Running With The Bulls, But The Fear Is Financial

Jul 14, 2012
Originally published on July 16, 2012 4:07 pm

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.

Fiesta Spirit

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.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene. Every July, up to a million people gather in the northern Spanish city of Pamplona for nine days of merriment. It's the San Fermin Festival, or it's better known as the running of the bulls. Locals say the celebrations were a bit muted this year because of Spain's dismal economy. Reporter Lauren Frayer ran with the bulls herself and she sent us this postcard.


LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Running with the bulls down narrow cobblestone streets is a timeless tradition. There are tipsy adrenaline junkies every year tempting fate. There are also the Ernest Hemingway fans, enchanted by "The Sun Also Rises," the 1926 novel that popularized Pamplona's signature fiesta.


FRAYER: The 24-hour street parties - with the same sticky sangria residue underfoot...


FRAYER: ...the same nightly fireworks, even though the San Fermin budget was slashed 8 percent this year. Authorities across Spain are learning to get by on less. But the problem is so are the revelers.

RAUL LOPEZ: Many person in this San Fermin ask me how much is the beer? How much is the coke? How much, all the time.

FRAYER: Bartender Raul Lopez sulks outside the Bar Gallego where he does seasonal work every summer. He says people didn't used to care how much they spent, for at least these nine days.

LOPEZ: This San Fermin completely different than the last years.

FRAYER: Just look at the parking, he says.

LOPEZ: Another time, another year, the cars, impossible. You must put your car two kilometers far from the city. And this year, you can put the car near your home.

FRAYER: Vendors and bar owners say business is down about 20 percent from last year. People buy wine at the grocery store and drink on the street. There are more tourists from countries doing better than Spain is, these days.

JAMIRO VIST: Oh man, hey. I just crossed an ocean to see the San Fermin, you know? The party's huge, the people are great.

FRAYER: Jamiro Vist is from Brazil, where there's actually some economic growth. This is his 13th San Fermin.

VIST: Man, used to be a lot of Spanish people over here. But now you only can see foreigners.

FRAYER: And they're the ones spending money. A modest hotel normally costs about $80 dollars a night here. But during San Fermin it can cost upwards of $300. Joe McMillen, from St. Louis, says it's a little like charity.

JOE MCMILLEN: We're having a great time, and if we can support the local economy, then that's even better that way.

FRAYER: Another American is here from even farther afield.

JASON PIERCE: I'm actually coming from Afghanistan.

FRAYER: Jason Pierce is in the U.S. Marine Corps on his two weeks leave from the war zone.

PIERCE: The running of the bulls was happening on my leave, so why not? It's the running of the bulls.

FRAYER: Pierce says he'd heard about the poor Spanish economy, and noticed locals on a budget.

PIERCE: There wasn't people eating at fancy restaurants. But you definitely went with the three-euro sangria in a premade plastic bottle. You could definitely see the locals doing that.

FRAYER: Leire Aleman is the manager of the three-star Hotel Maisonnave in Pamplona's old quarter. The hotel relies on revenue from these nine days to keep it afloat for the rest of the year.

LEIRE ALEMAN: Well, the truth is that this year, we had less reservations.

FRAYER: The Provincial Hotel Association predicts occupancy will be down about 10 percent compared to last year. One in four Spaniards is out of work. Domestic tourists are coming for shorter stays.


FRAYER: Miguel Onye is camping in a city park with friends. They're all local college students in their early 20s whose job prospects look grim come graduation next year. They've got bagged lunches and thermoses filled with beer.

MIGUEL ONYE: It's good to see that there's some happiness among the people in difficult times.

FRAYER: Summertime is Spain's festival season. Villages across the country will honor their patron saints with more wild parties like this one through August. But come September, a hangover just might be waiting. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.