Dear Fiesteras and Fiesteros: This was written about two months ago, for the second of the second, yup, Escalera Day, but due to Mr. Testis being rather busy in his Bulldom, we’ve had to wait a while before it could be put onto the Sanfermin.com pages. However, with the arrival of the fourth of April and hence Escalera Day numero cuatro…here we go. Hey ho, let’s go and Ya Falta Menos!
It’s the second day of the second month as I write this and the Escalera to fiesta has well and truly begun, and at this time of the year up here in my tree-tower eyrie near the River Thames, with Hampton Court Palace but a mile away as the eagle flies, my thoughts turn as ever turn to Pamplona.
So although the countdown to San Fermin has already started, there’s still awhile to go of course which always makes me feel like I’m fiesta-floating, adrift on a sea of shifting calendar dates that slowly slide by with the tide…still heading towards land, (i.e: Pamplona) but with a fair bit of drifting to go before I make landfall. In July.
So I read, and I write, and I dream. Talking of reading, I love books. A few years ago, one of these articles was made up purely about Fiesta books. This one isn’t going to be like that, but I am going to mention a couple of books that you may like. I know I did. They are not particularly about Pamplona or San Fermin, but just have Spain as the common background, to give us that tantalising taste of the flavour of fiesta to come.
Winston Churchill said about books: ‘’If you cannot read all your books, fondle them, then peer into them, let them fall apart where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan, so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.’’
Personally, to take me away from everything, nothing beats a good book. They just work for me. If you should happen to get around to any of the ones mentioned, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
As so often with these Sanfermin.com scribbles, this one is going to be a bit of a mixed salad, and so I’m also going to write about a wee bit of rocket. No, not the lettuce, foodies, but the chupinazo, fiesteros. For those that don’t know yet, Fiesta begins at midday on July 6th with the Chupinazo, and the launching of the first – but only one of many – rockets from one of the town hall’s balconies. I’m just going to dip into the history of it a little bit…which will give me a chance to nip back into the past, too, which I always enjoy.
Then comes the book bit, but after that, something new that I’m really chuffed about, which I’ll return to occasionally, maybe even in every article I do for Kuku. I’ve given it the title ‘The Drifter,’ which, as will become clear when you read it is rather apt, as my first victim, sorry, guest, is the one and only, inimitable and inestimable, Rolf von Essen. Although his first San Fermin was in 1959, he was one of the group that also happened to hang around Torremolinos in the 60’s…
… Which is where the gang that appear in James Micheners’ book ‘The Drifters’ also first meet up. Which also happens to be the book that changed my life, as the first place that the characters in the story travel to after Torremolinos is Pamplona. In July. For Fiesta… And thus my life was altered for ever.
But first, a bit of rocketry.
ROCKET ENGINEERING – IT’S ALL PART OF FIESTA SCIENCE!
Okay, let’s get one thing straight. The phrase ‘it’s not rocket science’ is wrong. My brother Mike taught me it should be; ‘it’s not rocket engineering.’ Why? Because when we say ‘’it’s not rocket science’’ we mean that something isn’t difficult…like building a rocket obviously is. Ah ha! So there we are.
Here’s the pedantic point: Rocke engineering is the building of the rocket…a very tricky thing to get right…and rocket science is the actual getting it to where it’s going! (Quite a difficult thing too, probably, it has to be said…)
Thus is stands to my (fairly warped) reason… There are many, many things that make up fiesta – the chupinazo, the encierros, the corridas, the peñas, and a thousand and one other things…and all these are the cogs in the machine, the engineering, that make up, and get us to where we want to be…to the extraordinary, chaotic and organised anarchic science that is Fiesta! Although I’ve also often written…San Fermin…you just couldn’t make it up.
So, the Chupinazo. From the very beginning of the year, with the 1st of January and the first day of the Escalera, a small, invisible rocket goes off inside my head with a little bang… a rocket that goes off again on the 2nd of February, and then again on the 3rd of March, the bang each time increasing in volume until the 6th, when it’s very loud and I know that the next time I hear those rockets it’ll be midday on July 6th, and they won’t be imaginary ones in my head but real ones. Because that’s when Pamplona’s own version of the Big Bang erupts and the old world stops for nine days and nights, and the city slips off its cosmic axis and our universe goes spinning out of control as San Fermin and The Giants come out to play.
