Friday, July 11, 2008


Thanks to Business World Weekender for publishing this article about the San Fermines festivity in Iruñea, the capital of Navarre, the Basque Country.

Here you have it:


By Joey Hofileña

¡Viva Sanfermines!

It was early July 2007 and the object of my jaunt into the territory of my former colonizers was the peaceable city of Pamplona in North Central Spain, situated in the heart of the Basque country and having an enviable population of around 200,000 (much fewer people than SM Megamall has on any given sale day). It is a fairly diffident town, some say even boring, every day of the year except for nine days in July during Sanfermines, the annual religious festival that honors Pamplona’s patron saint, Saint Fermin of Amiens, when all hell breaks loose.

Saint Fermin was the son of a Roman Senator named Firmus who ruled in Pamplona in the 3rd century. Fermin converted to Christianity, was ordained as a priest in Toulouse, France, and returned to Pamplona a bishop. Because of his faith, he was decapitated in France in the year 303 AD.

Sanfermines formally begins each year at noon of July 6th at the square fronting the old town hall ,although in truth and in fact, the bacchanalia that so gaily permeates the festival-wide mass revelry has long commenced.

An Entire City in Red and White

In memory of San Fermin, during Sanfermines the whole city dresses up only in white outfits and bright red scarves and sashes.

Keeping faithful to the traditional dress code, I donned a white short-sleeved shirt to match my white jeans. My red scarf (courtesy of the Greenhills tiangge), dotted with pagan paisley designs, was folded and tucked in my pocket, ready to be draped around my neck at the moment the beginning of the festivities was formally announced from a balcony of the old town hall by the mayor of Pamplona.

It was astounding to behold an entire population so uniformly dressed in all white outfits with scarlet San Fermin scarves and sashes draped around the waist. Everywhere I went in Pamplona, everyone — infants, children, teens, adults, elderly, the taxi and bus drivers, shop keepers, street sweepers, not to mention the one million or so revelers — was in regulation attire. And not just for the opening of the fiesta, but for all of the next nine days.

A Toast to San Fermin

No matter what anyone may tell you, there is no doubt that Sanfermines is first and foremost about drinking, drinking and drinking.

Throughout the festival, all of the old city’s many bars are constantly crammed with guzzlers of all sorts where alcohol and tourist money flow nonstop. It doesn’t seem to matter what one drinks whether beer (of which our very own San Miguel Beer is quite prominent), wine, whiskey, bubblies, etc. Neither does it matter how one drinks — whether from crystalware, plastic glasses, flasks, straight from the bottle or squeezed out of leather pouches from as much as two meters away.

The liquor is not just ingested, but is generously shared all around, as I quickly experienced while waiting for the feast to begin, by getting deliriously doused and drenched by the fanatics around me as well the folks above us who gleefully baptized us from their balconied perches.

In a blink of an eye, my meticulously selected white San Fermin get-up was unceremoniously (or should I say, ceremoniously?) dappled with, and promptly stank of, an assortment of booze, elevating me from being a mere observer to a real honest-to-goodness participant which, after all, is what I came to Pamplona at this time of the year to be.

But amid the contagious frenzied merriment, I could hardly contain my excitement about being so close to fulfilling a long held preposterous teenage dream: to take part in the Encierro — Pamplona’s famed running of the bulls.

¡Eh Toro Eh!

Reaching Pamplona’s historic old quarter at daybreak on July 8, I instantly espied a team of able-bodied men jogging in formation through the Plaza del Castillo towards some destination. I promptly latched myself to this group, sensing they would lead me to my singular, ludicrous objective.

After ambling through a maze of tight streets made narrower by the crowds and early morning alcoholics, we arrived at a wooden fence lining the route of the run. Finding a slight gap in the barrier, we hurtled ourselves into the race course. Exactly the way the guidebooks said: no formalities, no registration, no fee. Just jump in.

By that time, there were already over a thousand would-be racers and the large throngs of raucous spectators, including the privileged class in their balconies, had already long assembled.

After an hour of waiting, limbering and rapt observing, the first firecracker exploded at exactly 8 a.m., signaling that the bulls had been released into the street.

Without looking to see the bulls, everyone began to scamper frantically on the uphill, slippery, cobble-stoned street, screaming madly in a plethora of languages. It was difficult to get up to a full sprint as there were lots of runners in front of me and an occasional stumbler to avoid.

Rápido! Pronto! It was mayhem.

I scurried forward with the rest, careful not to lose my footing, my composure and my dignity.

On reaching the Plaza del Ayuntamiento at the crest of the road, the route began to curve left into the Mercaderes area, where the path first widens then promptly narrows.

As I continued to run for my life (such as it is), I perceived the clatter of cowbells amid the intensified roar of a boisterous crowd. I took my first backward glance and there, 10 meters behind, was the pack of rampaging bulls and the riotous rabble of risk-takers taunting them.

With the shrieking of the spectators now at its loudest, my heart pounded wildly whereupon my true cowardly self took over. I abruptly swerved towards the fence on my right praying that the bulls not have the same idea. Fortunately, the toros had absolutely no interest in me as they charged swiftly past, quickly disappearing into the narrow streets ahead.

At that point, it dawned on me that I had done it. I actually ran with the freaking bulls!

¡Una Mas!

Proudly, I hopped back to the street and continued to hustle forward even as I concluded that the bulls were already quite a distance ahead. Then, to my astonishment, I again heard the familiar resonance of cowbells from behind. I glimpsed backwards and barreling their way towards my direction with the same fury, were three other bulls!

In a panic, I immediately veered to the left but as there was no fence to straddle, I flushed my body against the concrete wall making myself as thin as possible. Luckily, the second herd of bulls snorted and breezed past me with a couple of meters to spare. I looked back anew to make certain that there were no longer any lurking bulls left.

Relieved, I resumed running, passing a few bruised and bloodied unlucky ones, until I reached the area leading into Pamplona’s bullring, getting near enough only enough to hear the exploding firecrackers that meant all the bulls were already gathered in their pens.

It was over in just a few minutes and yet, the celebratory mood was irrepressible. Chanting "Ole! Ole! Ole!" like cacophonic drunkards, high fives and abrazos were exchanged all around.

I did it. Despite the absurdity of it all, I did it.

Eventually, I made my way home to Manila, a crazed, happy hombre with enough adrenaline to last me a lifetime.

The Encierro — there’s absolutely nothing in this world that is more insane.

(The author is a corporate lawyer who, in his own words,"once in a rare while engages in fanciful activities.")

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