100 years ago the world and the fiesta looked much different than it does today. The “war to end all wars” had finally come to an end on November 11, 1918 and the world was ready to move on. It would still be a few years before Papa Hemingway made his way south from Paris to Navarra’s capital of Pamplona, essentially to do some fly fishing in the Pyrenees, but the fiesta had caught his attention.
In 1919 the Fiestas y Ferias de San Fermín spanned 13 days and nights beginng on July 6, with the Grandes Corridas de Toros, the for-runner to today’s Feria del Toro, the festival of the bull, covering 5 days, from July 7 through the 11, when such preeminent matadors as Belmonte and Dominguin, whom Hemingway would later write about, entertained the overflowing crowds that filled Spain’s second largest bullring, the Plaza de Toros de Pamplona.
By the 1970s the scope of the festival was cut back to it’s present 9 days, from July 6 through July 14, giving us eight days of the encierros, the running of the bulls.
Contact Sanfermin Tours to arrange a special package for you in Pamplona for Sanfermines 2019, and the running of the bulls.
The Fiesta de San Fermín and the running of the bulls
There are at least three ways to attend the fiesta in Pamplona. The first, and by far the most popular, is to do what tens of thousands of others have done year after year; make your own arrangements.Papa Hemingway did so when he first visited the city in the 1920s, but there remains one small problem with this method, which was the same then as it is now.Unless you are familiar with the city, and the surrounding area, it is often difficult to decide where to stay since this is not your normal tourist destination. You don’t want to be too far out because of the difficulty of getting into the old city, the Casa Viejo, for the day’s events.Taxis are nearly impossible during the first days of the fiesta and the city busses will be full morning and night.
Besides a shortage of available rooms, finding something affordable can be difficult at times, even when searching outside of the city center.Hotels, hotel-apartments and hostels typically charge 3 to 5 times their normal rate during fiesta.Lately hotels have begun charging the festival rate beginning the 5th of July, and a few as early as the 4th, depending on which day of the week the fiesta begins on.In 2015, the fiesta begins on a Monday, which means that the festival rate may begin as early as Friday, the 3rd of July.
Another issue in making your own arrangements is that although a few hotels do accept early bookings, but the majority do not set their official festival rates until the end of the year and generally will not accept reservations before then unless you are a regular client.Response time has improved with online bookings, but room selection may be a problem, as not all of the rooms are listed or shown as being available on your dates.
As you may already be aware, many regular visitors to the fiesta either stay with friends or family.Younger visitors from around Navarra and the Basque country usually end up sleeping on the ground in one of the city’s parks, while most of the younger festival goers from elsewhere in Spain, as well as many of the foreigns, either end up sleeping on the ground with the others, or, if they are lucky, find an opening at one of the many campgrounds in the countryside, some of which can be some distance away.
Another way to attend the fiesta is if you know someone who has been there before, and who can introduce you to some aspects of the fiesta, maybe even help you find a room.If you do know someone like that, they are usually very enthusiastic, but may not have experienced those parts of the fiesta that actually make it truly unique and one of the most popular festivals in Europe.But that’s not to say that you still can’t have a good time and come away with great memories.
Many of us who attend the fiesta as part of their business started out this way, building on our experiences over the years, forming relationships and close friendships as the fiesta became part of our lives.In turn, we try to provide the best possible experience for all of our clients, some of whom have become our friends, returning as often as possible to enjoy the fiesta with us and the people of Pamplona.This, of course, is the third way to attend the fiesta, joining a group like Sanfermín Tours who can introduce you to the many aspects of the Fiesta de San Fermín and the Feria del Toro and the Running of the bulls you will not discover on your own.
A little more about the city and it’s fiesta
The city of Pamplona goes all out for the fiesta, one of the largest in Spain, providing everything free of charge except for balconies and bullfight tickets.There are concerts everyday beginning on the 6th of July with a mix of local, regional and international musicians, which in recent years have included the Gipsy Kings and our friend, and Latin Grammy Award Winning Basque musician, Kepa Junkera.The fiesta includes traditional Basque sports, a major international fireworks competition with displays nightly at 11:00, special days set aside for children and seniors as well as a separate children’s festival, the magic of the historic Gigantes and Cabezudos (giants and big heads), the kilikis and zaldikos and the traditional Procession of San Fermin, where the city pays homage to one of their two patron saints.
