PAMPLONA, Spain - The co-author of the guidebook “How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona” was gored in the thigh by a bull and rushed to the hospital for surgery.
One-eyed matador Juan Jose Padilla thrilled fans with his display of grace and bravery in the bullfight arena. The 41 year old lost his eye three years ago when gored by a bull and had to learn to be a bullfighter all over again.
Charlie Sheen was partying at the same hotel where Ernest Hemingway liked to stay. And all of that was just a scant scattering of what went on during my first day at the annual San Fermin Fiesta in honor of the patron saint of Navarre in Northern Spain.
Better known as the “Running of the Bulls” and famed as the most dangerous party on Earth, San Fermin lasts an exciting eight days in July. Before I saw the popular Spanish event in person, I had certainly heard news reports about the dangerous running and the foolhardy runners who are injured every year. Since records began in 1923, 15 people have died running with the bulls and every year there are dozens of injuries.
I had read “The Sun Also Rises” which Hemingway was inspired to write after he attended his first fiesta in 1923. I was fully aware of the controversy surrounding the festival which reportedly glamorizes the tradition of running the bulls through the narrow ancient streets of Pamplona to the arena where the massive animals meet their death at the hands of matadors.
But I didn’t know the other side of Las Fermin - the fun family atmosphere, the feeling of equality and the free entertainment that draws people of all ages. The city is awash in festival goers wearing white shirts and pants with red bandanas tied around their necks.
“We all dress alike for this one time of year,” said guide Francisco “Fran” Glaria. “Everyone is equal. No one looks any richer or poorer than anyone else.”
That is another thing I was very happy to discover. Francisco is the best guide in all of Pamplona and I was very lucky to meet him. He is funny, energetic and a wealth of information. He helped me see Las Fermin for what it really is. Along with the two-minute running of the bulls each morning, Pamplona is filled with parades, parties, music, dancing, religious events, children’s activities and one of the best fireworks displays I’ve ever seen.
The parade of Giants and Bigheads is packed with parents and children of all ages. One of the touching traditions that happen each year is when tiny children give their pacifiers to the huge parading characters as a symbol that the youngsters are no longer babies. It was also funny to see how little ones would feign fear when the mean-looking Big Head Vinegar Face passed by.
So come along and see the other side of Pamplona that I discovered during my visit. We’ll share the history, cuisine, traditions and camaraderie that make Pamplona such an interesting place to visit. It is certainly well worth the trip whether you choose to visit during San Fermin or a quieter time of year.