Just why do they launch a volley of rockets into the sky at midday on the 6th of July to herald the start of the world’s greatest fiesta? It might seem obvious in this day and age – ‘’oh, we have an event going on, let’s baptise it with a bang and make some noise’’ – but it wasn’t always thus.
No. But unsurprisingly for Pamplona and the inmates that live within…it all started with some locals.
We’re so used to some of the fiesta traditions we’ve grown to know and love that we can end up just taking them for granted and assuming things were for ever thus. Like the rockets launched off the town hall main balcony at midday on the 6th, for example. But actually, that act of fiesta only became an official part of the festivities in 1941.
Although there are slightly different versions, it seems that the first time rockets were launched at the beginning of fiesta it was down to a company called Oroquieta, who perhaps unofficially decided it would be a good idea to start San Fermin with a bang, and so they did…from the Plaza del Castillo.
This was done for many years from at least 1901, until with the arrival of the 2nd Republic, and a well known republican called Etxepare decided to make things more official and gave the act a name. (No where can I find out if this was ‘Chupinazo’ but hey, we’re getting there.) It was still being done in the Plaza del Castillo though, and carried on until the fiesta of 1936.
After that, the bleak clouds of Civil War came, Etxepare was shot, fiesta was suspended for a couple of years as the shadows enveloped, and blackness fell…and no doubt somewhere in that darkness, San Fermin cried. Light returned in one form or another and fiesta was back for 1939, when a councillor, Joaquin Ilundain, gave himself the honour of lighting the first rocket, still in the square I believe.
Then, along with a journalist, Jose Maria Perez Salazar, they promoted the idea of making the whole thing more organised and become an official part of the ceremonies…and so it came to pass that in 1941 the rocket was launched, for the first time, from the balcony of the town hall…and the Chupinazo as we know it was born. And that, chicas and chicos, is how it has been done ever since.
There was only one year it wasn’t launched from the Ayuntamiento in the Plaza Consistorial, and that was in 1952, when the old building was being renovated. For that year the Chupinazo was launched from the balcony of the temporary town hall buildings they were using, located in the Plaza del Vinculo, (then called the Plaza de la República Argentina) which is just off the Paseo de Sarasate, near the big old Correos, the main post office.
And a fitting place it was, too, actually, because way back when, between 1849 and 1852, that very place happened to be where a temporary bull ring was erected while the ‘new’ one, (1852-1921) was being constructed. What goes around can so often come around again and once more, sometimes you just couldn’t script it.
A BOOK OR THREE
I’ve done the occasional book review before but these aren’t reviews, I’m just going to mention briefly three books that I think are worth a read. None of them are particularly Pamplona related, they just have an Iberian flavour to them to tickle your fiesta taste buds.
In the ‘definitely worth a read’ category are two books by Mark Oldfield, but the great thing here is there is going to be a third, as they are part of a soon to be completed trilogy. As always, whether I know the author or not, (and I know Mark) I will be honest in what I say. Happily, with Mark’s books…I love ‘em!
‘The Sentinel’ was the first, published in 2012, followed by ‘The Exile’ in 2015. The books sprawl through Spain’s recent history, from 1936 and the Spanish Civil War, to the mid –fifties and Franco’s dictatorship, and then present day Spain.
There are two main protagonists, Comandante Leopold Guzman, head of Franco’s secret police in the 1950’s and easily one of the most evil, heartless and cruel baddies ever invented, and forensic investigator Ana Maria Galíndez, of the present day Guardia Civil
The Sentinel begins the story, interweaving the three separate timelines effortlessly and intriguingly, without ever getting so complicated that one literally loses the plot. In this short space I can’t begin to describe what goes on, suffice to say the dictatorial days of Spain under Franco are truly brought to life, while all the time keeping the page-turning suspense and the ‘what’s-going-to-happen-next‘ feeling going…it’s a real humdinger of a book
In ‘The Exile’ our evil anti-hero, Guzmán, is transferred to San Sebastian and the Basque Country, where the story carries on, and where the mysteries pile up, and Guzman’s past begins to catch up with him. Now, I’ve obviously never been to the Basque Country in the 1950’s, but the beautiful city of San Sebastian and the gorgeous surrounding countryside are brought vividly to life – or should that be death – by Oldfield’s atmospheric encapsulation of a ‘foreign’ city (it’s Basque, after all) and the surrounds under Franco’s oppressive occupation and bloody jackboot.