Every year the fiesta attracts ten of thousands of visitors from throughout Spain, Europe and around the world.The numbers have grown substantially since the early 90’s, but until recently hotels, hotel-apartments and hostals in the city were primarily serving the needs of those visiting the Clínica Universitaria de Navarra (Navarre University Hospital), one of Spain’s premier hospital facilities and medical universities. With only about 1300 hotel rooms located in the city center, i.e. within easy walking distance of the Old City, the center of the fiesta, and an equal number of rooms further out, anywhere from 4 and 10 km distance from the city center, Pamplona is unable to easily accommodate such a huge influx of daily visitors. If you are seriously thinking about attending the fiesta on your own, you have to plan as far in advance as possible.Of the total number of hotel rooms in the city center, less than half are ever available during the fiesta because of returning clientele.Some families have been staying at the same hotel for generations and their rooms are always held aside for them.
Most of the hotels located within the city center and Casa Viejo, the old quarter, are either 3 or 4-star, but there are four 2-star hotels and and single 1-star property.There is also a small deluxe boutique 4-star hotel, the Palacio Guendulain, and the 5-star GH La Perla (of Hemingway fame), both in the Casa Viejo. It’s not much when you consider that the city receives an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 visitors a day during the week and up to 200,000 festival goers over the weekend, nearly doubling its population. Note, if you are planning on staying outside of the city center, you will have to rely on public transportation or city taxis to get you to and from your hotel.Buses run 24 hours/day, but will be crowded in the early morning rush to get to the old quarter for the encierro.
Parking in the city center, or in the Casa Viejo, can be a problem anytime of the year, let alone during fiesta.And this is after the city added several hundred additional underground parking places over the years.Parking in the blue zones in the city center during fiesta had been free for several years, but this changed when the current administration came into office.
Travel between Pamplona and nearby cities or villages is difficult if you have to rely on public transportation.The earliest buses from San Sebastian-Donostia, the closest major city, do not arrive in the Pamplona until after the start of the encierro, meaning that you would have to plan on arriving the night before and spend that night on the street or sleep in the park, if you want to be there in time for the encierro at 8:00 am the next morning.
How To Arrive
If you were staying in San Sebastián-Donostia and wanted to attend the fiesta, you would have to leave very early in the morning in order to be in Pamplona in time for the encierro.It’s about an hour’s drive, depending on traffic and it may take you awhile to find a place to park, if driving, which is why we recommend hiring a private transfer or taking a taxi. We arrange a private transfer from San Sebastian-Donostia, Bilbao or Logroño (La Rioja). Sanfermín Tours can also provide transfers from anywhere in Spain, or the south of France, but they need to be arranged in advance to be sure the service is available, especially during the opening days of the fiesta and over the weekend, when the demand is high.
Direct flights and trains arrive from Barcelona or Madrid and there is regular bus service from Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao and San Sebastian-Donostia during fiesta, but the earliest buses do not arrive until after 8:00 am. They will also be crowded during the fiesta, especially those buses arriving from Bilbao and San Sebastian as some people travel back and forth daily during the week.
Some people arrive early the morning of July 6 to get their favorite spot, but the Plaza Ayuntamiento really begins to fill up starting around 9:30 am as more people find their way and by noon the crowd fills the small plaza with more than 15,000 festival goers, with 10s of thousands more filling the streets leading to the plaza and several thousands more filling the Plaza del Castillo, the center of the fiesta, watching everything on the giant screens set up in the plaza. Most people are dressed in the traditional white and red, swaying back and forth as if in a giant mosh pit. Before long, most are covered from head to toe in cheap red wine.
As the morning progresses the intensity of the crowd grows as they await the clock atop the town hall to strike high noon when the first of several rockets, el chupinazo (txupinazo in Basque) will be fired from the balcony of the mayor’s office overlooking the town hall square. “Viva!”, Gora!” comes the cry, followed by ”Pamploneses, Pamplonesas, Viva San Fermín! Gora San Fermín!” The crowd erupts. The fiesta has begun.
