For the first year since the Spanish Civil War, Pamplona’s Fiesta de San Fermin is canceled
This year would have been my 45th year in a row being a part of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. It is one of the premier parties in the world. Millions gather every year to celebrate together. A symbol of humanity for many, it attracts those of all ages. Revelers come to participate in or watch thrills that only happen in this northern Spanish city.
For those of us who return year after year, the Fiesta of San Fermin, as it is known in Spain, is far more than simply the adrenaline-laced bucket-shop experience of being chased by a charging bull. That only takes about two-and-a-half minutes in the early morning. The real joy comes from being surrounded and packed together with tens of thousands of other human beings all enjoying a life experience to the fullest.
Unlike many peak experiences that come through physical prowess or individual competition, this fiesta is for everyman. We are surrounded by others experiencing joy. It is a magic time when time seems to stop. Our world is consumed by the crush of humanity packed in this medieval city center. From the spine-tingling moments of the opening burst of a rocket to the final candlelit closing ceremony of Fiesta, travelers are surrounded by others soaking up the people-to-people participation.
The fiesta begins with a gathering of people. It is still a predominately Spanish fiesta but includes all who visit
From July 6th at noon when the mayor declares, “Pamploneses, Pamplonesas, Viva San Fermin! Gora San Fermin!” (people of Pamplona, long live San Fermin!), and the crowd responds with cries of “Viva!” and “Gora!,” the city hall square erupts. Thousands of bottles of champagne are uncorked and sprayed all over the crowd. The singing, dancing, smiles, laughter, and non-stop partying madness in the streets go on for nine days.
Everyone finds their own way of enjoying San Fermin — some never find joy in the mass of humanity
This is a marathon party. The old town becomes a pressure-cooker for concentrated life. A Spanish friend once said, “Too much of a good thing is not enough.” He came to Pamplona with me for more than a decade. Others never get accustomed to being squeezed into bars and being jostled on the cobbled streets.
The young go until they exhaust themselves. Visitors watch locals eating, drinking, and dancing to excess. And everyone who returns develops their own rhythm that allows them to survive the mayhem. Over the years, my personal experience has changed.
Once, my days were consumed with drinking and dancing. I only ate when my body insisted. A meal was having a bocadillo or roasted chicken on a spit found on every town corner in my early years. When I attended the bullfights, entering relatively clean and leaving soaked with sangria and wine but smiling ear-to-ear.
I now spend far more time with locals. I savor at least one big meal every day. Every moment is filled with friends. A woman friend who traveled to Fiesta with me said, “People stop Charlie every couple of minutes to talk.” She continued, “And if someone doesn’t greet him he speaks with others.” A two-minute walk across town can easily take an hour. No meeting is only a nod and quick hello. We always stop to have a copa of wine or una cervesa.
I wonder, after coronavirus, will it ever be the same?
The English-speaking crowd gathers every year. The locals work hard until Fiesta and then explode with joy. However, the real energy for Fiesta is generated by the friction of people. We have all heard that rubbing sticks together can start fires, When the Spanish, Brits, and Swedes rub against Americans, Chinese, Africans, and Germans, the energy generated is what makes these days unique. The real disaster of today’s pandemic is that it may stop this concentrated human interaction.
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What I am missing these mornings without San Fermin’s Running of the Bulls
Here is a quick overview of my early morning at Fiesta. Everything seems special, even waking up. Across the street, church bells ring. Looking at the sky, I check the temperature and decide whether I will need a jacket or not. Walking along cobblestone medieval streets festooned with flowers and the occasional coat of arms I twist my way to run the bulls.
English-speaking friends gather before entering the barricaded street where the bulls will run. After entering, I find Spanish friends who run on the same section of the street. We talk about our previous day and decide whether we will eat together later. With close friends, I walk down to the very start of the bull run and pray to San Fermin. We sing to the saint. My mouth gets dry. The bulls are let loose. I watch them make their first turn to see if they are gathered in a pack. As they race by I smell them as they run by only an arm’s length away. I only realize my excitement after they pass.
It is like being shot at and missed.
In the street during these first seconds, we are facing absolute animal randomness. One never knows why a bull turns to charge. And, only when the massive beasts pass, do we take time to reflect and assess. I have had bulls leap over me, charge and miss, and watched others get gored. Over the years, I have run along the entire length of the run and have learned every corner.
We gather to watch the run on TV and to tell bull stories
We gather at the same coffee bar every day to watch the end of the run on TV. While enjoying pastries we dissect the run. Later we wander to Plaza Castillo to meet other friends and tell bull stories about the run.
You do know the difference between a fish story and a bull story, don’t you? Most don’t.
Whenever we tell fish stories we spread our arms out to show the size of the fish that got away. With bull stories, we bring our fingers as close together as possible to show how near the raging bull came to us.
I hope that bull stories are what we tell about this year’s COVID-19 pause in Pamplona’s Fiesta festivities. The world needs more joy in shared experience, not less.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 11 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.