At 8am, the first run begins.
The stampede thunders by—a violent torrent that grips the Old Town—and every now and again the masses break and you can see the scuffle of quick feet dashing by. Even when you can’t see the bulls, one knows where they are by the reactions of the crowd; awe and a little fear with every passing beast. The bulls and runners are separated from the crowds by a double row of thick fencing, and all along the streets the spectators hang out of windows or are perched high on scaffolds and lampposts.
At one point, one of the animals turns in sideways and lunges at a runner. A tension in the air: desperate curiosity and mild terror. The man leaps for the fence and slips beneath the low posts and just split seconds after the bull collides with the barrier before turning to re-join the herd.
Without warning, and as if from nowhere, the crowds disperse, leaving the streets a knee-high mess of broken wine bottles and plastic containers with the remnants of cheap sangria and kalimotxo (a mix of Coca Cola and red wine, popular with the Basques).
The cobbled roads are still thick and alive with thousands of red-and-white-clad revellers, and now a nervous energy hangs in the air. No one has been killed, but there were several gored and in need of medical attention. Sirens. Shouting. It’s only ten past eight and the stones are still cold and wet with morning dew.
We step up into the bullring where throbbing masses of the alcohol-fuelled and the wine-stained spill over every step. The red and green Basque colours drape down from the upper tiers of the coliseum, encircling a central sandy arena now filled with the runners. Anxiety, elation and a curious quantity of marijuana. The pot smoke has been regular punctuation in the fiesta, wafting occasionally from tightly packed crowds. Abbi and I stand midway up the steps from one entrance and behind a group of Australians: “Did you see that Chinese guy get taken out?” one of them shouts.
A roar erupts from the far side of the grounds as two young steers are loosed into the crowd. The steers’ horns are taped, though they are still as tall as men and one ably catches a runner from behind and lifts him high before grinding him into the ground.
The larger and faster steer charges the perimeter as men run as close as possible, hitting at it as they pass. One man runs to the beast’s flank and somersaults over to the adulation of the crowd. Another grabs the animal by the horns and holds it down, as if wrestling with it and, as another runner catches sight of this, he charges over in a fury and drags the man away from the steer.
You see, there is an odd moral code to the proceedings: a crazy ethic in the midst of all the blood and wine, like a final shred of the humane, quite at odds with the fact these are men goading two young, underdeveloped and panicked creatures. The whites of their eyes show as they run in electric mania.
As if on cue, a hundred men swarm the other steer – a white and tawny brown creature with black tape running down its forward-facing barbs – and it quickly becomes lost to them, and all you can see is the red-white runners that surround it.
With this, the gates of the corrals open and out emerge olive-green men with a colossal bull that must weigh over two tons. Oliver Reed once said that soundmen shouldn’t like a good villain, for a villain should have a great silence about him, and this creature is calm, its eyes pierce the crowd and the green men barely come up to its chin. It is the “whispering giant.”
The olive-green men corral it with long bamboo poles as it treads the sand into the ring. It pauses behind a runner, right horn levelled directly behind the man’s head. The man turns and sees it and looks forward as if thinking nothing of it, and then darts round again comically before sprinting away to a burst of twangy laughter from the Australians in front of us…
“I am deeply confused,” I say to Abbi as we head back to the hotel. Like many moments in the fiesta, there is a gripping unease as though one is beginning to feel truly human. It is an uncomfortable and raw and heady feeling and the fiesta is fuelled by the instinctive, but we are in a Latin country after all, and surrounded by passionate men and women. Music is everywhere, and fervent shouting and singing and there we were, in the midst of it…
We were clad in head-to-toe white with streaks of red cloth around waist and neck, and there was not a soul in the town that wasn’t so dressed. To cap the look off, we had a large, swinging wineskin, and this Abbi and I filled with two bottles of cheap Rioja and orange juice. It wasn’t “proper” Sangria, hell, it was made with Sunny Delight, but our hearts were in the right place. Not that it would matter; the Spanish aren’t precious about wine. Coke and wine is a favourite (a delicious crime against Epicurus himself), as is ice, or fruit juice, or really anything one could wish for. It makes you feel cheap and dirty and wonderful to concoct such things.
Later, we fought through packed masses at a café en route to the main plaza, where we had coffee and a very generous cup of sangria each (it was half ten in the morning, after all). As we drank, a wall-mounted CRT television showed footage from the bull-runs of yesteryear. “Christ,” I said as I saw a clip of a man trampled by several one-ton bulls, “you wouldn’t get this in Tunbridge Wells.”
In fact, since the relevant authorities started bothering to record such things (the mid-1920s), there have been fifteen deaths, though this is surprisingly few all things considered. The last to perish was in 2009, and the footage is grim, though the inherent dangers are unquestionably a part of the fiesta’s attraction. It is an intangible connection with the animalistic that gives the thing its edge, and this is a hugely important part of the culture. It is but a tiny suggestion of the link between sedentary man and the animal he pretends not to be. The aforementioned unease is simply the realisation of this very fact.
Most runners are men and police select only the most Spanish-looking among them for the first run of the fiesta. The debut charge is an opportunity for the gringos to appreciate how it all works, and to learn the counter-intuitive cardinal rule: if you fall, it is vastly better to stay down.
