Once upon a sunny day in September a long time ago, in a beautiful German town, and just before I got ready to make my way towards a new beginning, a very dear person from what is now my past told me if I ever got to go to Pamplona, I should drink a cup of coffee at Café Iruña, possibly at the same table Hemingway used to sit. “Imagine you’re drinking it with me”, he said with that certainty of absolute knowledge of the thing that would happen eventually, even though I for one was sure I would never get there. And yet, a couple of years later, way into that new beginning of mine, there I was.
The opportunity showed itself and I simply grasped it. I took a round trip by train thinking I could spend a whole day in Pamplona and then get back to Madrid. I used to love travelling alone, because I didn’t have to depend on anyone or even talk to anyone, if I didn’t feel like it. I got there in the morning, and I took a cab down town. It didn’t take me long to find Café Iruña, but before that, I had some fun and I learned something as well. I couldn’t remember the exact name, so I started asking people who seemed to be locals and a couple of policemen where Hemingway’s cafe was.
“Whose coffee house did you say you were looking for?” asked one of the policemen. “̶Oh, you know”, I started, “the well-known coffee-shop where that American writer, He-min-gway used to come”. I spelled it on purpose. I was definitively sure that was why he didn’t get it; who knew how they used to say his name in Spanish. The policeman smiled and asked his partner if he knew any American writer who lived in Pamplona. The other one knew what I was talking about and told me I should be looking for Café Iruña, in Plaza del Castillo. When he gave me the directions, I realized it was actually nearby. On my way, I found the Museum of Pamplona’s Bull Run, and I stopped there. It was all modern and shinny and the guide was very nice, so I decided to take a look before I had that cup of coffee I had promised, at Hemingway’s cafe. The guide talked about him from the very beginning.
“The Festival of San Fermin (Encierro de San Fermín) takes place in Pamplona for the first time in 1922 and ever since has lasted a week in early July (from the 6th to the 14th) every year. But the Festival has earned its spot on the international map thanks to the American writer Ernest Hemingway, who came here in 1923 and enjoyed it so much that he used to say no other carnival in the world can ever set free the kind of feelings, emotions and sensations the runners tried during the race. Despite the videos, the runners don’t actually run from the bulls”, the guide explained, “as much as with them, practically guiding them towards the Plaza de Torros, where the race ends and the climax of the show takes place”.
I must have had a skeptical look on my face, listening to her talking of the greatness and beauty of the bull run. I actually thought the bulls were poor tortured animals, to the strange and almost masochistic pleasure of the runners and viewers. So the guide tried to talk me into seeing why these races of Pamplona represent, beyond the personal reasons someone might have for taking part, a whole self-overrun paradigm. “It’s all about the challenge the runners set ahead of them: to run in front of an animal, as anonymously as possible, taking well-known risks. But at the same time, he also agrees to show solidarity to the other runners, so that if any of them is in danger, they will all help and protect each other”. “Well”, I said, “this sounds very nice, but I still don’t get what makes them willingly go the way of a raging bull? Accidents happen, right?”. “Take it as a challenge: win over your fears, have the sense of danger and the adrenaline you feel mounting up when you find yourself in front of six unpredictable bulls. Eventually, it all leads up to the passion each of the up to 4.000 runners feel, all while wearing the traditional white and the red head dress around their necks. You’re asking me what makes them stand in front of the bull. But how could you explain that a show that generally takes two minutes and a half (the duration of each race) keeps a whole world in front of the TV screens, every morning for seven days in July? We’re talking about 80 million viewers all over the globe”. “Yeah, I was wondering about that just as much”, I said. “That’s because it´s an old celebration, a tradition”, she continued. “The first documented data of this feast of Navarra goes back way into the 14th century. In 1385, King Charles II used to invite his gentry and the whole court to the old place of the bulls – the nowadays Plaza del Castillo. Why? It was a show, it was entertainment – exclusively for the aristocracy, at the beginning. Eventually, bringing the bulls here became a show itself for the populace who didn’t gain access in the place. It’s not until 1876 that the bull runs get to be officially a feast, and it’s in 1922 when the Plaza de Torros gets its inaugural opening as it is today, at the other side of the old city of Pamplona. The original length of the race has been preserved – 849 meters long – and six bulls and six oxen take part (the later must steer the bulls) after previously being kept in a small pound. They are brought at the start point every night before the race and that’s what we call “encierillo’/the little race/: there’s a distance of about 400 meters long, with no runners, just the shepherds and the viewers who keep silent and pay their respects”, said the guide, mysteriously enough to make me feel like she revealed some great secrets, destined for the insiders only. “The first rockets gives way to opening the gates, early in the morning of the 7th of July. The second one shows there is no animal left in the pound, and this is the routine that repeats itself every morning till the 14th of July. Every race lasts for about two minutes and a half, but the longest one has been recorded in 1886, when it took no less than six hours to finish. The celebration wasn’t that organized at the time”, she concluded.
