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Friday, August 30, 2013

Bullish at the San Fermin


I contemplated whether to write about this, and whether to give the details on how to get to San Fermin (there was no one website with a complete itinerary). Are readers going to judge me as an avid animal cruelty supporter? Is it ethical inspiring travellers to follow my footsteps? Providing an one-stop post making planning easy and thus creating a never-ending fight of the bulls?

It was an experience of a lifetime, taking part in a tradition that dates centuries back. An icon of the Spanish culture, bullfighting is now banned in most countries. Whilst i researched thoroughly how to get myself and gang to San Fermin, i didn't research what happens in a bullfight. A blood sport that animal rights activists accuses as barbaric and pointless. Then again, even if i had, who am i to kid, i'm no saint. I would have gone still.

It is because of my mixed feelings, that goaded me into writing, 2 months since returning. The San Fermin takes place annually from 6 to 14 July in Pamplona, a 3 hour train ride from Madrid. The most internationally  renowned Spanish fiesta is a week long celebration with traditional events. However, the most famous event is the encierro, running with the bulls.

We spent a night in Madrid, a vibrant city filled with old quarters and new corners.
Looks like he's playing the character, but he is actually wagging his finger at Estelle
who sneakily took a photo without  paying. 
Cats Hostel was a real gem. Only 18 euro for a clean bed and housed in a gorgeous historical building located centrally. 
Lounge area, its the taj mahal of hostels. 
We covered as much of Madrid as we could. From Triball to hunting down old pasterlerias. 
Antigua Pasteleria del Pozo located at Calle Del Pozo, 8 was recommended online. It took us quite awhile to find it.
Taking cue from an old customer on what's good.
We felt transported back in time, watching them wrap our pastries with paper and string, getting change from the old cash register.
While it is fun to watch and take some snaps, the pastries are pricier than others and aren't exactly to die for.

Same goes with El Sobrino de Botin (C/Cuchilleros 17), also recommended online. 
It was novelty to say you've dined in the world's oldest diner. The food again wasn't orgasmic. We ordered half a suckling pig, the clams and artichokes with bacon. The bill was 56 euros.
The artichokes were rather bland. 
I quite liked the calms except it left a herbal aftertaste. 
They preserved the kitchen from the 1700s, that's where they roast those piglets. 
The gem we wished we found earlier was Mercado de San Miguel. A food hall with cheap and decent eats, that's where we should have gone for tapas! Alas, we got ripped off couple times before stumbling on this.
Estelle holds up her new found gems. 
Figuring out www.renfe.com was not the easiest thing. Despite choosing English language, it is never in English. Using Chrome to auto translate the site will not make it work properly. The website is so bad that i think we lucked out on riding in style to Pamplona. This is a very good link that explains Renfe, which is otherwise unexplainable. I followed the guidance as best i could, but in exasperation went for the cheapest fare available, not caring too much what each tier meant. I used Google Translate to figure out the payment fields, even so, the website sometimes don't work (error message) and you have to try again later.

I am dumbfounded when we boarded. Choosing the cheapest fare available got us full service with meals, alcohol and a movie playing exactly 3 hours (Life of Pi, in Spanish).
The San Fermin gave me a glimpse of what Apocalypse will be like. Arriving at 10pm, day 5 of the festival, Pamplona reeked of piss. It is rowdy round-the-clock because of the copiousness alcohol. It is so bad that locals leave town during the San Fermin. No one sleeps. At night, the revelers come out. In the day, you either see drunkard zombies walking awkwardly or Spaniards with their limited English wanting to hook up.

One amusing conversation i had went like this,
'Hello, you go home?'
'No, i just got up and want to go out.'
'You want to come to my car and sleep?'
'No, i am with friends.'
'Oh, your friends cannot come. My friends are religious. You come to my car?'

People are super friendly and welcoming, likely to be the effect of alcohol but i prefer to believe it's the Spanish way of life. Every step we take, we were stopped by Spaniards either to take a photo with them,
We were up at 8am, a hot cuppa & croissant in hand while these guys haven't slept yet. 

or asked if WE COULD TAKE A PHOTO OF THEM WITH OUR CAMERAS.
Like these guys. 
Marie speculated that they must be hoping one of these camera totting people are from the press and they can be famous!