Regarding ‘Sentinel’ The Guardian said, ‘Polished and impressive.’ The Literary Review wrote, ’Remarkably accomplished. An atmospheric picture of a country still scarred by its past.’ The Daily Mail: ‘A sprawling, striking debut, superbly told, with a fine villain at its heart. This is a remarkable thriller.’
About ‘Exile’ The New York Journal of Books said’ ‘Powerful, hypnotic…filled with the horror of conflict, treachery, and intrigue.’
Well done Mark, (who, by the way, has been to San Fermin about 14 times over the last 40 years) those are two cracking novels and I honestly can’t wait for the final book in the series.
The third book is by that well known Sanferminero and internationally renowned photographer, Jim Hollander. Amongst certain fans of fiesta his door-stopping tome, ‘Run To The Sun’ is a classic, (and well worth the aircraft ‘excess baggage’ weight fee you may have to pay!) but it’s not that one I’m here to write about as I’ve written about it a couple of times before.
Nope, it’s his latest one, ‘From Pizarra to Pamplona.’ This is a delightful book that, although only published last year, was actually ‘written’ in 1973. The words are from a diary the then 23 year old Jim kept, and the photos are those that he took along the way. Oh, ‘the way?’
Well, it’s in the title, of course, but ‘the way’ was a 1000km horse ride the Hollander family undertook from Pizarra, near Malaga on the southern coast, to Pamplona, fabled capital of Navarra, over the course of several weeks. I first read it just before last year’s Fiesta, and again just recently. While none of us can write like Shakespeare or Cervantes of course, it’s a remarkably well written and smoothly flowing diary that paints a wonderful picture of the adventure, just as sure as his photographs do.
It’s a gentle, leisurely, clip-clopping hoof through a Spain that was about to change forever, due to the death of the dictator a couple of years later and the arrival of the country into the European Union just over a decade after that. I wrote this somewhere else, but I love the bit near the end of the journey – but not the end of the book – where he writes: ‘Before arriving in Tudela we cross into the Province of Navarra – BIG SMILES!’
Whether you’re stuck in a northern hemisphere winter and want a slice of sizzling Spanish sun, or are a southern hemisphere dweller yearning for some memories of the Land of Fiesta, and Siesta, and so much more…this is a great, not so much ‘off-the-wall’ but from-the-saddle wee travel book and I love it. And always, always…the Land of The Big Smile awaits.
In a previous life I was a courier, driving around the UK in a small van. When I was stuck in London or the Home Counties I used to listen on local BBC London Radio to a chap called Robert Elms. He has a great show, (he also happens to be a fluent Spanish speaker and is a bullfight aficionado, but that’s just coincidence, and I believe a couple of you out there know him) and once a week he has a slot called ‘Listed Londoner.’
A guest, always someone who has ‘done’ something, is invited on to the show, who lives, or has lived, in the city, whether born there or not, and is asked a series of questions, the ‘list’ about London. Well, with apologies to señor Olmos, I’ve borrowed the idea and transferred it to Pamplona, Navarra, Fiestaland.
(As an aside, I’m writing this bit on Monday 6th Feb while listening to the Robert Elms Show and his Listed Londoner today is a lady called Jumoke’ Fashola. And I like the fella even more now, as he’s just said – and all my friends who know what a techno-numpty I am will understand this – that he doesn’t have a mobile phone. Top man!)
Back to Pamplona. I’ve chosen Rolf von Essen to be Driftero Numero Uno for many reasons, but they’re all encompassed by one thing: of all the foreign fiesta-folk I know, he has been going the longest. So it’s because he knows a lot, has done a lot, has massive enthusiasm for all things Iberian and taurine related…and because he’s a mate.
