They are celebrating Ernest Hemingway's 100th birthday here this year at the Festival of San Fermin, though the swashbuckling author who helped transform this ancient city into a week-long worldwide destination couldn't possibly have imagined what has transpired here since his ninth and final visit in 1959.
There is a statue of Hemingway not far from the main entrance of the Plaza de Toros, the final stop for the six bulls that run from their stalls through the narrow streets every morning, accompanied on their last trip by several thousand macho and mostly male maniacs trying to stay out of hoof and horn's way.
The running of the bulls, which always starts on the seventh day of the seventh month, hasn't really changed all that much, save for the annual increase in the number of sprinters gathered inside the fenced-in, three-quarter-mile funnel to the bullring. There are now about 2,500 during the week, with as many as 4,000 on the weekend. The same evening, the brave and surely bewildered beasts--bred to fight to their inevitable death by the sword of a preening, prancing matador--will be unceremoniously dragged out of the arena by a team of horses, then sold as fresh meat the following day in nearby butcher shops.
The morality of the bullfight will not be debated here. You either love it, hate it, ignore it or protest it, as some animal-rights activists do every day not far from the ring. But that is hardly the most troubling element of this so-called religious festival that has become an excuse for a massive display of public drunkenness and boorish behavior.
Even Hemingway has not been spared. His statue, for example, often used as a pre- or post-bullfight meeting place, has been desecrated. Metal letters on the plaque explaining his role in this event have been wantonly looted, somehow pried from the concrete as a souvenir, probably by some lost souls who never cracked open one of his novels.
Many of the traditions glorified in his first Pamplona dispatches (in 1923 as a correspondent for the Toronto Star and in his book "Fiesta" in 1926) remain intact. The brass and drum bands known as charangas still parade through town day and night as celebrants dance to their beat. The bands represent the 16 clubs established in the 19th century to spread the joy of the fiesta throughout the city. They and their 5,000 club members gather in the sunny end of the bullring for the evening fights--standing, singing, swaying and playing--while the more serious followers sit in the shade, somberly critiquing every aspect of the spectacle below.
The encierro, or running of the bulls through the streets, begins moments after a rocket signals the release of the bulls from their stockades. Another rocket is set off when every bull has left the pen and a third announces the bulls are inside the ring. The final one is set off as an all-clear signal when the animals are safe, for the moment, in the bullring's corral.
Television cameras are located along the route to beam pictures of the running throughout the world, complete with slow-motion replays of the worst tramplings and gorings. Thirteen people have been killed since Hemingway arrived, the last one Matthew Tassio, a 22-year-old American, in 1995. The morning newspaper, the Diario de Navarra, offers a daily list of injuries, with a four-color bar chart showing how many occurred at each location. It is not uncommon to see wounded runners proudly walking the streets, their plaster casts, crutches, slings and stitched-up faces all badges of courage they're more than eager to display.
Once the bulls are inside the ring, they are greeted by thousands of celebrants in the stone stands, all wearing the traditional white pants and shirt with red scarves. Many are operating on zero sleep after a night of partying in the surrounding streets.
One obviously drunk young fellow was in a people-fighting mood on Thursday. Located about 20 rows up in the stands, he started swinging his arms wildly at anyone who got in his way. All around him, fans whistled angrily, then several started pushing him down the steps, some swinging back, until the misguided lad hopped over the fence and into the ring and gestured defiantly toward the crowd above. At that point, about a dozen furious young men (and several women) leapt into the ring with him, knocked him to the dirt and started punching and stomping him. It lasted for several scary seconds until four policemen waded in, nightsticks swinging, and dragged the semiconscious kid away, accompanied by more shrill whistles of discontent.
The bullfight seemed almost civilized in comparison. Under the proper circumstances, a bullfight offers a splashy scene of color, sound, passion and fury, and the ones here annually attract the world's most accomplished matadors. The ring holds 20,000 spectators, with no posh skyboxes or jumbo screens for replays, just beer and sodas served out of ice-filled buckets between each of the six nightly fights. Cushions, which rent for 150 pesetas (about $1), are often thrown into the ring to show disdain for a poor performance.
This year, many visitors from around the world came expecting to see the latest idol of the masses and hero of Spain, 16-year-old Julian Lopez, known here simply as El Juli.
He learned his craft as a 10-year-old, quit school after the eighth grade and graduated from novice status last summer. He is now Spain's youngest full-fledged matador, though hardly the first to achieve such lofty status at such a tender age. Just this week, his baby face, marred only by a crescent-shaped scar, adorns the covers of several large-circulation magazines. But he is nowhere to be seen here this week.
Ask why and the explanation comes in a universal language. At La Perla, the hotel where Hemingway often stayed when he visited, the desk clerk simply rubbed his fingers together and responded "mucho dinero," indicating the lad or his managers were simply asking for too much money. Then he began cowering, a mock implication that perhaps the world-class animals from the best breeding farms in Spain might have been a bit much for El Juli to handle.
But there are other marquee names--Tomas Campuzano, Rivera Ordonez--the grandson of the great Ordonez immortalized by his friend Hemingway in "The Sun Also Rises"--and my personal favorite, J.A. Ruiz, otherwise known as Espartico.
On my first trip to Pamplona in 1991 (a year when I limped on sore knees with the bulls for about 20 yards before ducking under a fence and splitting my pants), Espartico was performing, and I thought him either the bravest or most foolish man I had ever seen in any sporting arena. A pint-size bundle of sheer machismo, he literally stuck his nose in front of one bull's face, then disdainfully turned his back on the poor beast, daring him to charge. It was quite a show, one that clearly justified the journey and led to a second pilgrimage this week.
This time, though, the garbage truck may have replaced the bull as the main symbol of this festival, as the diligent waste management soldiers do their best to clean streets strewn with the previous night's plastic cups and shattered bottles, washing away trash with high-powered hoses and a small fleet of street-cleaning machines.
There are sleeping bodies on benches and park lawns all over town, as ragtag revelers sleep off the previous night's binge. One wonders if Papa would still approve.
CAPTION: Ernest Hemingway's famous stomping ground.
CAPTION: Runners chant and wave newspapers, awaiting the release of the bulls.