Beyond the bull
There’s another, less famous side to Pamplona’s annual fiesta
WHEN Australians think of Pamplona — and especially of other Australians in Pamplona — they are liable to conjure up images of drunken backpackers drenched pink with sangria running down a street in terror as several tonnes of irate beef come tearing down the cobblestones towards them.
To some extent this image is accurate. Pamplona is a town where, for eight days each year, gap-year revellers with little interest in bulls beyond their bucket lists bare their breasts, leap off fountains, stay outside the city at awful-sounding campsites, and in general foul up the ancient gutters with various of their bodily fluids.
But to assume that this is the only Pamplona, the only way of experiencing the fiesta, would be unwise. When I return to Navarra and its capital this July, attending the Feria de San Fermin for the second time, it will be to spend time and interact with some of its other, less easily stereotyped, faces.
First among these will be those of the long-serving foreign runners, such as the American Joe Distler, who has run in nearly every encierro, which we know as the running of the bulls, since he first came to Pamplona in 1968. Runners like Distler, Larry Belcher and the late Keith ‘‘Bomber’’ Baumchen, along with a number of former participants, comprise the core of Pamplona’s large contingent of post-Hemingway Anglo-American lifers, who hold court at the Windsor Pub during the day and in drinking dens after the corrida (bullfight) every night.
‘‘I return every year because for eight days I get to play Peter Pan,’’ Distler says. ‘‘I can forget the torments and difficulties of the so-called real world and roam the streets with friends who share a common, magnificent malady — we live, talk and run bulls.
‘‘I am no longer the Joe Distler who ran on the horns for over 30 years,’’ he admits. ‘‘That man is memory. But I still wake up with cramps in my stomach and hunger in my veins. The thrill is simply inexplicable to anyone who has never been in those sacred streets.’’
Then there are the younger, up-and-coming runners, such as ‘‘Buffalo’’ Bill Hillmann and Angus ‘‘The Mad Scot’’ Ritchie, both of whom have several dozen runs to their names. Like many, Hillmann was inspired to visit Pamplona after reading the work of Ernest Hemingway, without whom the fiesta would undoubtedly be rather more obscure than it is.
‘‘I wasn’t what you’d call a literary type as a kid,’’ Hillmann says. ‘‘ The Sun Also Rises was the first novel I read. When I realised to my astonishment that, now, in the modern day, people were still taking to the streets with extremely dangerous, wild animals, I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got to do that, and soon.’ That book changed my life.’’
Closely related to the Pamplona of the encierros is that of the aficionados and the corridas. The aficionados include my friend Irene Alferez Garcia, who has taken classes in bullfighting with the retired matador Eduardo Davila Miura, and Pamplona’s great gentleman, Noel Chandler, whose aficion preceded his first visit to the fiesta decades ago and who attends countless corridas every year.
Chandler can often be seen strolling up Calle Estafeta, resplendent in Panama hat and dark sunglasses, on his way to the Plaza del Toros, the bullring, for the apartado, the sorting of the bulls for the evening’s corrida.
The apartado is the best way to see a fighting bull up close without running or taking up the cape and sword and is thus a favourite of families. Young children sit atop their parents’ shoulders and point down at the heaving complex of muscle and horn as each bull makes its way through the corrals before being assigned to the man who will kill it. The family-friendly aspects of the fiesta — there are toddlers and preschoolers and grandparents everywhere — are among its most surprising.
And then there is the Pamplona of the Basques, the