If you plan on joining the crowd in the “mosh pit”, do not wear any clothes you value, do not wear sandals or carry a camera.This is also not the place for children. You and the children would be better off watching from the comfort of a balcony.
Throughout its long history, the Sanfermines has been interrupted on only a few occasions, and always for political reasons. In 1937 and 1938 it was because of the Civil War, La Guerra Civil (17 July 1936-1 April 1939) and as recently as 1997, when there was a partial suspension of the fiesta following the kidnapping of a young city council member from the village of Emua in Vizcaya, Miguel Ángel Blancol, who was subsequently murdered by members of ETA, the Basque separatist group, two days later. The word of his death reached us on a Saturday afternoon and brought about an immediate halt to the bullfights. Thousands of Pamplonicas, dressed in the traditional festival costume of white and red, began to fill the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the town hall square, demanding a suspension of the fiesta. The angry protest continued throughout the night with thousands more filling the Plaza del Castillo demanding an end to ETA. The fiesta finally resumed later Sunday morning, but the anger remained, with several clashes in the streets on the 14th between ETA supports and those who rejected the terrorist group. 1997 was also the year that President Clinton was rumored to come, but that is another story.
The political tensions prior to the start of Sanfermines 1978 were clear. Generalissimo Francisco Franco was still dead (November 1975). Navarra was claimed by the Basque nationalists as part of the Basque Country during a debate on the Constitution. The pro-amnesty week of 8-15 May 1977 had ended with two dead in the streets. In November the same year, ETA had assassinated the commander of the Guardia Civil, La Policía Armada, in Pamplona, only to have him replaced by a more hard-line commander to teach the rebellious Pamplonicas a lesson. This climate of violence during the first months of 1978 continued with actions in the streets by members of the extreme right and by nationalists. In May, the second in command of the Civil Guard was killed while walking in the street. Several Spanish flags placed by the City Council around the city were burned, including some ikurriñas, the Basque flag. On the afternoon of July 3, a group of eight people locked themselves in the City Hall, demanding amnesty for political prisoners and requesting freedom for the 5 detainees who have been rounded up in May after the death of the Guardia Civil commander. Tensions were beginning to boil over and after the death of Germán Rodríguez on July 8, and the subsequent death of another young man in a demonstration of solidarity in San Sebastián, it became difficult for the fiesta to continue.
At the end of the bullfights on the 8th, to the loud applause, whistles and shouts of San Fermín! San Fermin!, a few dozen young people from one of the local Peñas jumped into the bullring unfolding a banner demanding the release of the prisoners who have been rounded up by the Guardia Civil, drawing an immediate altercation between supporters of and those opposed to politicization of the Peñas. A few minutes went by before members of the Guardia Civil, dressed in riot gear and armed, entered the Plaza de Toros and attacked the Peñas. There were about 200 Guardia Civil surrounding the Plaza at the time, all armed. The tension exploded as the Guardia Civil began their attack, first firing rubber bullets and tossing smoke grenades and teargas canisters, and finally using live ammunition, firing wildly into the crowds in the stands. Seven Peña members were wounded by the resulting gunfire. Of the nearly 20,000 people attending the bullfights, many scrambled for their lives out of the Plaza de Toros, scattering through the streets, while others faced the Guardia Civil, throwing anything they could get their hands on, before the mayhem finally spread to the streets surrounding the bullring.
At the intersection of Calle Roncesvalles and Carlos III, at around 10:15 pm, Germán Rodríguez, a young man from Pamplona, was struct in the forehead, according to some by a burst of deadly machine gun fire. 40 years later it is still unknown who fired the fatal shot and the type of weapon used. Germán, a member of the Revolutionary Communist League (LKI) and the son of a well-known local family, died hours later at the hospital.
