Cohete, by Matthew Dowsett

Pamplona. Home of the running of the bulls and the fiesta to end all fiestas. San Fermín draws a varied and international following, but very few foreign visitors are aware that Pamplona is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fiestas and bulls. Across Spain and beyond there are many hundreds of fiestas and thousands of encierros every year. Within the old walls of Pamplona a local drama is played out on an international stage, but beyond the walls are the unseen and untold tales of the people, the bulls and the streets of these other fiestas.

At 8am and in those moments afterwards, you may hear a distant explosion as a rocket known as a cohete reaches up into the sky and leaves a puff of white smoke. The sound tells you that the encierro has started/stopped. It is very rare to see the rocket, it is an anonymous punctuation in the morning – a sign from the gods that the die is cast and the bulls that haunt our dreams have been released.

Elsewhere the cohete is much more visible. Seen in this picture from Funes in Navarra. The cohete is everywhere, and is a crucial part of the encierros. Without the cohete the people may not know that it is time to close their doors, put up their shutters, lock their shops and send their customers on their way for a short time. Without the cohete the group of young people gathered around the bar may not know that a horned animal will be running down the street at any moment. In Fune, for example, this is very serious – on some mornings the streets are so quiet that a vaca or torico can run a lonely line up deserted streets and only meet a person after a hundred metres of emptiness.

The cohete is one of the vehicles whereby the encierros are efficiently run, and they are used widely, though not uniformly. Not every cohete is fired from the hand as in the photograph, and with good reason. One evening in Valtierra we had finished our run, the manada was back in the corrales and the jefe attached a cohete to the barriers and lit it with his cigar. We stood a few metres away awaiting the whoosh and the arcing smoke before the final explosion that would open the gates and send us into the evening to enjoy a fine meal somewhere and talk about the encierros of the day. Instead the cohete remained on the barriers and exploded with an enormous boom that made our ears ring and brought derisory comments from the nearby balconies.

The next day we stood a little further away, and a good thing too as the cohete exploded again. Once bitten, twice shy.

What future now for La Curva? by Katxi

In 2006 the organisers of the encierro in Pamplona experimented with a treatment on the surface of the streets around the curve of Mercaderes and Estafeta. The aim was to improve the grip for the bulls and reduce the instances of them slipping or falling into the barriers. Ultimately the purpose was to improve safety because falling bulls at La Curva normally result in a major separation of the pack which can then lead to more sueltos, longer runs and more gorings. While this may be good for the authorities it is not necessarily good for the runners down on La Curva for whom that particular spot and that particular run are special; unique, and require specific skills and timing.

Running La Curva is indeed specialised; one of a number of tramos that may be considered as such, along with lower Santo Domingo and the Telefonos stretch. Runners waiting at the curve, (on the left-hand side looking down from Ayuntamiento) are relying on a number of factors to allow them to get in front of the bulls at the start of Estafeta; they are looking for an existing split in the pack or hoping that the bulls will collide with the barriers and either slow significantly or slow up. Any of these instances should allow the runner an opportunity to dash across La Curva (often known as ‘threading the needle’ because it may require the runner to pick a way through bulls, cabestros and people), and get into a good position in front of some of all of the bulls.

The hearts of La Curva runners must have sank on hearing of plans which, if successful, would significantly reduce their opportunities on this tramo. The drama of the encierro is often focused on La Curva and it has long been a prime and coveted position for photographers. The encierros of 2006 were more closely watched than ever to see if the measures would actually have an effect. Their apparent failure resulted in a combination of derisory comments and sighs of relief as it appeared that nothing had changed, but then in 2007 the bulls were noted to keep their feet on La Curva and this was repeated in 2008. Regular runners on that tramo were missing out, getting frustrated and complaining that everything had changed for the worse. Mike Phelps admitted that he had much better runs up on Telefonos that La Curva. Joe Distler was heard muttering that he would have to try something different next year and La Curva newcomer Mat Dowsett was baffled by the lack of action. Who knows what Bruce Sinclair and Victor Lombardi would have made of it all if they had been around. Perhaps they already had a foresight of the future.

