It's been 86 years since Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley roamed the streets of Pamplona and experienced the madness of San Fermin. And I'm here to bear witness that the spirit of Hemingway, the man who brought the festival widespread fame, is still alive and well.
We joined the festival on Saturday night and were immediately ushered in with bottles of sangria and a trip to the nightly firework show for instant camaraderie under the booming lights. By who, with who and why? I'm about to let you in on a secret: the Pamplona Posse.
If you want to live Hemingway, the Posse is the closest you're going to find to tried-and-true modern day ex-pats. In fact the grandson of Ernest himself, John Hemingway, counts himself among the ranks, along with others hailing from America to England to Scotland.
The group is highlighted by a core group of men and women who come each year and join in the festivities and take part in the runs. If you want to find who I'm talking about, look at the daily pictures or videos from the runs and often the guy on the horns is one of these crazed men (Gus, Graeme, Bill and Gary and the main group of runners). They take pride in their runs, earning respect and fame locally for their skill.
This group believes the festival should be accessible to anyone so they put together an operation leasing apartments over the two weeks to party goers. We were official “Posse” members–meaning instant cred with these higher ups, free lodging and food, in exchange for work in the apartments. Yes, we cleaned up apartments after one of the worlds biggest parties but for the access and experience, it was a small price to pay.
The days are filled with a sea of red and white filling the streets, young and old. Traditional Spanish bands can be found on any corner as people dance all around. The runs start early, last but a few short minutes while the partying lasts long and into the night.
One fellow Posse member described his first running experience to us with a certain addicted fire in his eye. He in a deep Scottish rasp described, “I was on the street. I heard the first gun shot go off to signal the release. I knew they were coming. I had to tell myself, 'wait, wait. 30 seconds and they'll be here, wait.' Then I heard the hooves, the pounding and saw the cameras pan towards me. The bulls were here. I've never been scared of spiders or heights or any of that. But man I was scared.” He was hooked.
Needless to say, I didn't run.
I did, however, go to a bullfight. Expecting not to like it, I was surprised with how much I enjoyed the experience. The environment was unlike any other I've witnessed–and remember this comes from a sports fanatic. The costume-clad crowds are constantly cheering or whistling (their version of a boo), sharing food, singing songs and showering each other in sangria. Vibrant is an understatement.
The actual fight part was a little rougher and took some time to grasp. While it is obviously is not for everyone, what I can say is that the crowd roots for the bull. This is to say, while the bull is destined to meet a fateful end, a matador is booed if he does not do it correctly which increases the pain for the animal. The best matadors do their work gracefully, drawing the bull in close within just a few inches from their bodies, controlling him with each motion. It may seem like showmanship but if I were a bull, I'd rather go out in style in Pamplona than in one of the many slaughterhouses that are elsewhere employed.
What made Hemingway love San Fermin is still there. In fact, the spirit of Ernest himself seems to live on through the adventures of these modern day ex-pats. The culture, the traditions, the people and of course the bulls all blend for a two-week experience unlike any other I can imagine (for the record, I've been to Mardi Gras). My advice: go and either join or stay with the Posse. You'll be living Hemingway as soon as someone hands you that first Sangria.
Up early getting reading to watch a run (first gun goes off at 8 a.m., streets close way before–early morning after a late night)