He hasn’t been able to make it back for the last couple of years due to his keeping the nurses busy in his native Sweden, but boy does he have some stories to tell about his travels and experiences over his 50 years plus being immersed in the Iberian and taurine world.
Remember, too, that this part of the piece is just one short snippet of his life concentrated on Pamplona. Those of us who have seen a few of his other stories on social media have read a smidgen more of his adventures, and the following comprises just a mere fraction of that smidgen that makes up the Pamplona portion of his life.
So, hey ho, let’s go. I’ve written it and said it before, and whether one likes the phrase or not – there are certain folk who I think of as Pamplona Royalty, and Rolf is certainly one of them. And so, señoras y señores, indeed damas y caballeros, and perhaps, as I regard some Sanfermineros as Pamplona Royalty, duquesas y duques, it’s time for my very first ‘Fiesta Drifter.’
And for the very last time shall he be known as Rolf von Essen, because from now on he will be known by one or two of his many nom-de-plumes, nom-de-guerre’s, nom-de corrida’s and indeed, noms-known-by-the-authorities…
Take it away, Rey Rolfo…
RODOLFO VON ESSEN – El Niño de la Caseta.
Okay folks, here’s the first paragraph that Rolf sent me about himself, which I hope will encourage you to click on the link after it, to read more about how he fell in love with the bulls, the bullfight, ‘el mundo taurine’ and hence, of course…’el arte.’
ROLF: Foreign Languages, I speak 8. I have lived under 4 wars: The Finnish Winter War, WWII, the Katanga War (the Congo), and the drug related and guerrilla controlled war condition in Colombia in the 1980’s. The guerrillas used to partly finance their operation by the kidnappings of foreigners against ransom. It happened to several of my colleagues, some of them never returned.
My first registered reminiscence of bullfighting dates from August 29th or 30th, 1947, when a Stockholm newspaper… (Tim: click here for the story in full, folks.)
Tim 1: What are your five favourite books to do with what I call ‘Fiestaland.’ (Spain, Iberia, Navarra, etc.) Perhaps a taurine book, a fiesta book, a fictional book, a factual book, any other relevant and related book…the choice is yours to mix and match as you please!
Rolf 1: Five favourite books: 1: LOS TOROS by José María Cossío. 30 volumes. 2: IBERIA by James A. Michener. 3: ‘The Drifters’ by James A. Michener. 4: ‘The Sun Also Rises’ by Ernest Hemingway. 5: ‘Death in the Afternoon’ by Ernest Hemingway. 6: BRAVE EMPLOYMENT by Walter Johnston.
Tim – That’s six books Rolf! And apart from the Cossio 30 volumes, I’ve got the others of course!)
Tim 2: Favourite Pamplona or San Fermin book. (Okay Rolf…books!):
Rolf 2: The Drifters by James A. Michener. 2: Las Bodas de Pamela by Hans ‘To-To’ Tovoté. 3: PAMPLONA by Ray Mouton
Tim 3: Favourite Fictional Sanferminero:
Rolf 3: Harvey Holt, “The Tech Rep”, from The Drifters. Tim – Ha! Had to be. A great choice.)
Tim 4: Favourite fiesta/taurine film or documentary:
Rolf 4: Blood and Sand (1941) directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth, Anthony Quinn.
Tim 5: Favourite Spanish music/band/singer.
Rolf 5: Manolo Escobar, El Camarón de La Isla and Raimundo Lanas.
Tim 6: Favourite San Fermin real life foreigner of film, music, writing, etc.
Rolf 6: Orson Welles.
Tim 7: Favourite torero(s) and favourite plaza de toros, including the present day and the past.
Rolf 7: Favourite toreros of the present day: Morante de La Puebla, Talavante, and Andrés Roca Rey. Favourite plaza present day: La Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla.
Bullfighter of the past: Antonio Ordóñez Araujo. Plaza of the past: La Monumental de Barcelona.
Tim 8: Favourite bar in Pamplona.
Rolf 8: Bar Fitero, calle Estafeta.
Tim 9: Favourite restaurant:
Rolf 9: In the past: Hartza (Cuesta de Labrit.) Las Pocholas (El Rey Noble) when it was on Paseo Sarasate. Casa Mauleón. Casa Marceliano. Otano. Aralar. Amostegui.
