Pamplona is a small Spanish city in the old kingdom of Navarre. It is most famous internationally for the San Fermín Festival, locally known as Sanfermines, a weeklong celebration in honor of Navarre’s patron saint. The event originated as a trade fair in the 13th century but has evolved into one of the biggest parties in the world.
The festivities begin with the chupinazo, a rocket launched from the Town Hall’s balcony, exactly at noon every July 6. The celebration continues non-stop until midnight July 14, when it all ends with a farewell song titled Pobre de mi (poor me). It is one week of fun and revelry like no other.
Intrepid young men known as mozos challenge the bulls in Pamplona.
In order to experience the true essence of this yearly event, visitors must be willing to embrace the large crowds. This is not difficult given the relaxed hospitality and joie de vivre that characterizes the Spaniards. The people in Pamplona are loud and energetic; they laugh, dance, drink and have a great old time. But most importantly, no matter where you come from, they will welcome you as one of their own. Together, Pamplonicos (the locals) and outsiders, dressed in white with the ubiquitous red scarf, revel in the streets for a crazy week that makes ancient Roman bacchanalia look like boring children´s parties.
If we had to highlight the most emblematic event of the San Fermín festival, it would have to be the running of the bulls (encierros), from the Santo Domingo corral to the bullring, through the streets of the city center. According to lore, in the old days only a few young men guided the bulls, mostly looking for the adrenaline rush that comes with such risk. This practice caught on and is still repeated year after year; the only difference is that today the number of runners (mozos) that guide the bulls is ten times larger. The magnificent animals run two to three minutes (if there are no accidents) through Pamplona’s historic center, guided by adventurous young men, who are both fearful and respectful of the powerful beasts. The spectacular event is widely covered by the press, bringing international visibility, if only for a week, to this gracious city.
1. El chupinazo marks the official opening of the festivities.
2. The entire town comes out to enjoy the celebrations.
3. Bulls and mozos turn a dangerous corner near the bullring.
To be fair, credit for the international recognition of this festival must go to American novelist Ernest Hemingway. The Nobel laureate first visited Pamplona on July 6, 1923. He was coming from Paris, and the city’s festive atmosphere, particularly its close relationship with the culture of bullfighting, captivated him. The noble dance between man, bull and death impressed him so much that it became the setting for one of his most successful novels, The Sun Also Rises, published three years after his first visit to Pamplona. Hemingway would return to the San Fermín fiesta eight more times until 1959, five years after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, and two years before he ended his life in Ketchum, ID, on July 2, 1961, just 5 days before San Fermín.
Ernest Hemingway in a bar terrace enjoying the local hospitality during his last visit to Pamplona in 1959. / Photo: Julio Ubiña.
The iconic member of the “Lost Generation” witnessed firsthand the beauty and passion of the fiesta. He ran in front of the bulls, befriended bullfighters such as Antonio Ordóñez; ate, drank and lived among the locals, sharing the joy, warmth and euphoria of San Fermín. But he also faced tragedy: in 1924 he was an eyewitness to the first reported deadly incident of the running of the bulls. The victim was a 22-year old mozo named Esteban Domeño. Hemingway would pick up the dramatic episode in The Sun Also Rises; and another of his novels, Death in the Afternoon (1932) was also inspired by the world of bullfighting.
1. Running of the bulls in Pamplona, 1924.
2. Running of the bulls during the festival of San Fermín, 1932.
Many of the establishments frequented by the American writer in his sojourns through the capital of Navarre are still open for business: Txoko bar, Gran Hotel La Perla and Café Iruña, all located in the Central Plaza, or the Yoldi Hotel, particularly devoted to the art of bullfighting. On July 6, 1968, the Pamplona City Hall paid tribute to Ernest Hemingway with a monument on the promenade that bears his name, next to the Plaza de Toros (bullring).
Many international celebrities have followed Hemingway‘s footsteps to Pamplona. Among them: filmmaker Orson Welles, actress Ava Gardner, Margaux Hemingway (the author’s granddaughter), and more recently, playwright Arthur Miller, photographer Inge Morath and another Nobel laureate, poet and playwright Derek Walcott.
1. The Octava de San Fermín is a religious procession through the streets of Pamplona to honor Navarre’s the patron saint.
2. Religious procession through the streets of Pamplona during San Fermín festival.
3. Traditional parade during San Fermín festival.
4. The children participate in the traditional parade.
5. Bullfight during San Fermín Festival.
Pamplona is also known worldwide for its excellent gastronomy. From traditional restaurants, steakhouses, and cider bars to the small and intimate tapas restaurants, there are multiple options to indulge in local delicacies. Navarre’s cuisine is bountiful and has earned an excellent reputation for its diversity, richness and quality of local ingredients. It combines original and indigenous elements of the tasty cuisine of northern Spain with elegant French influences. Your best bet is to stroll the intricate streets of the city and surrender to its temptations, and trust me when I say it is almost impossible to have a bad meal in Pamplona.
«Pobre de mí» (Poor me) is the farewell song that ends the festival.
On the other hand, there is a good selection of hotels in Navarre to meet the demands of the San Fermín revelers. Still, there is no better place to stay than at the historic five-star Gran Hotel La Perla, founded in 1881 and completely renovated in 2007. Its luxurious rooms have hosted illustrious personalities such as Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway, whose room is preserved exactly as he left it, and you can stay in it if you book in advance. ■