The riot turned into a full-on revolt, the battle lasting until dawn as demonstrators tried to attack the Civil Government and the palace of the Provincial Council. On the morning of the 9th, the center of the city was a sobering sight with banks, shops and bars destroyed. Dozens of cars, used as barricades, were still burning, more destroyed in the riot. Thousands of tourists fled the city as fast as they could, terrified. In the end, there was one dead and eleven wounded by gunfire, another 200 suffering different injuries during the long night. Protests spread throughout Navarra and into the Basque Country. In San Sebastián, another young man, José Barandiaran, died in a demonstration.
After two days of mourning, on July 11, Pamplona’s mayor announced from the balcony in the Ayuntamiento that the festivities were permanently suspended. As a result of the cancellation, the Sanfermines pequeños (small Sanfermines) were celebrated in September. Interesting enough, many Pamplonicas remember them as one of the best fiestas, without foreigners, a real family atmosphere, having finally recovered the feeling of a local celebration that had been missing since the late 1920s, which, in large part thanks to Ernest Hemingway, had been transformed in a universal party.
In 2005 the documentary Sanfermines 78, directed by Juan Gautier and José Ángel Jiménez, was presented at the Malaga Spanish Film Festival. The documentary provided unpublished images of both the clashes in the streets and the entrance of the Guardia Civil in the Plaza de Toros in coverage that had not been seen since the news on July 9, 1978. This year, 40 years later, we remember those events and say, never again!
It was extremely hot on that long ago 6th of July. From the very early morning hours, Pamplona, the capital of Navarra, had begun to prepare for its weeklong fiesta of bullfights, dances under the stars, concerts, fair rides and of course, “hearty drinking.” The shady terraces of the cafés Kutz, Suizo and Iruña were crowded with tables of men arguing over the merits of a handsome matador called Maera. Café conversation in Spain has always included politics, and that steamy July morning in 1923 was no exception. The government was about to be overthrown by a military coup d’état (13 September), and with strikes and violent street battles going on in other parts of the country, train loads of people from Barcelona, Bilbao, Zaragoza and San Sebastián where on their way to celebrate San Fermín in Pamplona. Native Pamploneses, strolling under the acaria trees in the Plaza del Castillo, wondered where “all of the out-of-towners would possibly find a place to sleep”.
That night, while fireworks exploded in the sky over the Plaza, a tall young man accompanied by a smiling blond woman entered the lobby of the Hotel La Perla. Although they had made reservations from Paris, Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley decided against staying there, probably due to the cost of the room, because in those days the Hotel La Perla was considered to be one of the more luxurious establishments in Pamplona, with a restaurant that served French cuisine. Fortunately, less expensive rooms that even a news correspondent could afford, were available on Eslava Street near the Plaza de San Francisco. (204 Hours of Fiesta).
95 years later things have changed to some extent. Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” has attracted thousands visitors from around the world, doubling the population on a long weekend, but the dictators are long gone and the streets quiet except during fiesta. Navarra now has the third highest average income in Spain, along with low unemployment. The city of Pamplona is one of the most progressive cities in the country and a gastronomic destination in the north, joining San Sebastián-Donostia, Hondarriba and Bilbao.
But some things haven’t changed, at least not that much. It can still be extremely warm in early July if the Atlantic storms are not moving through, this is Green Spain afterall. Native Pamploneses still welcome everyone.The 5-star Grand Hotel La Perla is once again the most expensive establishment in the city, where few news correspondents today could afford to stay on their own. The small hotel on Eslava Street is gone but there is a small (28-room) 2-star Hotel Eslava in the same area at Plaza Virgen de la O, plus several comfortable 3 and 4-star properties in the old quarter and around the city from which to choose, a few more then when Hemingway first visited, but during the fiesta they can be expensive and in demand.
The “loads of people from Barcelona, Bilbao, Zaragoza, San Sebastián”, and now Madrid, sleep in the parks as they have always done, while most foreign visitors, especially those from Australia, the UK and Europe, without hotels rooms, end up staying at one of the local campgrounds, find a spot in one of the city parks, or end up on the streets of the old quarter.
Cafés Kutz and Suizo are not longer cafés. The tables at the classic Café Iruña, Bar Windsor, Casino Eslava and Txoto, where Rick and the Amigos de Pamplona hang out, are always crowded, but the converstations are somewhat different now and the tables filled with families. While the city is blessed with more then 300 restaurants, cafés and bars, during fiesta, unlike in Hemingway’s time, reservations are a must if you want to enjoy lunch in the comfort of an air-conditioned space, or dine at one of the city’s top restaurants like the Alhambra, Europa or the Michelin stared Rodero.
