wild serpent wrapped around his neck.
There was something imposing about San Fermines, that broke the traditional order of that quiet, almost Swiss, city that existed for the rest of the year. The stultification of many of the inhabitants would come out to shine, emboldened by wine, sun and invitations to a luxury unknown to the average Pamplonan for the rest of the year. How many couples came to be during those fleeting moments of psychological distance on the 6th of July, and what a good matchmaker was the bang of dynamite and adrenaline in the sky above the old town, the chupinazo that marks the beginning of the fiesta?
Today, although I find myself 400km from the city in which I was born and lived the first 25 years of my life, I still feel that little unease the day before the fiesta begins. As though it threatened my ability to hold the reins, as though it was flirting with revolution, as though it was time, as happens in extremes, for that most Dionysian of pleasures together with the other side of the same coin – unbridled violence, as happened at Sanfermines in the delicate year of 1978.
Perhaps that is the real value of Sanfermines, and the reason for my giving up on censuring the fiesta (despite the fact that the tendency towards becoming a crude, universal street-drinking binge makes me distance myself more every year). Something magical still hides in the cracks between the cobbles on Estafeta during that fiesta, the festival of bulls that perhaps the years, peacefully, are fencing in until its eventual extinction or substitution for a more nebulous spectacle of violence. If I had not been so lazy on those particular mornings of my childhood, perhaps I would be able to better define that elusive reality that hides in one of the world’s most enchanting fiestas.
Cover photo: Flickr / Jaronson
Feature photos: Flickr /Chema Concellón