The festival's attire is white with a red bandanna that could be bought for 3-5 euros at stalls around. At night, we have to thread the piss-filled streets carefully. In the day, we have to dodge massive trucks who go around jetting massive sprays to wash the streets.
Too much thrash and pee that the 2 men in green gave up cleaning. 
Does my new hat look good?
We booked rooms from Bull Balcony about a month in advance. So that we didn't have to end up on the streets like them.
Although it could have been on purpose, because rooms that week are exorbitant. We paid 80 euros per person per night for a very sparse bedroom with common toilets. However, Bull Balcony is responsible, reliable and their accommodation is safe. I also liked that they were transparent with all costs, explaining the mark-ups necessary. Prior to arrival, they also sent tons of information making us well-prepared for the San Fermin Experience which includes bringing earplugs and enough cash.
Every morning, we have to take a deep breath and brace ourselves before opening that heavy oak door of our apartment to the streets. If i had a pace maker, my heart will beat twice as hard to the thumping music. Most days we find drunkards in deep slumber outside our door and so we have to cross over their 'dead bodies'. Marie wasn't friend enough to stop me in my tracks and point out the human faeces and couples having intercourse. I would have liked to see that.

What is unique about San Fermin is that while you may not be a Torero fighting with the bull, as a non-professional you can still get an adrenaline kick by running with the bulls. I used the Encierro-metre found at www.sanfermin.com to calculate my success in surviving a bull run. I rated 4/10 by with my age, level of physical activity and the route. I had no clue about the routes so i randomly picked one.

I had NO idea what to expect with the bull runs and the bull fights. I did not know that i was going to be uncomfortable with the killing of those bulls for something that seemed like entertainment. All i knew was i wanted a unique European experience and a friend suggested it.

I chickened out, i did not run with the bulls. I ended up up in the balcony, watching the bull run that happens every morning during the festival.

Also through www.bullbalcony.com, i reserved my balcony spot for 70 euros per person. The only way to get a bird's eye view of the bull run is from a local's home along the narrow streets of the old section of Pamplona.
Entering a local's home in the wee hours of morning. 
We started looking for our balcony at 7am and these Spanish boys were still partying. 
If you do not reserve a balcony, you should claim a spot by the street latest by 6.30am. Otherwise, unless you're 2 meters tall, you will not be able to see anything. 
Street level.
Lady who rents out spots in her balcony through an agent. 
The description about the balcony experience included a 'spanish breakfast' but we were disappointed when only tea, coffee and biscuits were provided. 
Watching the streets and balconies fill up by the minute. 
The running of the bulls involves hundreds of people running in front of six bulls and another six steers down an 825-metre stretch. The run ends in the Pamplona's bullring taking a mean time of around 3 minutes where the bulls would be held until the afternoon's bullfight when they would be killed. 
The run begins at 8 a.m. when a first firecracker is lit to announce the release of the bulls from their corral. Runners gather earlier at the beginning of the event to ask for the protection of the Saint by singing a chant three times before a small statue of San Fermin which has been placed in a raised niche in a wall. A second cracker signals that the last bull has left the corral. There are six fighting bulls accompanied by six oxen (often white and brown coloured) that guide them to the "plaza" and followed by three more non fighting oxen. 
Armed only with a roll of newspaper, most participants were male. There were some brave females, I had a tinge of regret not being one of them. I didn't think the bulls were fearsome, i was more afraid of the human stampede. And a pile-up did happen! 

As the bull run ends in the bull ring, some people fell while entering the bull ring. That started the pile-up.

Freak accidents can't be prevented. That includes having your pants pulled down by a bull on National TV. Both painful and humiliating.

Before the bulls were released, there'll be somewhat of a test run. So that policemen can pick the drunkards (people who can't run straight) or people who are not wearing proper shoes or carrying bags/ large items. The police will then form a human barricade to hold back the participants till the second fire cracker sounds off.
We participated in the run from a safe distance, and with the TV on, we could also see what's happening on ground.
After watching the run, i then understood the rules of the game. The entire running route has 5 parts. You can choose where to start your run. For sprinters, they can start from where the bulls are released and attempt to run with the bulls entering the bull ring. Otherwise for a taste of the run, you can station yourself in the middle or at the end. I also noticed that the entire event is called running WITH the bulls, so a trick to survive the run is to run alongside the bulls? And not in front? You will have to keep closely behind though, because one step slower than the last bull, shepherds close the gates of each section and you will not be able to complete the run. However, this naive strategy of mine does not prevent freak accidents and human bottlenecks as portrayed above.
Heart stopping moments as everyone watches foolish participants get gored. 

