Ninety years ago next month, a 23-year-old travel writer called Ernest Hemingway arrived in the Spanish city of Pamplona. He was stunned and enchanted by the explosion of colour, sound and alegria – joy – that are the hallmark of the festival of San Fermín, the region’s patron saint.
More striking than the drinking and the drumming, though, was the herd of fighting bulls that carves a path through the city each morning of the festival, from the corrals to the plaza de toros, where they are to be despatched in the nightly corrida, the bullfight. (In fact, not a fight at all; Hemingway’s first piece, for the Toronto Star, was headlined, “Bullfighting is not a sport – it is a tragedy”.)
As he wrote in letters to friends, he had the “godamdest wild time” in Pamplona; it was “the real old stuff”. However, following the articles and then his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, which he set there, he discovered that fame is a curse that can affect both people and places. Returning to the festival in 1959 for the last time, he wrote “40,000 tourists have been added. There were not 20 tourists when I first went there nearly four decades ago.”
When I first came to Pamplona in 2009 to research my own book on Spain’s controversial fiesta de los toros, there were 1.5m visitors, more than seven times the population of the city itself. The encierro, or bull run, is made up of a half-a-dozen Spanish fighting bulls, each over half a ton, alongside half-a-dozen larger oxen, to “calm them”. They are released into the barricaded streets at 8am to gallop up the half-mile course, through the crowd of several thousand foolhardy Spaniards and terrified gap-year students, many the worse for drink. It is a sight to behold, and even stranger to be among.
On my last run in Pamplona, in 2012, I waited until a bull came belting up the street, and matched his speed to cut in front of his horns. When a man went down ahead, I hurdled him and the bull followed suit. When another man charged across our path, I shoved him to safety. However, when I looked back to check the bull was still running in concert with me, an unseen hand grabbed me and yanked me to the ground, for what reason I’ll never know. The bull barely had time to leap over me, and I still remember the shadow of his bulk sailing above me, his horns passing inches from my falling body.
It was after that, standing with the regular runners for our post-encierro catch-up and brandy at 8.05am, that even John Hemingway – Ernest’s grandson and a frequent visitor to Pamplona – complained of his grandfather’s legacy: “it’s not the bulls that are dangerous, it’s all the damned people!”
So when Bill Hillmann, another American bull-runner, said he knew of an ancient encierro, older even than Pamplona’s five centuries, but without all the people, I suggested we pay it a visit.
The exact age of Cuéllar’s encierro is disputed, but its primogeniture is not: they have a letter from Pope Innocent III, dated 1215, banning priests from running. Also, unlike in Pamplona, where the bulls are released from the corrals at the edge of town, in Cuéllar they come from 5km outside of town, from their pens by the river Cega, and are guided across the countryside by a whole regiment of light horse.
Cuéllar sits atop a hill, some 150km north of Madrid, the town crowned by the crenelated sprawl of a castle apparently far too large for such a rural town. This is because Cuéllar was not always so peripheral. Made rich by wool in the 13th century, it was briefly the capital of the Christian half of Spain, and when the court moved, the castle was gifted to the Dukes of Albuquerque. The castle’s fate, though, like the Spanish empire, has been to fall into ruin, although it has recently been restored as a museum.
On my first morning in town, driven by my guide, a noted local sculptor of bulls called Dyango Velasco, I arrived at the gates of the pens at 7am. A few dozen hardy spectators were gathered in the woods in the chill morning air (even in August the mornings are cold: Cuéllar is nearly a kilometre above sea level). We were joined there by around 200 horsemen, all carrying lances to protect their mounts. What happened next was like nothing you would ever expect to see in the modern world. As the bulls exploded out of the gates, the horses sprang into action alongside them, herding them together and guiding them on their two-hour-long staggered charge – bulls cannot gallop that distance all at once – to the entrance to the town.
Meanwhile, Velasco dropped me back in town at the place where horsemen hand over the bulls to the men on the ground. In a scene reminiscent of the cavalry charge in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, an army of horses descended the dusty slope to the town, accompanying the stampeding herd of cattle. It didn’t take long for me to realise that the idea of running with the bulls at this point would be suicide, and I took a shortcut across the looping course to a better spot halfway along.
There I joined Velasco, and waited as the first group of bulls accelerated up the slope towards us. As the other runners, all experienced men, passed me, I knew the herd was approaching and accelerated myself, the bulls joining me on either side, until I eventually let them pass. According to the GPS on my running watch, I had been with the bulls for 230 metres, which in the crowds of Pamplona would be a record. In Cuéllar, it was just another day at the office – we had four more days of encierros to go.
After the bulls have gone, Cuéllar’s feria is a relaxed affair, with much wine but less noise than Pamplona. The older residents line-dance jotas in the street (unlike in Pamplona, the barriers are porous to spectators, if not cattle). There is even a children’s encierro at midday, with little calves instead of raging bulls.
Whatever one thinks of the madness of the whole thing, the undeniable cruelty and – for some – the beauty of the corrida which follows each night, one cannot help but think such local ferias, with their idiosyncratic and deeply rooted traditions, have helped maintain social cohesion in the face of Spain’s severe economic woes.
Even in times of austerity, after you have run with the bulls, drunk the local wine – the flavoursome Ribera del Duero – and feasted on roast suckling lamb, you can sit back in the sun and talk with the locals about how money – and indeed modernity – aren’t always everything in life.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison is the author of ‘Into the Arena: the World of the Spanish Bullfight’ (Profile)
This year’s Cuéllar Feria de Nuestra Señora del Rosario starts on August 24, with bull runs each morning from August 25 to 29 (www.aytocuellar.es). Pamplona’s feria is from July 6-14. Alexander Fiske-Harrison was a guest of the Hotel Maisonnave in Pamplona and the Hostal Mesón San Francisco in Cuéllar, both adjacent to their respective encierros