Sanfermines ’78

1978Throughout 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!

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Bullfighters and the Running of the Bulls

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Although not a common sight, El Fandi, Rivera Ordoñez and Padilla have been some of the famous matadors, professional bullfighters, who have run with the bulls in the encierro in Pamplona, a mere 10 hours before facing them in the bullring.  Wishing to feel the risk, they blend in with the crowd, going unnoticed except by a few friends and seldom without live coverage from the TV cameras lining the route.  While fame and glory may await them in the afternoon, running with the bulls is a completely different game for them, but one that is no less dangerous.  El Juli (Julián López Escobar) once remarked in an interview that he would never run with the bulls, saying “in the Plaza de Toros I have control, but not so in the street”.

Antonio Ordoñez, one of Spain’s most famous bullfighters and grandfather of Rivera Ordoñez and younger brother Cayetano, was one of the first contemporary bullfighters known to have often taken part in the encierro, the running of the bulls, in Pamplona.  While it’s likely some of the earlier bullfighters would also have run with the bulls, there is no photographic record.  Ordoñez would run as often as he could alongside some of his brothers, members of the Peña Oberena, which itself ran for the first time in 1941.  Born in Ronda in 1932, he made his first public appearance as a bullfighter in 1948 and in 1951, at aged 19, appeared in the bullring in Madrid.  From his first appearance as a professional bullfighter in 1952, until his retirement in 1971, he rarely missed an encierro, and there were times, as can be seen in photographs from the ’60’s, when he helped out the pastores (herders), the eight men, who now wear dark green shirts with the word PASTORES emblazoned in white on the back, there to control and protect the animals, runners are on their own.  He never, however, ran with the bulls on the morning he was to face them in the afternoon.

Another famous bullfighter, arguably the greatest bull-fighter of the century, who also wanted to experience the excitement of the run was Luis Miguel Dominguin.  Chronicled in Hemingway’s “The Dangerous Summer”, there also is an account in Enmanuel de Marichalar’s book “El Soplo en la espalda”, A shiver up the back, or “Le soufflé dans le dos” in French, which relates how he entered the bullring holding a bull by its tail.  Dominguin crossed the length of the arena dragged along by the bull, his heels dug into the sand, letting go only when the bull was about to enter the pens on the other side, something today that would be frowned upon and could cost a novice runner 3000€.

Other well-known bullfighters that have run in the streets of Pamplona were Antonio José Galán, “Paquirri”, José María Manzanares and Luis Francisco Esplá.  Most recently Francisco Rivera Ordoñez, Juan José Padilla or El Fandi (currently ranked the No.1 bullfighter in the world) have been seen running with the bulls.

Rivera, following the family tradition of both his grandfather Antonio Ordoñez and father “Paquirri”, started running the bulls that he would later fight that day in the mid-90’s.  At first he was to be seen running in the Ayuntamiento, the Town Hall Square, where the run is short but fast, before moving to the end of Calle Estafeta near Telefonica so that he could run the final distance into the bullring with the lead bulls.  His brother, Cayetano, a high-profile model for Loewe and Armani who took his alternativa on September 9, 2006, at the age when some bullfighters begin to think about retiring, was also seen running with the bulls before his retirement.  He has subsequently returned to the bullring, fighting first in his hometown of Ronda during the 2015 season.

David Fandila, “El Fandi” not only has taken part in the run but did so with all the skill and experience of the most veteran of runners.  He was seen on July 14, 2003 running close in front of the horns of “Descotado”, a dangerous Torrestrella bull weighing in at 525 kilos, and he led the bull all the way into the ring in an encierro that lasted 4 minutes 9 seconds.  There were two gorings that morning, one very serious for a young American from Florida.  Few spectators realized at that moment that the runner with the blue polo was precisely the same bullfighter who would fight “Descotado” later that same afternoon, for which he was awarded an ear.  Curiously enough, as luck and San Fermín would have it, the same thing had happened on July 11, the previous year when he had a similar experience with an equally dangerous bull from the Jandilla ranch called “Dormidero”.  Two runners were gored that morning.

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Meeting Padilla for the first time, Sanfermines 2008

Juan José Padilla, a bullfighter renowned in Pamplona for his daring in the bullring, especially with the Miura breed, was also keen on running with the bulls, even since he made his debut in the Monumental bullring in 1999.  In 2005 he acknowledged in an interview that he liked to get there early so that he can “talk to the minders of the bulls, the pastores, and get their advice.”  He stopped running with the bulls after a serious injury a few years ago cost him his left eye, but it has not stopped him from facing the same bulls in the Plaza de Toros to everyone’s amazment.

Hemingway, Pamplona and the fiesta

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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).

Pamplona, 2018

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.

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Papa Hemingway in the Plaza del Castillo 1959

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.