If you are planning on attending the fiesta this year, check out Sanfermín Tours to see what’s still available for the opening days of the fiesta.
Dressing for the fiesta, or how to look like a Pamplonica
The official dress for all events during the fiesta is the traditional festival costume of white and red: white shirt and pants, red pañuelico (bandana) and red faja(sash). The “official costume”, which is also worn by Pelota players in Navarra and the Basque country, can be purchased in Pamplona at any of the clothing stores around the city, including El Corte Inglés, Spain’s leading department store. Or better still, to insure the proper size and fit, you can bring your own pair of white pants (chinos, jeans) and a short-sleeved white polo style shirt or jersey.
The traditional pañuelico, the red bandana, is donned at noon on the 6th with the firing of the rockets, the chupinazo, during the opening ceremony, not before, and is not taken off and put away until midnight of the 14th, during the Pobre de mí, the closing ceremony.
Peña Seattle de Sanfermines provides the pañuelico for our clients. Additional pañuelicos and the fajas, can be purchased from one of the many street vendors you’ll find in and around the old quarter. Men, women and children wear the same red and white costume. Ladies can wear either all white or a mixture of red and white, red blouse, white skirt or pants (but not shorts), red bag and shoes. Dressing in San Fermín attire will allow you to integrate smoothly and completely into the spirit of the fiesta.
You might want to note at hotel laundry service is limited on the 6th and 7th, so be sure to bring enough clothes to see you through the first two days. Also, clothing stores, as well as most other shops in the city, will be closed by mid morning on July 6, if they open at all, for the opening ceremony, and all day on the 7th, an official banking holiday in Pamplona, and Sunday. You’ll need to check the schedule to see if El Corte Inglés will be open on Sunday, but it is normally open from 10:00 to 10:00 daily. Other retail stores, except those selling festival-related items, close for lunch, with only a few reopening in the afternoon, after 4:30 pm.
It is also important that you bring a comfortable pair of walking shoes as you will be doing a great deal of walking around the city day and night. Although the historic quarter of the city isn’t large, the fiesta is spread out over a much wider area, with music venues and special events being held in different parks and plazas, some up to a half-hour walk, or further, from the Plaza del Castillo, the heart of the old quarter and the center of the fiesta. And while Pamplona does an amazing job of keeping the streets and plazas clean, you will inevitably encounter broken glass somewhere along the way, especially following the opening ceremony, the early morning hours of the 7th, and on weekend mornings when the crowds are at their largest.
Wearing Sandals and “flip-flops” on these days is not recommended.
July 7th is an official religious holiday and the most important day of the Fiesta. At 10:30 on the morning of the 7th, thousands of Pamplonicas, dressed in the traditional costume of white and red, take to the streets to accompany the 15th-century, polychromed, silver-covered statue of San Fermín, clothed in a beautiful cape of red and gold, as it leaves its chapel in the Church of San Lorenzo, on Calle Mayor, at the entrance to the Old Quarter, the Caso Antiguo, to be paraded around its narrow streets by the civil and church authorities of the city in a religious procession of song, dance and prayers, lasting several hours before finally ending back at the Church of San Lorenzo with a holy mass to honor the patron saint of the fiesta, Pamplona’s parton saint of the fiesta. The Comparsa de Gigantes, the Company of Giants, marches at the head of the procession. Behind come the ecclesiastical authorities, buglers, kettledrums and txistularis, traditional flute players, who precede the statue of the Saint, followed closely by the Archbishop of Pamplona, the mayor and city council members, and bringing up the rear is the beloved Pamplonesa Municipal Band. Here the Giants dance to the sounds of the Gaita and Txistu, traditional Basque flutes, as the bells of the Cathedral ring out.
After mass, the Comparsa de Gigantes head back to the Plaza Consistorial, to dance to the delight of the thousands of Pamplonicas filling the plaza in front of the town hall. From there its off to lunch!