Sunday, July 08, 2007

What (not) To Drink At the Running of the Bulls...

In July of 1999, I found myself in Pamplona. It wasn't on my original itinerary but, as things go while traveling, I met some Australian tourists in Sweden, whom I joined for a weekend in Copenhagen. As we parted ways, and I headed off toward the South of France and they ventured down toward Germany, they invited me to meet up with them in Pamplona, a week later.

I would be going to Barcelona around that time (and I'm a Hemmingway fan) so how could I refuse?

Having heard that the "typical attire" for this celebration is white pants and a red scarf, I specifically did not wear either, for fear of "looking like a tourist." However, once we arrived in Pamplona, and took in the sea of locals sporting white with red accents, I realized it was the other way around.

I also had not realized that the 'Running' happens early in the morning. By the time we got to Pamplona, there was not a hotel room to be had. Didn't matter. We figured we'd party all night anyway, and catch the festivities as the sun rises. (Is that where Ernest got the title...)

I wanted a sangria, being in Spain and all. I wanted a typical Spanish drink. As we melted into the undulating throng of party go-ers who take over the cobblestone streets of the small town, I was ready to get the par-tay underway and popped my head into a little restaurant selling "to-go" drinks. "Una Sangria, por favor," I asked excitedly.

The man behind the counter handed me a big plastic cup. Upon exiting, I took a huge gulp. Ack! Who poured Coca-Cola in my Sangria?!

Disgusted, I dumped it out and stopped in another place - and got served the same thing. What was wrong with these people? This was Europe for chrissakes! They should know better than to put Coke in wine!

Turns out, it is a typical Spanish drink, particularly in Basque Country. The proportions in Kalimotxo are 50-50. The wine should be cheap red. The Coke should be regular, not diet. It is usually served in a big cup, over ice. And, yes, this dreadful concoction is served by every self-respecting bartender in the city.

It tastes strange. The concept is barbaric. But, if you go to the festival of San Fermin, it is everywhere.

We ended up buying a couple of bottles of booze, instead, which we were allowed to tote and swig in the streets through which we were dancing. On the plaza (town square) we bought grilled beef skewers, around 3 am. By 6, we were slowing down, and sat on a park bench, surrounded by passed-out tourists laying, quite literally, on the sidewalks.

When daylight broke, the line pressing against the barrier sectioning off a path for the bulls was already four people deep.

If you've ever been in an earthquake, you'll have an idea of what it feels like when the bulls come flying down the tiny, turning road. The vibration under your feet, the panic and excitement of the people, pressed together, the guttural roar of man and beast. I remember a flurry of white and red. Of fur and hooves. And, the thunderous din.

Some people run along with them. And, yes, this is a particularly bad idea if one has been drinking. But, drunks will be drunks, and bad judgment prevails. We ended up in the Emergency Room later that day (nothing to do with the bulls... long story) but while there I saw several people carried in on bloody stretchers. This year's festival took place over the weekend and, like every year, several people were injured. (Frankly, I feel more sorry for the bulls. They're participation is devoid of "free will." And, they are taunted, mercilessly.)

And, then, as quickly as it began, it was over. Everyone moved down the road toward the corrida, where the bull fight would take place.

The festival of San Fermin is not for the weak of heart. And, frankly neither is that drink. However, the 'raw and uncivilized' punctuates the lofty and sophisticated. All are due, at least, one turn.

Photo credit Alvarro Barientos, AP.

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