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Fiesta and Feasting in Pamplona

ArticleJavier AnsorenaComment

Two minutes and fifty-four seconds. That’s how long it takes the six bulls to run from their corral on the border of medieval Pamplona to the Plaza de Toros, the arena where they will fight to their death in the evening.

It’s a little after 8:00 AM in this cozy old town in Northern Spain. The Cradle of the Basques, this former capital of the Kingdom of Navarre, named after the Roman general Pompey, has become a prosperous and modern city in the last four decades. The three-minute encierro (running of the bulls) is a frantic run among wild bulls that attracts aficionados from Pamplona, enthusiasts from other parts of Spain, and an inexperienced crowd from almost every corner of the world, giving Pamplona international recognition. The encierro, which takes place every morning at 8:00 AM from July 7th to July 14th, is the most famous event of the sanfermines, the festival devoted to the local patron saint, San Fermín. The celebrations kick off on July 6th at noon and for nine days they transform a somewhat sleepy and conservative city into an explosion of music, food, bodies, and alcohol. With Pamplona’s amazing food as a guide, this is a trip through the 23 hours, 57 minutes and 6 seconds of insanity that follows the encierro every day during sanfermines.

A few seconds after the encierro has ended, Gorka Azpilicueta is meeting several fellow bull runners outside of a bar at the Estafeta, the main street where the running of the bulls takes place. In his mid-30s, Gorka has run every morning of the sanfermines since his teenage years. The emotions of the encierro still fresh, they all chatter about the adrenaline rush of running in front of a wild 1,300-pound animal with sharp horns. Though they don’t drink or eat at that moment, they may have an occasional patxarán, a local liquor made of anise and wild berries. But many other people in Pamplona would opt to start (or most of them finish) their day with churros. Locals and visitors find some rest or temper their stomachs after a long night of partying with a greasy bag of these traditional dough fritters, which are soaked in a thick, rich hot chocolate. The best churros in Pamplona are fried by Paulina Fernández and her family at La Mañueta. Every morning during the sanfermines you will find a line of patient customers along a steep street close to the cathedral. La Mañueta, a dark steamy hole-in-the-wall in medieval Pamplona, has served their traditional churros since Paulina’s grandfather started the business 140 years ago.

Gorka and his friends don’t do breakfast. They go directly for almuerzo at the bar where they meet every morning after the encierro. The almuerzo is an unsophisticated, rustic version of brunch. Forget about eggs benedict or salmon tartar. Here you will find Gorka, his friends, and anyone who wants to join devouring eggs with ‘anything’ (serrano ham, fresh sausages, fried peppers, fries, et al), ajoarriero (a local stew made of cod, peppers, potato and tomato), tripe, or huge sandwiches. Local young red wine mixed with soda and beer flow abundantly throughout the meal. They meet at Bar Goal, in Calle Jarauta, in the oldest part of Pamplona, just a short walk from the encierro area. The sun is out and with it people drag themselves home after a crazy night, some are napping on public lawns or under the arcades of buildings. Others, however, are starting a fresh day, gleaming in their spotless white shirts and trousers, the official attire for the festival, combined with a red handkerchief tied around the neck and a red cummerbund. Of the approximately 200,000 people from Pamplona and the surrounding towns, almost everyone follows the etiquette to a T. Some of the 1.5 million visitors also respect the attire, though many don’t at all. You can see handkerchiefs as headbands, cummerbunds as bikinis, white t-shirts drenched in wine, all sorts of clothes, or no clothes at all. These visitors come from all parts of Spain, New Zealand, Australia, the US, South America, or nearby France. Many stay for just one or two days and focus on drinking bottled sangria bought at street stalls, not concerning themselves with much else.

After the almuerzo, Gorka and his friends, like everyone else, cram into the small streets and plazas of Pamplona. There is music on every corner, at all hours of the day. Makeshift bars pop up everywhere– in storefronts, in basements, and at every available recess in the streets. Streets that are normally desolate throughout the rest of the year are now teeming with people shouting at one another and eating and drinking compulsively.

A must for families is the daily Gigantes y Cabezudos. A favorite among kids,  Gigantes y Cabezudos is a traditional parade of carnival figures with oversized bodies and heads that dance to the traditional music from gaitas (a local flute).Adults stop for a vermouth, or a beer, while kids enjoy a mosto (a non fermented wine) at outdoors counters. They ask for small bites like croquetas and fritos (fried finger foods) or for one of the treasures of Navarre gastronomy: the txistorra,  an extremely juicy, spicy pork sausage, perfect with a piece of bread and a glass of red wine. Spontaneous musicians sprout up everywhere like mushrooms: some sing traditional tunes hugging their friends, some come to Pamplona from everywhere in the world to make money in a few days, and many just sing as a result of inebriation. Locals emulating 19th Century famous tenor Julián Gayarre on an opera aria, emotionally singing traditional jotas from Navarra or local folk music in Basque are common occurrences; but don’t be surprised to find a mariachi from Guadalajara, Mexico, Brazilian drummers banging out a batucada or a spontaneous techno rave.