Present day: Europa, Bar Savoy, San Ignacio.
Tim 10: Favourite trip within Spain. (And a ‘Tim’ note: Please, please read Rolf’s full account of this trip in the extra ‘link’ below!).
Rolf 10: El tren Correo, the mail train, Barcelona-Pamplona on July 5th. I am now speaking 1960’s. This was a complete adventure. One could NOT call somewhere and have a ticket reserved, NO, one had to get it in person from the taquilla at the station and not until the very day of departure!
Tim: As mentioned above, folks, please read the full story on the link below. Have you ever had to get out and PUSH the train that was taking you to Pamplona? Rolf has, I kid you not…read on folks here!)
Tim 11: Invent a pintxo and a brand new fiesta cocktail!
Rolf 11: Pintxo: Fresh duck liver, sautéd in water, butter and Oloroso sherry, spiced with black pepper from mill, junipers, sea salt, on toasted white bread. (Superb, Rolf!)
Drink: 10 cl Underberg, a dash of Tabasco, 2 cl Vodka, tomato juice. Shaken, not stirred, served in highball, on the rocks. Kills ANY hangover. The Red Shit of the 22nd century!
(Probably horses, too …)
Tim: Then I’ll try it on a horse first, Rolf…
Tim 12: Spiritual home in Pamplona. (Mine is the grass and gutter opposite Txoko…my first fiesta home!):
Rolf 12: Down by the River Arga, camping with the gitanos.
Tim 13: Favourite building in Pamplona. (Could be that bar/restaurant again)
Rolf 13: La Casa Consistorial.
Tim 14: Best view in Pamplona:
Rolf 14: From the wall, approximately halfway between the Caballo Blanco and the area where the Lost Peña Vodka Party is held. Tim – Si, tio Rolfo, I’m with you there.)
Tim 15: Favourite open space.
Rolf 15: Plaza de Los Fueros. Tim: When I asked Rolf ‘why’ there, this is what he wrote.)
Rolf: Por las cojonudas actuaciones de los Dantzaris una vez por feria. What they perform are the timeless, ancient, Navarran – AND Basque – almost acrobatic dances! If one looks at the bodies of the guys, one understands that there is a LOT of physical exercise behind their Arte! – Amazingly, although I’ve seen this sort of thing elsewhere of course, I have never popped up to the Pl. de Los Fueros during Fiesta to see them…but rest assured Uncle Rolf…now I shall!)
Tim 16: If you could travel through time to Pamplona’s past…what era or year would you travel to?
Rolf 16: The middle of the 1920’s, when Hemingway got to know it!
Tim – Si señor! And I’ve already been there, once-upon-a-time…)
Tim 17: Most interesting or favourite shop?
Rolf 17: The little shop on C/del Pozo Blanco, to the right of Rest. Amostegui, where one can buy all sizes and fashions of txapelas and the original hand made alpargatas and also fajas. Tim – You dedicated follower of fashion, you…)
Tim 18: Favourite Pamplona landmark?
Rolf 18: When arriving by car, on the old two lane road from Donostia, the road goes up hill after the railway station and in a curve you see a bit of the old wall that hasn’t been removed – then you know that after the next curve on top of the hill, you will have arrived – YOU ARE IN PAMPLONA!
Tim – Yes! I’ve actually written about arriving in Pamplona, driving along that road before…and when I cross under, and through, the ‘Portal Nuevo’…that’s it…I’m in!)
Tim 19: ‘One more thing…’ (Write anything that springs to mind…if anything does!
Tim: 20: ‘Not a lot of people know that!’ (Similar to above, I’m just experimenting with this last bit, to give ‘the guest’ a chance to write something in his/her own voice.)
