Every year at the end of the first week in July, a group of my friends from the USA, Canada, Sweden, France, Norway, Holland, Germany, Israel, Russia, Finland and several other countries set out for Pamplona, a normally quiet town in northern Spain to join 200,000 locals and 500,000 visitors from all over the world for nine days of celebrating the festival of St. Fermin, the patron saint of Pamplona.
My first appearance here was in 1971, only a week after arriving in Spain with a copy of James Michener’s The Drifters and Ernest Hemingway’s Fiesta in my suitcase. I never imagined that I would live in Spain, marry a Spaniard and raise two children, much less return to Pamplona every year to see my friends and relive the greatest party ever.
In the ensuing 39 years, we have solved the world’s problems, laughed, cried, eaten, gotten drunk, danced all night, gone to bullfights and run down slippery streets in front of, beside and behind 1,300 pound bulls.
Pamplona is a place you have to see to believe. It’s bigger and better than Mardi Gras, Oktoberfest, the Bangkok Water Festival, the Tomatina, Super Bowl Sunday and the Kentucky Derby. As a matter of fact, I think it’s better than all of them combined.
To me, however, the best thing about the St. Fermin festival is to see how the locals celebrate, for first and foremost, it’s a religious celebration, honoring a medieval man who was martyred and became a saint. Everyone from babies in strollers to the elderly dresses in white, adding a red sash for a belt and a red scarf, and one of the highlights of the celebration is the procession through the old town on July 7, St. Fermin’s Day. A statue of the saint is carried through the city streets followed by several bands, the mayor and city council, religious groups, dancers, gigantic papier-mâché figures representing the kings and queens of Navarre, the cabezudos or ‘big heads’ and the kilikis, men wearing disguises who carry a cloth-filled bag attached with a rope to a stick who run through the streets hitting shrieking young children who try to escape but really want to be hit because it’s good luck.
For foreigners visiting the city for the first time between July 6 and14, Pamplona is nothing more than a week-long, alcohol-soaked street party. But as they return year after year, they begin to enjoy the festivities like the locals, watching the processions, going to concerts, dancing to rock and roll, tango, and salsa in the many parks around the city, attending the bullfights, watching or participating in the running of the bulls, eating in bars, especially tapas and enjoying almuerzo.
If you live in Spain you can enjoy this atmosphere at any town festival throughout the summer, but for me San Fermín is special – a place where I can forget my age and act like a teenager with my best friends without a care in the world!
Photo: the statue of St. Fermin carried through the streets of Pamplona on July 7