Old-World Religion, New-World Hooliganism, Invigorating Bullfights Color the Spanish Backdrop

The abundant art of Spain mixes generations of culture with a rich historial backdrop. (Courtesy of Serena Renner)

Rows of buses full of Spaniards and tourists flock to Pamplona,
in early July for
the running of the bulls, with some of Spain’s
most eager souls arriving in the early morning after a sleep-deprived overnight

The people — packs of teens and young adults toting large
jugs of a mysterious dark liquid, elderly couples with canvas bags and
newlyweds hand-in-hand — stumble off the buses, anticipating an energetic
afternoon and even livelier evening, and everyone is dressed uniformly in white
shirts and red bandanas. Uninformed enthusiasts quickly shed any disparate
clothing and buy overstocked t-shirts and irregular bandanas with the hope that
no one realizes their folly, and they succeed.

The crowds proceed to the town center where a carnival
awaits, complete with unimpressive games and carnies (whose tricks are bound by
no borders), balloons and a Ferris wheel, which tots and their parents ride
until naptime. Toothless Spanish children beg their parents for
chocolate-covered churros, and after a harsh, Spanish “No!” their grandparents
say yes behind mommy’s back.

Further along the walk, a fashionable teen sporting a mullet
(completely acceptable) tries to knock down milk jugs and win his novia a plush
toy. Close by, his parents sip on café con leche and reminisce about how they
met at Los Sanfermines many moons ago. Across the street in a park, young
adults wait for nightfall as a Basque rock band does a sound check. No one is
interested and they instead set to work on devouring simple sandwiches
consisting of a baguette and the local cured meat. The whole environment is
very innocent and charming, and an outsider begins to understand the importance
of family and friends to these people.

Soon the young adults grab their jugs full of the
half-frozen potion and libations are sloppily poured. It is calimocho — half
red wine and half Coke — and the time-tested mix goes down well. The botellón,
the gathering of youngsters drinking alcohol in parks or plazas, occurs
throughout Spain
and, in the case of large festivals, drinking occurs long before sundown.

After dark, the revelers make their way to the central
plaza, where most elders have already staked out benches.

People chat and drink, some break into dance while others
piss on walls, and the spirit of the festival is alive and well. Without
notice, fireworks light the sky in an awe-inspiring display and the finale
brings some to tears, some to kisses and some to unconsciousness. For some it’s
a remarkable end to the day, and for others it’s a subtle beginning to the

All night people crowd the streets, popping in and out of
bars to suck down cheap shots and dance with strangers, and it’s an impressive
sight. They walk along the same road that some of them will run in a number of
hours, but for now it’s a scene of controlled insanity. People are rowdy but
there is neither pretension nor ill will, and friendliness is something that
transverses all languages.

At around 5 a.m.
people begin to fade, and even some of the steadfast partiers have retired to
their death-scented rooms rented out by widows for obscene amounts of money.
Those who remain drag their weary bodies in search of somewhere to watch the
running, while others enter the stadium and find a seat before falling asleep.

Ten minutes before the 8 a.m.
running, a young Basque separatist wakes the crowd with his nationalist
slogans. As he excites the crowd with his propaganda, a rocket goes off to
signal that the encierro has begun.

Almost immediately a triumphant runner appears in the
stadium, but he is met with jeers for his premature entrance. Minutes later hundreds
of men scurry into the ring followed by six agitated bulls. The bulls barrel
through to the corral and once they are settled, a group of calves are released
to bother the runners. By now, however, most are exhausted and exit for a
siesta, for they will be doing the same thing all week.

The running of the bulls is a renowned midsummer spectacle
that attracts both curious and foolhardy spectators and, despite its immense
popularity with thousands of thrill-seeking tourists, it is also an amazing and
genuine experience appreciated by the people of Spain.
The bulls are the initial allure but upon arrival it’s clear that the running
is almost an afterthought, and the enjoyment of the festival comes from
wandering the streets and having unabashed fun. For any traveler passing
through northern Spain
in early July, it would be difficult to miss Los Sanfermines.