Thursday, July 13, 2006


I managed to get up this morning just in time to see the encierro, the running of the bulls, televised live from the fiestas of San Fermin in Pamplona. Just in case anyone thinks otherwise, I have got absolutely no interest in bullfighting; but I enjoy watching the encierros. So wouldn’t it be better to watch them directly in Pamplona itself? Well my experience of these fiestas a few years ago tells me that if I want to get a decent view then I’m much better off sitting on my sofa in Madrid watching the adverts for Navarran asparagus than I would be on the streets of Pamplona. There all I managed to see were the runners entering the bullring, many of them arriving well before the first bull. Getting any sort of viewpoint on the streets where the bulls run seemed to require getting there at about 4 or 5 in the morning; at which point I was probably still jammed in the middle of a crowd with a hugely overpriced beer in my hand.

Of course Pamplona is not the only place in Spain where it’s possible to see encierros, but it is easily the most well known both inside and outside of Spain. This is one of the reasons why running with the bulls there has become potentially more dangerous in the last few years, the huge numbers of people who turn up to run makes the course more difficult for both people and bulls, as there is less space to move around in. This is particularly the case at the weekend, and the advice I got from a native of the city is always to go to the fiestas during the week to avoid the crowds. It seems to be the case now with most of the major fiestas in Spain that they attract large numbers from all over the country (and overseas), and are consequently much more crowded and less “local” than they used to be. In the case of San Fermin, Hemingway made the fiestas famous a long time ago. It is probably the prospect of dealing with huge crowds at every turn that has put me off visiting some of the other major fiestas, such as the Fallas in Valencia or the Feria de Abril in Seville.

Madrid has none of these problems, the fiestas both for the city as a whole, and those that are more based around a particular barrio, tend to be much more low key than in other places. This has a contradictory effect, on the one hand there are no fiestas in Madrid that you feel are so unmissable that you can’t go away somewhere else for the weekend; on the other hand it makes them more accessible than those in other cities. Even so, the numbers attending, particularly those held in the summer months, has been rising in the last few years. Maybe it’s because the fiestas are now the only occasions when it’s legal in Madrid to drink alcohol on the street – a result of measures taken to try and put an end to the “botellon” where people buy their drinks in supermarkets and then look for a square or park where they can drink them.

There was one slight change in Pamplona this year, the city councillor chosen to launch the fiestas avoided the customary “Viva San Fermin” on the grounds of being agnostic – so we got “Vivan las fiestas de San Fermin” instead.

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