Be­yond the bull

There’s an­other, less fa­mous side to Pam­plona’s an­nual fi­esta

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - MATTHEW CLAY­FIELD

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

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