San Fermin: The World's Biggest Frat Party?Article by: Chip Conley|@ChipConley
Wed July 17, 2013 | 00:00 AM
The bell tolled for me in Pamplona. After two days of watching and running with the bulls, drinking and dancing with the international crowd, and ignoring and then respecting my conscience, I left a day early. I love festivals. I’m enamored with the “collective effervescence” that appears when people let their ego evaporate and sense of oneness emerge.
And, charming Pamplona has some beautiful plazas and majestic architecture…
The scene of the first plaza of the Running of the Bulls
This is a town I would revisit during the offseason as it has some well-known restaurants, although many of them shut their doors in the evening during Fiesta de San Fermin for fear of becoming a bathroom pit-stop for the immature and inebriated. The lowest common denominator cuisine is more about what will soak up the alcohol and less about how to tantalize the taste buds.
Historically, this fiesta was about honoring the city’s patron saint and communing with one’s fellows. And, there’s still a hint of that in the festivities. But, the lingering afternoon of a dozen lifelong friends or family members sitting at an outdoor table conversing over wine is an endangered species, at least during the three daytimes I was there. Most people are sleeping off the night before at midday.
Again, there is a tease of the fun and colorful pomp and circumstance that has long flavored Fiesta de San Fermin, but it’s barely an accent or a lovely spice on what feels like an overcooked roast.
The sweet carnival atmosphere appears just after the run each day with papier-mache giants
Much of the daytime entertainment, while interesting to look at, has nothing to do with the roots of Fiesta de San Fermin
There’s no doubt why the vast majority of revelers converge on Pamplona in hordes for more than a week in early July each year. This is a thrill-seeking festival, part art form, part horror show as evidenced by this Daily Mail article outlining 2013’s injury toll.
While the media headlines capture attention, some of the visual reminders of the carnage of those who’ve died making the run are generally forgotten during the fiesta
But, of course, the primary victims of this festival are the bulls, 48 of them who will run in the morning and die in the evening. Yes, there’s some high-profile, nearly-naked attention paid to this two days before the first run, but it evaporates by the time the Estafeta is full of jacked-up, hungover young men ready to test fate.
As I wrote in my last blog post, when I was in the midst of my run with the bulls, it felt less like a stampede and more like an honor. Without expecting it, I felt some wild kinship with these beasts of burden.
Still, I can see why a bullfight could be interpreted as a cultural art form, as there is a sacred ballet at play. But, it’s an exercise in cognitive dissonance to feel an affinity with the bull while running with it in the morning, knowing it faces certain death in such a tragic way that night. While I try to go to festivals with a cultural curiosity and a willingness to understand the “other,” I leave Pamplona with the basic question, “Why?” Why not continue this cultural tradition without killing the bulls? The run, the brave ballet, all of the other components that make San Fermin so special could stay intact…and maybe so could our collective conscience.
But, the other reason I felt compelled to leave town early is I started to dread the monotony of Fiesta de San Fermin and, by my third day, I felt a mourning for this legendary festival. I didn’t live during Hemingway’s time so maybe my nostalgia is ill-founded and this has always been the world’s biggest frat party. But, something tells me the rituals have moved from religious to raucous. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as Carnival is evidence that a secular transformation can still be transcendent in all kinds of other ways.
Yet, Fiesta de San Fermin felt anything but transcendent. It felt more like a physical and spiritual descent into an unconscious state. There is a shadow overhanging this proud festival, but the one that lingers with me is less about the bulls dying. While tragic, that’s nothing new for this festival. It’s the dying of the nuances of tradition that make a festival more than a Spring Break week in Florida.
Having experienced the soul of Il Palio in Siena, the world’s most dangerous horse race, one week earlier, I felt magically transported to medieval times. While similarly raucous like San Fermin, I felt like an honored guest at Il Palio. The throngs going to San Fermin today are not honored guests. They’re souvenir-wearing, Facebook-posting tourists on center stage. Guilty as charged: I bought a t-shirt and you’ll see it on my Facebook page. But, that temporary high doesn’t linger and that’s why I left before my third night. I’d grown bored like one does in Las Vegas when you discover the sensory overload is meant to distract from the lack of soul underneath.
It is ironic that the sweet tradition on the last night of the festival, July 14, is a gathering at midnight in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento with everyone chanting “pobre de mi” (poor me, San Fermin is over) over and over again. I hope San Fermin rediscovers the soul of its origin, as it has become a prisoner of its own modern day success.