As the fiesta progressed, more English speakers arrived. These were largely American and Australian and we heard just two English accents the entire trip: one a thoroughly dastardly looking chap yelling something in the street, and the other a character we dubbed “The Party Girl.” We met her in San Sebastian, sitting in the corner of a bus station café, where she looked up from behind a blue-grey cloud of smoke, “Are you here for the fiesta?”
“Yes, yes we are!” I announced with a little too much English cheer.
She had a husky, cigarette-stained voice and a tanned face, and her appearance was slightly leathery, rendering it impossible to judge her age. She had a worldly manner and undoubtedly within hours of arriving at the fiesta she’d have found an underground dogfighting ring and would be taking shots of mescal to the eyeball in between rounds of Russian roulette and methamphetamines.
With more English-speakers, it became darker; Spanish passion was seasoned with the alcohol-fuelled dementia of our colonial brethren.
On the first night, one could kick a man square in the groin and passionately embrace his girlfriend and he’d probably buy you a pitcher of Sangria and you’d become lifelong friends. On night two, however, things were very different and this added a tension to the air that gathered up in clouds between odorous patches of spilled wine and stale urine.
On our way out one evening we found a bar near to our hotel where one could purchase fresh bocadillos for only a couple of euros apiece. We asked for “doused coffee” though the gentleman at the bar hadn’t the appropriate booze and so recommended kalimotxo.
“It’s coke with red wine in it,” he leant in closer to give the thing more gravity.
“Crumbs!” We said, “Go on.”
Then followed a joke surely lost in translation: “If you do not like it,” he added with a great solemnity, “you can kill me.”
“Right-oh,” we accepted his challenge. He lives.
Later in the evening we had tapas of garlic prawns, cured meat, salad with astonishingly peppery olive oil and Manchego and, after, found a dive bar down a tiny street in the Old Town. I was greeted by a cheering crowd of Spanish youths who spoke just a few words of English (my Spanish is really not what it could be), and it became apparent that they believed me to be some kind of football-person: I had my hand vigorously shaken.
Our hotel’s concierge – a “true aficionado” – recommended we wait outside the ring an hour or so before the fight, and wander around yelling “Para comprar!” until someone sold us a pair of tickets for a bullfight. This, he said, was far more frugal than buying from the ticket machines. We remembered this a few days later as we paced the Old Town.
As we walked, we heard a blaze of Spanish music, and saw men clad in bright colours atop tall horses, and the “gigantes” – colossal papier mâché figures. It was the San Fermin procession and it sees the 15th century statue of Saint Fermin carried through the Old Town and up to the bullfighting ring.
Around the procession the crowds were thickly packed, and men and women danced a ‘jota’ in the street. There were several other smaller parades, each carrying politically charged banners and slogans, and each meeting at the main doors to the plaza de toros. The cathedral bell rang out and we duly shouted “Para comprar!”
The first stage of the fight begins with a sounded bugle and the arrival of the bull.
First, the bull is gauged for its aggression by the matador and the banderilleros. It goes for the matador, who performs his ballet, avoiding the great beast whilst remaining within its territory. He watches for its behaviour, and to see how it might act later.
The horseback picador trots out, armed with a lance which he plunges into the muscular mound on the back of the bull’s neck, to weaken and bleed the animal. This stains the sand a little. The picador allows the bull to charge at his horse, which is armoured and quite calm throughout the proceedings, and the matador watches the bull to judge the angle at which it charges. As this first stage wears on, the bull becomes focused.
The second tercio features the banderilleros, who stab the bull with banderillas – the colourful barbed sticks which are impaled in the bull for the duration of the corrida. The three men alternate between thrusting the banderillas and dodging the bull with wide capes, pirouetting on their heels. The bull becomes weakened and, by the end of this tercio, it wears several of the multi-coloured spears. Constant applause rings out around. Impassioned chants and drumming.
The final round, the ‘tercio de muerte’, sees the matador armed with a muleta (his red cape), and here the bullfight truly begins, and ends. The matador contorts his body, arching back as he brushes his red cape across the sand toward the bull. The animal watches and holds its ground. It is colour-blind and it is the movement of the cape, and not its colour, that attracts it. Indeed, the red is probably just a disguise for the blood, and one that has become a tradition in its own right.
The matador repositions himself and continues to move the cape, tempting the creature as it shuffles round on the spot, eyes locked. The matador moves in closer, luring the one-ton beast with the muleta until eventually it lunges for the cloth. The muleta is rotated and the matador turns on point. It must be drawn as close to the matador’s body as possible. As the bull leaps for him, the coloured banderillas bounce up and after every lunge both man and beast hold still: the matador with oozing pride and flair; the bull with oozing blood and quiet dignity.
This goes on for some minutes before the matador approaches the stalls and is armed with his sword. Three banderilleros surround the bull as the bullfighter approaches it, sword held back and at the ready before, finally, he plunges it deep between the shoulder blades and into the heart.
After all of this, at least the final coup de grâce is a quick one, for the bull immediately slumps down into the ground.
The matador walks to the centre of the arena and puffs his chest. He raises his arms and arches his back with his muleta held high above him and the crowd is on its feet, white handkerchiefs held aloft. The fight is over. The bull carcass is dragged away by horses.
On the corrida, I remain undecided, and it was a constant discussion throughout the fiesta. Many we met in Pamplona felt the same, though feel as you might about the animals there is without question an art in it. The matadors are beautiful and poised and their work is a choreographed bloodsport. To see it in the flesh, so to speak, is to truly appreciate their finesse, and also to feel very much like an animal oneself.