• Morgan Fagg

Finding Hemingway

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

Buses, Bulls, Bravado and the Basque country

If travel broadens the mind then what an education I received when traveling from Madrid to Pamplona to see the infamous and most famous of Spanish fiestas, the running of the bulls also known as San Fermin or Sanfermines in the Basque language.

Coming from the Midlands in Ireland, I´ve herded a few hefty heifers in my day but have never willingly wanted to run out in front of six half-ton beasts as they crash violently around the streets of Pamplona.

In a game of Spanish Roulette, could I really dodge six BULLets?

Is it dangerous? Well life is dangerous and I prefer to live it then fear it, that said I wasn´t going to needlessly endanger myself and kept an open mind between the bravado of wanting to run and the realisation that I don´t normally run. In a game of Spanish Roulette, could I really dodge six BULLets?

Every year a couple of hundred people are injured doing the event and 15 people have been killed since 1910 when records began. I wonder what happens when you die? Would the bull and I become immortalised and act as publicity for future idiots looking to dash around in honour of Pamplona’s first bishop, Saint Fermin?

Boarding the bus to Pamplona, I took my assigned seat next to a pretty girl from Melbourne called Kara. Happy to have a conversation on the long bus ride with mo chara nua, Kara. My friend Paul Morrissey who had invited me to the festival got talking to the elderly gentleman he was sitting beside.

Unbeknownst to me, Paul who speaks fluent Spanish amongst other languages got talking to the senior señor who had travelled from Buenos Aires that day to his hometown of Pamplona.

Despite a half-century difference between their ages, Paul was told all about Pamplona and even given some tips on bull running. Our 84-year-old new amigo was no stranger to the weeklong fiesta and used to do the Bull Run daily with his five brothers before going to work as a tour guide.

The year was 1929 when a 15-year-old Jose Luis Munarriz Goicoecuea first ran down Pamplona´s cobbled stones streets that lead to one of the world´s largest bull rings.

1929, the year of the Great Depression was a different era and Jose Luis and his 5 brothers I was impressed to hear, even met one Ernest Hemingway. How fortunate to have run figuratively into Hemming’s way I thought to myself as we arrived at our bus stop. The subterranean bus station which was to be my home for the festival as we had not even tried to book accommodation in the packed Pamplona.

Magically our park benches became beds as former tour guide, passenger 47 insisted we stay at his nephew´s house in the classic, mi nephew´s casa es su casa attitude.

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

Jose Luis took us to meet his sister Pilar to collect the key where we enjoyed fish, salad, coffee, some rose wine and a diverse conversation about Spain. Well, I listened, Perdon, no habla Espanola, after all but to quote Hemingway himself, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” 

It has been a while since I have seen such a welcoming generosity like the one I received in Pamplona. Our conversation, (well their conversation which I was surprisingly understanding a lot of) was interrupted by a call from my best friend to see if I was ok.

We were due to have arrived earlier that day in time for the bull run on the 13th. My friend informed me that 20 people had been injured including a 19-year-old from Ireland who was seriously injured in an incident that day which I am told could have turned into a massacre when a gate was not opened fully.

Our guide the legendary Jose Luis seemed more like the mayor of Pamplona as he talked, joked and hugged his way across the town and my super healthy friend Paul drank little in preparation of the bull run. I drank more freely with our new Pamplonian pal as I had not yet decided if I would run and even met Kara again who was with a friend who was going to do the run. We joked and encouraged her to take part, knowing that she wouldn´t.

By never saying definitely that I would or wouldn´t do it, no-one could talk me out of it and my bull run could very easily become a chicken run. To quote yet again from a certain American, “Always do sober what you said you´d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”

Saint Fermin´s festival overflowed with people all dressed in the traditional red and white colours. I bought white trousers and the traditional red handkerchief and many more spilled sangria over their whites but I doubt deliberately.

People partied long into the night and were slowly returning home or falling asleep on park benches and roundabouts as I arrived for the bull run. Pictured below, one man at a bus stop was even trying to sleep in his t-shirt. One trip to Slumberland, please.

With registration closed, it was no longer my decision to make. My friend naturally, was like a bull, as we tried to see the runners roar past. Paul then started doing push-ups which attracted photographers.

Time for a quick drink in The Hemingway across from the arena before heading home to Madrid. Hemingway had apparently done much to publicise the bizarre ritual of being chased by a bunch of bulls through his writings and the novel, ´The Sun Also Rises´ which shone light on Pamplona to an English speaking audience.

Paul heard that a 23-year-old Australian girl had been injured in the run and we immediately wondered how old the cailin deas from the bus was. Had Kara decided to do it after talking to us? Was she ok?

“Always do sober what you said you´d do drunk.
That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”

Back on the bus and our old amigo Jose Luis waved us off and I wanted to thank the Pamplona tourism board for hiring our tour guide some several decades earlier.

I thought now, not how lucky the bull running brothers were to have met the infamous writer Ernest Hemingway but rather how lucky Hemingway was to have met the people of Pamplona.

Photos from Pamplona: https://www.pamplona.nohemingway.com

Originally published in the Athlone Topic in August 2015.

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