Streets of Pamplona
“Then we crossed a wide plain, and there was a big river off on the right shining in the sun from between the line of trees, and away off you could see the plateau of Pamplona rising out of the plain, and the walls of the city, and the great brown cathedral, and the broken skyline of the other churches. In the back of the plateau were the mountains, and every way you looked there were other mountains, and ahead the road stretched out white across the plain going toward Pamplona.”
– The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Speeding along the lush, tree-lined banks of the Río Arga, in a taxi from the train station, we finally sighted the high ground of Pamplona. We barrelled down the Avenida Guipúzcoa, where our vehicle swerved left at a roundabout, squeezing between the river and the medieval walls, up a four-lane ramp that wound through an archway before depositing us in the heart of the city.
We had come exactly two weeks before the Fiesta de San Fermín, when 1.5 million visitors would pour into this quiet provincial capital of less than 200,000. The wooden barricades for the famous encierro – each morning’s bull runs – were already being slotted into place, and the blood red door of the bullring was affixed with posters proclaiming the toreros of the season.
It was Hemingway who first put Pamplona on the world map. Between 1923 and 1959 he made nine visits to the city and its raucous fiesta. His landmark novel of 1926, The Sun Also Rises, was a thinly-veiled roman à clef, based largely on his real-life experiences the previous summer. The main protagonist, Jack Barnes, was Hemingway himself, and the cast of characters was made up of his friends and acquaintances, with a storyline mirroring true events that transpired during the festival.
To my understanding, San Fermín is a week-long drinking party, a bit like Valencia during Las Fallas, except that there are no giant, elaborate sculptures in Styrofoam and papier–mâché (later to be torched), or exploding firecrackers in the streets, or daily pyrotechnic barrages that shake the ground. Instead there are bulls – six of them hurtling down a narrow route at eight in the morning – as emboldened revellers run ahead, some slipping and tumbling in the mélee. But the Pamplona I experienced was far more sedate: one of near-empty streets and languid tapas bars, stocked to the brim with Basque pintxos. I wonder what Hemingway would have made of it.