The Museum had just been opened back then, in July 2010. The owners were Spanish young people who had studied abroad and then came back and thought of this private venture: the first Bull Run Museum in Pamplona /San Fermín, Museo del Encierro/. It simply collects data, images, 3D videos and even race simulators of this show that now belongs to the world and takes place every year. The owners consider themselves insiders and claim they want to spread and share the uniqueness of the races, but from a different point of view: one that preserves the cultural singularity of the celebration. By means of the new technologies, such as 3D race simulators, fervent fans can virtually take part in such a race at any time of the year.
I guess this is how I tried to see through the enthusiasm of the story I was told: the first bull race museum in Pamplona was a success. I actually found it strange there had been no such museum before, in this particular town that became so famous thanks to this event, for such a long time. There are bull races in different other places in Spain, but it was Pamplona that got to earn its fame all over the world thanks to Hemingway, who´d come there and let himself be rapt by the feast. The festival does fascinate hundreds of thousands, millions of people every year, reporters broadcast live coverage for every race and every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists simply invade Pamplona. Locals who own houses on the Calle de la Estafeta, that is on the last part of the race, either rent them during that week in July or just let the balconies and terraces for a large amount of money, with hundreds of euros worth of a view.
I still didn’t get to feel anything special when I heard the story of the festival, no matter how many traditions it had or how old they were. I thought it was at least an odd celebration; I couldn’t possibly understand why someone could be amazed and excited when running in front of a bunch of raging bulls. I got the pseudo-philosophical motivations, I understood the sense of the solidarity to the other runners, the adrenaline rush, the time some of the runners take to prepare, sometimes for years in their families, with their fathers – yet I couldn’t even get to agree with them. What makes a living human being throw himself in front of the guaranteed danger, the uncontrollable, unstoppable danger, just for the fun of it? That human being must be looking for something that he´s missing. What’s that? What is it that makes them go on even when one of the runners slips and gets to be jabbed by the bull ripping through his guts and sucking the life out of him? The same exact thing, probably. They´re looking for something. The ones who get to the end of the race have a lot to talk about, things to tell. Whereas the others…
I got right away to Café Iruña and the writer´s corner – El Rincón de Hemingway – the part of the Café his presence had made famous. I also saw the Hotel Perla in the Plaza del Castillo, where he used to stay when he got to Pamplona. I looked around for a while: it was an old-fashioned cafe, with a huge hall, marble floors and pillars that mimicked antique sculptures. At the bar of El Rincón de Hemingway I was welcomed by a real-size Hemingway bronze sculpture and then I got up a spiral staircase where the place was small and private. If it kept something of the times he used to come there, I could definitely understand how such a place could inspire him, or at least why someone could be so prolific just by writing here.
I asked for a cafe latte on the terrace, because it was a fine brisk day. I had just begun to feel I had finally got rid of the Madrid stuffiness, so I lit a cigarette and poured the coffee over an iced glass, thinking of one the books Hemingway had written, inspired as he was by Pamplona and the bull races. I had never especially enjoyed him, but I had to admit the way he did his writing, making the reader think of the story underneath the story – what he himself had got to name as the iceberg theory, consistent with the fact that only an eighth of the iceberg floats above the water, the whole rest is under it, and that was how such a huge mass of water actually moved – was not only special, but also very hard to get. Apparently, he just tells the story of a group of young people who live their lives in between Paris, Pamplona and New York, who drink, eat and enjoy the show, live love stories, have problems and occasionally fight. Actually, fascinated critics say, what Hemingway does is simply show with no words whatsoever, no hints and no explanations what all was about that lost generation, invented and named as such by Gertrude Stein. They were the young Americans who had been young enough to be considered children but seen as mature enough to go fight in the First World War. The ones who had come back, some of them physically or spiritually crippled had things to tell, and some – event to write about.
Inspired by the place I found myself in, I thought I should also look underneath the story or the stories of the thousands of runners, of each and every one of them all who risked their lives every year, who could die or live crippled, willingly throwing themselves in front of the bulls. They didn’t run from them, they raced along with the animals, guided them to the end, the climax of the show, towards the bull place. These were the facts. This was the story. Why they did all that was the thing I could not get, just as a layman of natural science does not understand how an iceberg only lets its peak to be seen, and it really slides in the water from under it. Still, even a profane can find the explanation: the iceberg’s density is a little lower than the one of the salted sea water and this is why icebergs seem to float entirely, whereas the greatest part of them lays sunk. But what was the explanation for what I saw at the surface: a group of lunatics who didn’t love their lives enough not to throw themselves in front of death, hoping for an adrenaline rush and a strong sensation of power, with stories to tell their grandchildren? In everything Hemingway writes, he doesn’t say nor explain why he sees absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the story himself, thus leaving a bunch of aspects to be interpreted as he sees fit. Most of the readers see through what he wanted to say, or at least their thoughts and impressions revolve around the same main ideas. So maybe that was what I failed to understand and seemingly everybody did: what could make the runners choose danger, adrenaline, fears, possible pain or even death over life – or at least life as a viewer of such terrible shows.