We're here in early July for the Festival of San Fermin. And that means the Running of the Bulls, one of Europe's most exuberant festivals. For nine days each July, throngs of visitors (most dressed in the traditional white with red sashes and kerchiefs) come to run with the bulls, and a whole lot more.
The festival which packs this city has deep roots. For centuries, the people of this region have honored San Fermin, their patron saint, with processions and parties. He was decapitated in the second century for his faith. And the red bandanas you see everywhere are a distant reminder of his martyrdom. And you know, I don't think anybody on this square knows or even cares.
But at the church of San Fermin, it's a capacity crowd, and there's no question what to wear for this Mass. To this day, locals look to their hometown saint for protection.
Back out on the street, it's a party for young and old. There's plenty of fun for kids, and towering giants add a plateful mystic to the festivities. The literary giant, Ernest Hemingway, is celebrated by Pamplona as if he were a native son.
Hemingway first came here for the 1923 Running of the Bulls. Inspired by the spectacle, he later wrote his bullfighting classic The Sun Also Rises. He said he enjoyed seeing two wild animals running together: one on two legs, and the other on four.
Hemingway put Pamplona on the world map. When he first visited, it was a dusty town of thirty thousand with an obscure bullfighting festival. Now, a million people a year come here for one of the world's great parties. After dark, the town erupts into a rollicking party scene.
While the craziness rages day and night, the city's well-organized. And even with all the alcohol, it feels in control, and things go smoothly. Amazingly, in just a few hours, the same street will host a very different spectacle.
The Running of the Bulls takes place early each morning. Spectators claim a vantage point along the barrier at the crack of dawn. Early in the morning? Nope, for many of these revelers, it's still late at night. The anticipations itself is thrilling. Security crews sweep those not running out of the way. Shop windows and doors are boarded up. Fencing is set up to keep bulls on course and protect the crowd.
The runners are called the "mozos." While many are just finishing up a night of drinking, others train for the event. They take the ritual seriously, and run every year.
At eight o'clock, a rocket is fired, and the mozos take off. Moments later, a second rocket means the bulls have been released. They stampede half a mile through the town from their pens to the bullfighting arena. At full gallop, it goes by fast. Bulls thunder through the entire route in just two and a half minutes. The mozos try to run in front of the bulls for as long as possible (usually just a few seconds) before diving out of the way.
They say, on a good run, you feel the breathe of the bull on the back of your legs. Cruel as this all seems for the bulls, who scrambled for footing on the cobblestones as they rush toward their doom in the bullring, the human participants don't come out unscathed. Each year, dozens of people are gored or trampled. Over the last century, fifteen mozos have been killed at the event.
After it's done, people gather for breakfast and review the highlights on TV. All day long, local channels replay that morning's spectacle.
The finale of the event each day is in the evening when crowds fill the bullring. Pamplona's arena (the third biggest in the world after Madrid and Mexico City) is sold out each day of the festival. One by one, the bulls that ran that morning explode out of the gate to meet their matadors: first, the picadors, then, the banderilleros, and finally, the matador, in his sparkling suit of light. While cruel brutality to many, others still consider bullfighting an art form. It's hard for me to appreciate, but to the Spaniard who pack this arena, there's a nobility to the beast, and an elegance to the fight.
Good matadors are like rock stars. They perform with drama, daring and grace. With each thrilling pass, the crowds cheer until the bull meets his predictable end. If the fight is deemed a good one, the people wave kerchiefs and call for a trophy to be awarded. For this fight, the matador is given an ear from his victim, and struts triumphantly around the arena.
The festival's energy courses through the city. Overlooking the main square, the venerable Cafe Iruna pulses with music and dance. Enjoying the scene with this delightful 1888 interior, I'm impressed by the joyful enthusiasm the people of this town have for their festival of San Fermin.