Rolf – 19 and 20: ‘One More Thing.’ Scenario: THE FISH JACKET. I wake up, having slept on my arms on a café table (THE TRADITIONAL WEE NAP, FOR CHRISSAKE!). It’s bloody hot, the sun shines awkwardly into my eyes and I try remember who I am and what I am doing on a café table. My black jacket is on the floor between my feet, my travelling bag, by my side, there are some people at my table, I can’t see a thing because of the sun and a MAGNIFICENT hangover, when I recoil for some strange, pink object approaching my face and I hear a deep, male, bass voice say: “THIS IS WHAT YOU NEED, BUDDY”, and, finally, I see a hand holding a glass with some pink liquid and ice cubes. I grab, trembling, the glass and taste the contents – aaaaaaaaaaaaah, sweet, cold and good, I empty it in 2-3 gulps and sit up in my chair, ready to take in the new day!
Tim: If you want some more, with a fiesta cocktail of Welles, Hemingway, Gardener, Ordóñez, Carney…and of course…fish!…then read on here.
Tim 21:‘A secret.’ (Yup, again, similar to the first two…still just experimenting…)
Rolf 21: A secret. A VERY hot afternoon in 1962, my future wife and I are sitting at the terrace of Bar Eslava at the Plaza del Castillo. That summer temperature reached 40° Celsius during 2-3 afternoons. Anyway, back to the Eslava. I saw some other guys taking off their shirts, and so did I. Wonderful relief in the heat!
Tim: There’s more, including how to win a free day’s (and night, the full 24 hours!) accommodation during Fiesta. Just click here.)
Tim 22: Favourite Spanish expression, motto, phrase, words of wisdom…or even what you’d like on your Pamplona Plaque!
Tim: I had this down as ‘The passing years don’t forgive!’ or, as in ‘getting on a bit’ ‘Time Will Tell!’ But no! Rolf told me it means… GETTING OLD SUCKS!)Rolf: On my tombstone I would like the old family joke (in German):
VON TRINKEN GESTORBEN!
Tim: And finally, but briefly… A San Ferscene-ario: What would be your perfect 24 Hours of Fiesta, starting any time of the day or night, but ending 24 hours later.
Rolf: My favourite 24 hrs of Fiesta start at 07.00, when I go to the REDIN to have coffee and Patxarán watching the encierro on their TV. At 08.15 to the Txoko for Kaikú y coñac with the ‘guys’. At 09.00 to La Raspa on C/Merced for el almuerzo de los corredores and improvised jotas from whoever appears of the joteros.
At 12.00 Paseo de Sarasate for a concert of jotas. 14.00 El vermú at the Fitero. 14.30 el apartado. 15.30-17.30 lunch at the Europa. 17.40 quick drink at the Windsor. 18.00 to the bullring. 18.30-21.00 bullfight. 21.30 Al Capone. 23.00 dinner at the Savoy. 01.00 Windsor. 03.00-06.30 all the bars on C/Jarauta. 06.30 catching up with La Pamplonesa at la Plaza Consistorial. 06.30-07.00 Dancing along the streets with the band to the music of their Dianas. My 24 hours are complete.
Tim: And probably, Rolf, 24 of the most perfect but exhausting hours of fiesta anyone could have. Fantástico!
Muchas gracias eta mil esker Rolfo, maestro, torero, fiestero y golfo. What I love about this is that I’ve learnt a lot about some books, films, music and just general ‘stuff’ that I never knew about…and hopefully, as I choose more ‘Fiesta Drifters’ I’ll learn a whole fiesta-full more! Plus, I just love hearing other people’s Sanfer-stories… and Rolf has over half a century’s worth of them.
So that, folks, brings a fitting end to this first ever Fiesta Drifter. Again, my humble thanks and huge gratitude have to go to Rolf, who through a fair amount of difficulty and hassle, along with having to deal with my computing numbnuttery, managed to put together a wonderful drift through a life of Fiesta.
As I mentioned, there is so, so much more to read, really this morsel is just one pintxo on a bar top laden with a multi-coloured rainbow platter of them. Please, please dip in and click on the links to read more about some great adventures Rolfo El Golfo had along the way.
Next time, the Fiesta Drifter might well be Joe Distler… though if he reads what I’ve written above, he might just change his mind…
And finally, in place of the occasional video I sometimes use to end these pieces, a photo from Rolf’s collection. For those of us that know, the three figures are fairly ease to name…but where in Pamplona are they? And no, after three guesses I still didn’t get it… Sanfermineros… ¡Ya falta menos!