We waited for an hour on the balcony for the action to happen, to only have the action over in a matter of seconds. It was really a bullish quickie.

Over by 8am, we left the Spanish home and hunted down the oldest churreria at Calle Manueta 8. It only opens from 6.30-11am and has the best churros i've ever eaten.
A small bag costs 8 euros, definitely the most expensive around but well worth.
A 150 year old recipe.

Expect long lines from 8.30am through 10.am as everyone who knows local's secret heads there after the bull run. As a Singaporean, we're used to queuing for good food!

In the day, one is not lack of entertainment. There are parades with giant heads of more than 150 years old, music played all around and traditional sports to be seen.

Otherwise we explored the town.
The octopus drenched with olive oil and chilli flakes was good.

We stumbled into the bull ring and found a fringe competition going on.

Also one of the traditional sports, this competition saw younger men in teams of 4 taking turns agitating the bull to charge and then 1 will do fancy leaps over the beast.
He does the Michael Jackson. 

It was well worth the 15 euros we paid, the theatrics were exhilarating.

The team kneels to the bull at the end of a round as a sign of respect.

Then comes the finale of the bull fight.
The stadium was filled with people and our ticket bought from an agent was 80 euros each to be in the shade. The atmosphere was dripping with excitement and there were bands seated among the audience. They each play tunes to support their toreros. Having never been a large sporting event, the atmosphere was surreal. I asked Spanish friends if it is every boy's dream to be a toreros. They told me yes it is quite an ambition for many boys living in districts where bullfighting is still allowed.

The torero with the pirate eye-patch put up the best display with the best exhibition of skill and style. Each cuadrilla (entourage) has the torero (the fighter), two picadores (lancers) mounted on horseback, three banderilleros (flagmen) and a mozo de espada (sword page). If the torero is the hairstylist, the banderilleros are the shampoo girls.
The banderilleros (flagmen) help distract or agitate the bull when needed, facilitating the torero
The picadores (lancers) are mounted on horses who wear a protective shield  to prevent from being gored.
The picadores will stab the bull twice before the torero has his turn.
The picadores weaken the bulls before they meet their fate with the toreros. Opinionated people argue that this puts the bulls at a disadvantage, hardly a fair fight at all. Traditionalists will explain it is not meant to be a fight at all, but a ritual that is of artistic impression and command.

After the bulls is speared twice by the picadores, the toreros then attempts to hook on his rehiletes. This is done with alot of maneuvers and flaire. 
After the stabs from the picadores, the bulls are already bleeding profusely. After 3 rehiletes are successfully attached on (those green things hanging from the bull), the torero then deftly kills the bull with one pierce into its spine. 
The bullfight lasts from 5-8pm and at that time, i had packed a kebab to eat. It was hard to swallow, to see the bull dying such a brutal slow death. I soon got over it because i don't think i'll stop eating my favourite steak and buying leather products. I felt like a Roman, being in an amphitheater hearing the crowd's roars every time blood spurted.


Not understanding Spanish, i later asked my friend if the Spanish are a blood thirsty culture because of their jubilant oles. He explained that contrary to the popular view and beliefs of an outsider, the crowd cheers at each successful strike because they know the bull's suffering is closer to an end. They jeer if the torero shows a poor display, because this meant he is prolonging the bull's suffering.

It's a moral maze whether to fuel such traditions with tourism.The 49 bulls that are killed annually at San Fermin are turned into taurine gastronomy. Someone's who doesn't feel guilty with watching a bull fight and in fact has returned more than once shared with me his point of view. While cattle lives up to 2 years before being slaughtered, the fighting bulls live up to 4. In their living existence, the fighting bulls graze in the glare of high summer sunshine, sleep in majestic barns and feed on dollops of rich grain. Dying in the ring, is not any worse than being stunned by a bolt to the skull in an abattoir, he argues.

That, i wouldn't know. As i am not a cow, neither have i visited the living quarters of the fighting bulls or seen cattle being killed.

There is no blanket approach with regards to the debate around bull fighting but i don't suppose everyone is going to turn vegetarian, become vegan and not use leather any time soon.

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