As a journalist, I came to Pamplona to see if Spain's dismal economy would dampen the spirit of the country's biggest summertime festival, the running of the bulls. Spaniards take their partying very seriously, and if there were even a hint of melancholy in their chants of "Viva San Fermin!" it might mean the economy devils had won.
But I have to admit to a selfish motive as well — a curiosity and romance for the festival, popularized by Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. Reading it at school 20 years ago, I was enchanted by the dance of life and death that bullfighting meant for Hemingway, the carefree romantic collisions of his characters and the medieval passageways of Pamplona where it all took place — stuff I couldn't get in the American suburbs. I eventually became an expat journalist, perhaps still chasing the life of the novel's main character.
Reality Vs. Romance
As I stepped down off the train from Madrid, reality took its first bite out of romance: Hordes of hungover backpackers slumped on the platform while saintly janitors scrubbed something very smelly from the station floor. I'd arrived in the traditional San Fermin costume of white clothes with a red scarf around the neck — symbolizing the third century beheading of Pamplona's patron saint, Fermin. But I landed in a sea of foreigners in short-shorts and T-shirts emblazoned with crude sayings about sex and alcohol.
Inside the city's cobblestoned old quarter, I breathed a sigh of relief. Here were the narrow cobbled lanes where matadors and brave locals performed that life-and-death dance. Here were the families with toddlers and elderly folks, all in their whites with red scarves. Here was Cafe Iruna, an ornate, Belle Époque watering hole and Hemingway's old haunt. Here was the cathedral with green hills beyond, stretching out over Basque country and the Pyrenees mountains beyond.
But the stench was overwhelming — of stale cigarettes, cheap alcohol and urine. I cursed myself for wearing only sandals as I negotiated sticky puddles pooling between the cobblestones.
Spain's Poor Economy
I hurried to my hotel, where rooms during San Fermin cost more than triple the normal price. Still, I'd managed to book a room just two weeks before the festival.
"The truth is that this year, we had less reservations," says Leire Aleman, manager of the Hotel Maisonnave, where I'm staying. The regional hotel association says occupancy is down 10 percent compared to last year.
Yet to a first-time visitor, it just looks like one massive party, and you can't imagine it any bigger. Even at 3 p.m., we're all already shoulder-to-shoulder in the street. Could more people really cram in here?
Yes, says bartender Raul Lopez, who I find sulking outside Bar Gallego in the old quarter. Like so many 30-something Spaniards, Lopez is unable to find full-time work in Spain, so he lives in Amsterdam, where he works as a designer. He returns to Pamplona every July for San Fermin, to help out in the bar his childhood friend owns.
Lopez says the crowds have thinned out this year. People buy cheap wine at the grocery store and mix their own sangria in thermoses. If they do order a beer, they count out coins and nurse the drink for a while.
"Many people in this San Fermin, ask me, 'How much is the beer? How much is the Coke? How much?' All the time!" he says, frustrated.
Running With The Bulls
The actual running-with-the-bulls part of San Fermin takes less than five minutes each morning at 8 a.m., but it's the most famous part of the festival. And I figured, I'm here — so why not?
I ran in sandals, with my microphone shoved under my shirt. It's not at all like what you see on TV. In a pack of thousands, I didn't come close to any of the bulls. My biggest fear was being vomited on by my fellow runners, most of whom had been out all night partying while I slept blissfully in my soundproof hotel room.
The drunkest of the would-be runners get eliminated by police who scan the crowd for people who look like they might be a hazard to themselves. You have to line up by 6:30 a.m. and put on your best sober face. The diehard adrenaline junkies stay closest to where the bulls are let loose — in two batches of six each. Those of us with less machismo get pushed up to the front, where we run ahead and hope the bulls never catch up to us.
A rocket goes off and you sprint. You feel heavy breaths on the back of your neck and hope it's just the beefy guy behind you and not a bull. My microphone records one long, over-modulated scream. After less than a half-mile, we all dump out into the Plaza de Toros — the bull ring. Someone splashes a beer over my head. We survived.
I enjoy a good party, but for me, San Fermin was too much. But perhaps this is what it takes for Spaniards to forget about their dismal economy for just a while.
At one point, a marching band stomped right through a pack of passed-out revelers, camping in a city park. Those sleeping didn't seem to mind. Some even lifted their lazy arms to clap along. "Viva San Fermin! Gora San Fermin!" they mumbled drowsily.
One of the campers, 21-year-old Miguel Onye, says he's not sure what he'll do when he graduates from college next year. The unemployment rate tops 52 percent for his peers. He shakes his head and accuses me of being a supreme downer, asking about the economy in the middle of a festival.
"It's good to see that there's some happiness among the people, in difficult times," he says. "That's all."
And after the festival is over? "There are more festivals!" he says, exasperated and laughing.
He's right. Summertime is Spain's festival season. Villages across the country will fete their patron saints with crazy parties like this one, all the way through August.
But come September, a hangover just might be waiting.