Pamplona: “because – like Hemingway – you had been there.”

Alien isn’t quite the word. You’d been taken up to a high mountain and shown things in yourself and the world, things you couldn’t deny because – like Hemingway – you had been there.

The Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney’s words on the bulls sum up the experience of Pamplona so well. Just as nothing is left in the civilised world quite like bullfighting – hence the controversy, hence the violence of those who stand opposed to it – Pamplona is like a distilled essence of it, the attar of toreo. Only there can you get close to the bulls – and not the bulls as they are in the ring, each promoted to alpha status and ferocity by his solitude – but as they are in the herd: six half ton fighters, along with a half dozen one ton steers to guide them, both fleeing and being led by the runners who surround them.

And what is more, you can say afterwards , “you had been there.”

(You will also be contributing to the ailing Spanish economy. The Feria de San Fermín costs the city council €4 million to mount, and it makes €60 million in return.)

Fiesta, as it is known, opens with the bacchanalian opening ceremony in the city hall square at midday on July 6th and bulls are run every morning from July 7th until July 14th. The best way there is to fly – if you can afford it by Iberia to Pamplona via Madrid or Barcelona. Or otherwise by Easyjet or Ryanair to Madrid or Barcelona and then by the Spanish train network, Renfe, to Pamplona.

If you cannot afford the luxuries of the Maisonnave Hotel which treated me so well last year, join with me and the Pamplona Posse who can supply everything from an apartment next to the bull-run, to tickets for the bullfights in the evening, along with balcony space to watch the run, and even expert advice given by their in-house genius of the cobbles Angus Ritchie.


We even have our friend John Hemingway with them, grandson of the great Ernest.

I cannot recommend highly enough that you come, even just to watch from those balconies. Then you were there, as I was, in the photo given in detail and then full version below (I am in the red and white blazer, running between two charging bulls.)

I’ll leave you with Seamus Heaney in a fuller version:


You found Goya instructive?

Seamus Heaney:

I found him overwhelming…

And then too, the bullfights, with all the dry mouth and dream danger that bullfights entail… When I look back on it, the Goyas were just another element in the phantasmagoria. The sun beat down on everything else, but the Prado was cool, so it was sombre to the sol of the rest of the day.

Did you take to the bullfights?

I had to go, just to find out what the word ‘bullfight’ meant. But it’s still hard to know, even after you’ve been in attendance. I’m not sure what I’d feel about it nowadays, but half a lifetime ago the experience was mesmeric. I’m not saying it was without its cruelties, especially the goring of the bull by the picadors: a big iron-headed spear driving into the neck muscles and then the sweaty bleeding; that was brutal stuff. But gradually I would find myself in a kind of trance: the choreography in the ring and the surge and response of the crowd with the music going on and on just carried you away. And your focus stayed tight on the man and the bull. There was something hypnotic about the cloak-work, something even vaguely Satanic about that black crumpled-horn killing-cap on the matador’s head – when it was over, you blinked and asked yourself ‘Where was I?’, then back you went like a sleepwalker for a second time. It’s easy to understand the mystique of the corrida, and easy to understand the opposition to it also. It’s a Roman experience. Once you’ve been there, you’re implicated, you have some inkling of what it must have been like in the Colosseum.

Did you ultimately view the experience as an alien one?

I certainly felt that I’d been beyond my usual self in an otherwhere. Alien isn’t quite the word. You’d been taken up to a high mountain and shown things in yourself and the world, things you couldn’t deny because – like Hemingway – you had been there.

from Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll (Faber & Faber, 2008)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

[This post is originally from the No.1 Bullfighting Blog, ‘The Last Arena’, click on logo below for link. Ed.]

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2 Responses to Pamplona: “because – like Hemingway – you had been there.”

  1. Pingback: Pamplona: The Book | The Pamplona Post

  2. Pingback: Blog moved to The Pamplona Post for July… – The Last Arena

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