The organisers must have been thrilled; only 9 gorings in 2 years and 2008 was the safest in 10 years. Now with no reason for the organisers to let things go back to how they used to be the question has to be “what future now for La Curva?” If the bulls continue to take the turn cleanly then the regular runners may be faced with having to run elsewhere as the former dramatic location is tamed. New tactics may need to be employed, new starting points perhaps and the specialised La Curva runner may even vanish forever.

The die is not yet cast and after 2 lean years many runners are still weighing up the evidence. Some said that the clean runs of 2008 were more down to the discipline of the cabestros than the surface of the street. Only time will tell, but the fears of the runners on La Curva may yet be realised if the current situation continues. The future of La Curva looks fragile; Yolanda Barcina must be rubbing her hands with glee.

A Growing Problem, by Katxi

An endless flow of sentimental and romantic words have streamed across the pages of books and via the internet on the subject of San Fermin and the Running of the Bulls. The love for this fiesta is almost universal, and yet all is not well and under the surface lies a darkness that takes many forms. Over the coming months a series of articles by invited writers will explore this dark side.

One of the common complaints now heard during fiesta is that it has become so crowded, and that these numbers are bringing the fiesta down, taking something away from the atmosphere and making it worse.

The crowds have been growing steadily for years. In 1923 when Hemingway first visited Pamplona, both the city and fiesta were very different to the ones we know now. Sure, many aspects are the same, many buildings are the same, but much has changed. Hemingway entered a city whose population was around 30,000, (it sits around the 200,000 mark today). Instantly you can see that the numbers in fiesta would have been much lower back then; even taking into account the swell of people coming into the city from surrounding towns and villages. There are currently 16 official Peñas in Pamplona, but only one, (La Unica) has survived from Hemingway’s time. No doubt other Peñas have been and gone during these years but there certainly was no need for 16.

Hemingway would also have looked upon a Pamplona without many of the sprawling developments that grew up in the 20th century during the “ensanche” or widening that gave birth to the blocks and streets we see in Burlada, Rochapea et al. In the 1920s Pamplona was still largely confined to the constrains and geography of the old city walls. It was only when these were breeched, (in some cases literally as parts were demolished), that the expansion caught real momentum. The population of Pamplona has grown steadily, (and for the large part, sharply), since the late 1940s. By the time Papa visited his last Sanfermines the population was up around 130,000 and growing and the fiesta was attracting more and more people from near and far. You could say that by the time he left for the last time the damage had already been done.

But it is the more recent growth of fiesta that needs some explanation. In the past 20 to 30 years the fiesta has ballooned and there are many factors that have contributed to this. Firstly the growth of foreign visitors which has been made much easier with the massive expansion and improvements in international travel. The number of students and backpackers has been expanding since the early 1990s. Add to this the improved transport links, budget airlines and cheap rental car prices and it is not surprising that numbers are so high.

Consider also the promotion of Sanfermines. The Ayuntamiento has presided over a deliberate and co-ordinated growth of the fiesta over many years; knowing full well that more visitors equals more money into the coffers, and it makes sense to publicise San Fermín as much as possible to attract as many visitors as possible. It’s all about the money. The GDP of Spain has been rising steadily in line with population meaning that the public has more money to spend and more funds to lavish on their fiestas.

San Fermín is self-publicising, especially the running of the bulls. In these times of the internet, youtube videos, facebook contacts and images galore the modern members of the generation that needs experiences to tick off need look no further than organised tour groups to bring them to Pamplona.

Let’s face it, the growth was inevitable. Like it or hate it the crowds are here to stay.

In The Shadow Of The Dark Moon, by Katxi

An endless flow of sentimental and romantic words have streamed across the pages of books and via the internet on the subject of San Fermin and the Running of the Bulls. The love for this fiesta is almost universal, and yet all is not well and under the surface lies a darkness that takes many forms. Over the coming months a series of articles by invited writers will explore this dark side.