Around 3:00 PM, serious eating starts again. Pamplonians and visitors gather in large groups for lunch. Six or seven people for lunch is considered a very intimate occasion in Pamplona– twenty to thirty guests is a more standard number. Almost no one meets at home for these occasions. Bars, restaurants, social clubs and, of course, the streets of Pamplona are ideal places for lunch. Hundreds of long tables are set up in the cobblestone streets where families and groups of friends prepare dishes suited to feed so many stomachs, such as paellas, calderetes (potato, pepper and pork ribs stew) and the oxtail stew, one of the most sought-after dishes of sanfermines gastronomy, with the tail of a bullfighting bull as the main ingredient. Another tradition of interest is eating at the legendary sociedades gastronómicas. Gastronomic clubs are very popular in the Basque region, with great examples in Pamplona such as Napardi, Gure Leku, Gazteluleku or Casino. Restrictive and conservative, you can only attend one of these sociedad gastronómica meals if invitated by a member. Many don’t allow women as members, and only let them visit on weekends or special occasions such as sanfermines. In the most conservative ones, women are not allowed to enter their kitchens; only men (who also must be members) can cook here.

Today is a special day for Gorka. He is having lunch with the rest of his peña, another key institution in the sanfermines ecosystem. These are associations devoted to the festival, they bring some kind of structure in a party where chaos reigns: each has its own headquarters –typically a basement or storefront – where they meet during the year to socialize and prepare for the festival, organize events, hire a brass band to play for them for the duration of the festival and sit together at the bullfights in the evening. There are 16 peñas, some as old as a hundred years, like ‘La Única’. Gorka is a member of ‘Los de Bronce’, and today is the only day when all the members of the peña have lunch together. They meet at the quaint, tiny Plaza de Santa Ana where long tables have been set up. They enjoy a gargantuan meal, the traditional zikiro, slow roasted lamb, brought from the nearby Pyrenees Mountains.

There is room for everyone at sanfermines, and those looking for sophistication will also find their way. For example, in one of the many great restaurants of the city where they will be able to experience the great products of the Navarra countryside (artichokes, white asparagus, red beans, piquillo peppers, et al) together with astonishingly high quality meats, such as lamb or beef. Some of these restaurants include Europa, Rodero, Josetxo, Egües or Zaldiko. Be sure to make a reservation well in advance.

After lunch, those able to sleep through incessant noise can nap for a bit. The rest can engage in conversations over patxaranes, gin & tonics or cubatas (rum and coke). The late afternoon, around 4pm, is probably the quietest time in Pamplona during sanfermines. It’s the calm before the storm. At around 5:30 PM, all the peñas start marching towards the Plaza de Toros, a huge 1920’s bullfighting ring (the second largest in Spain), that hosts 20,000 people. The members of the peñas dance to the music of their brass bands, playing popular tunes that everyone knows, as people spontaneously join them chanting and dancing through the streets of Pamplona.

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At the Plaza de Toros, the party is divided into two sides: the first is the area under the shade (called sombra); spectators are there impeccably dressed in white and red, serenely watching the bullfights and occasionally drinking a glass of wine or champagne. In front of them, in the area facing the sun (called sol) insanity, excess and anarchy rule. Propelled by the unrelenting sound of the brass bands, people dance, happily joke and shout at one another over the music. Many of them are members of peñas. They share drinks, cigarettes and huge cigars. On the upper level of sol, it’s even more chaotic, almost unbearable. Here the younger crowd, who only go occasionally to the Plaza de Toros during the festival, throw sangria on one another throughout the entire evening. In sol barely anyone pays attention to the bullfights. After the third bull of the evening (of a total of six from the encierro), the feast resumes with more food. It’s supper, here called merienda. Gorka and his wife are at sol, sitting with the rest of ‘Los de Bronce’. Some days fellow bull runners such as Mikel Benito or Patxi Ciganda join them. Typically, for a group of 7 or 8 people, they bring merienda for 10 (and they end up feeding 15). This is not a ‘snack’. A standard merienda with Gorka’s group would include substantial dishes such as marmitako (tuna stew with potato and peppers), white bean stew, spaghetti with baby eel or pork ribs. Appetizers would include shrimp, prawns, winkles, chorizo made of boar meat and ham. Everyone carries the merienda in huge pots, together with massive containers of sangria, beer or kalimotxo (red wine mixed with coke). Everything and everyone mixes it up in sol: prawns brought from the coast of Huelva with rustic chorizo sandwiches, beautifully crafted gin & tonics with young wine drank from a traditional bota, bankers mingle with unemployed people, young partygoers with old ones, all dancing, singing, kissing, hugging, drinking and smoking in an orgy that lasts for two hours.

The end of the bullfight doesn’t mark the end of the party. The brass bands will keep playing for some hours, engaging people on their route through the narrow streets of Pamplona. Gorka, Mikel and Patxi follow the music only until arriving at the bar Txoko, at the entrance of the Plaza del Castillo. Ernest Hemingway, who put the sanfermines on the world map with his novels, was a loyal customer here. Txoko has an outdoor counter for ordering cubatas as the peñas and their bands pass. Their bodies already fatigued, Gorka and his friends normally just have energy for one or two more drinks. But for others, mostly teenagers and young adults, sanfermines start at this point, when the sun goes down. The streets fill up with partygoers throughout night, the bars open until dawn, the music loud and bodies brushing against one another.

Gorka, Mikel, Patxi and the rest of the more serious Pamplona bull runners will wake up again at 6:15 AM. They won’t have any food or drink, not even water, until the start of the encierro at 8:00 AM. There is only room for the mix of fear and excitement generated by running as close as possible to a deadly bull. After that, the best party in the world will start again, running in an excessive, chaotic, insatiable loop.

Photos by Maite Mateo and Hanna Quevedo.