To contribute or comment please contact Katxi at

Don’t Come To Pamplona, by Katxi

If you are thinking of coming to our fiestas in July, then I ask you to think again. You may believe that San Fermín is wonderful, but I’m here to tell you the truth. You should stay away! Spend the money on a holiday to the USA instead where you can get much better value for money. Go out and do something better instead.
Here’s some other reasons:

• It’s too crowded – you can’t breathe!
• The prices are far too expensive for food, for drink, for the corridas, for rooms for EVERYTHING! It’s a rip-off.
• The places stinks of piss and shit.
• There is trash everywhere.
• Always somebody wants to rob you, to rip you off or to take your money.
• The encierro has become a comedy – a national disgrace. It’s a show full of drunken clowns.
Trust me, don’t come to Pamplona. There are much better things to see in the world.

May – It Starts Here, by Katxi

Katxi – Viva San Isidro!
Americano – You mean Viva San Fermín?
Katxi – No, San Isidro.
Americano – Have never heard of San Isidro, what has he got to do with anything?
Katxi – San Isidro is celebrated on the 15th May as the patron saint of Madrid, but also in many other places as he is also the patron saint of farmers. It is a very important time with fiestas in many parts of the country and even encierros. But even more than this, it is the start of the bullfighting circuit with almost a month of corridas in Madrid. This is a big step along the road to Los Sanfermines in Pamplona.
Americano – In that case Viva San Isidro!

Not What It Seems, by Katxi

The old city walls around the Baluarte Del Redín are a wonderful place to pass the time of day. Surrounded by the ancient Medieval buildings and with wonderful views across the foothills of the Pyrenees and some of the Barrios of Pamplona, what better location to see Pamplona at its best. Up here during fiesta it is often a lot quieter and more relaxed than in the cramped, narrow streets and the busy plazas around the Ayuntamiento and Jarauta. Not only that but there is the ancient Meson Del Caballo Blanco to enjoy – a fine example of Pamplona’s historical past where you can sun yourself and have a nice drink and tapa.

But just hold up a moment! This building is not quite what it seems. At first sight the Caballo Blanco fits in nicely with the other structures around it, but actually it is a bit of an imposter. Back in the late 1950s when the Calle Nuevo was being modernised to build the Hotel Maisonnave, a 16th Century palace; The Aguerre was the victim of this. But rather than get rid of the building totally, the stones were used to build the Meson Del Caballo Blanco, which includes retaining the 500 year old cross of Mentidero which was originally sited in Calle Mercaderes.

So this very old looking building has actually been in place for no more than 50 years. Proof, if ever it was needed, that in Pamplona not everything is as it seems.

Daydreaming, by Katxi

For me, the start of May is when we really begin to start the countdown to fiesta. Forget the clock in front of Kukuxumusu because it is only a number. What you feel in your heart is the approach of fiesta, and it is normally something in the air.

In May the ground begins to dry out all across Navarra, the river in Tafalla becomes choked with weeds and the water sinks away. The air gets warmer, the skies are deep in blue and the mood lifts. The first signs of fiesta begin to be seen. Soon we will see the poster for this year’s fiesta and the preparations go on.

And then you begin to daydream. You may be at work, but you could be thinking of those great nights of fiesta with your friends over a meal in the street. You could be taking a pincho and a mini, but you are thinking of the txupinazo. You could be strolling up Estafeta during the paseo but you are thinking of the encierro. You may reach into your closet to take out your blue shirt but stop and see the white shirt hanging up, with the faja and the pañuelo nearby and you will remember that soon it is time to put them on again and to be out in the streets for San Fermín.

Keep daydreaming, because there is not long for fiestas.

It´s a colour thing, by Katxi

What is the colour of a bull? You may think that this is a simple question, but it is not the case. Bulls are not simply black or brown or speckled. There are so many ways of describing the colours of bulls that are puzzling to those on the outside. It is a complex matter.

For example, one night in San Fermín a foreigner was leaning over the walls above the corrals on Santo Domingo. He was shielding his eyes from the glare of the streetlights and trying to observe the bulls. Next to him was an older man; a local, and some of his family. The young man was muttering to himself about the bulls and mentioning the colours. To his surprise he noticed that one of the bulls was actually white.

-“¿Toro Blanco?” he said to the local man who then laughed out loud and continued laughing as he turned to his wife:
-“¡Este chico dijo, ‘Toro Blanco’!” then turned back to the young man and said, “Blanco, no, es jabonero.”

Much later the young man was able to discover that the white bull was actually the colour of ‘jabon’, or soap.