They came to toast the dead, who would run no more.
A small group of Americans gathered in the gutter outside Ernest Hemingway’s now-shuttered drinking hangout, Casa Marceliano. They were toasting three compatriots who would not be returning to Pamplona, Spain, to run with the bulls—or drink afterwards.
They’d been drawn to the city for the festival of San Fermin, a two-week celebration of bullfights, parades, music and a lot of drinking, immortalized in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. His 1926 novel brought the world to Pamplona’s doorstep and transformed a sleepy local fiesta into an international bucket-list destination.
Hemingway first visited the town in 1923, but left it behind in 1959, lamenting the way it had changed because of the crowds his book had brought.
The American who organized the morning toast, war photographer Jim Hollander, felt somewhat the same about the evolution of the festival over the 48 years he’s attended—but he has only himself to blame.
Hollander’s groundbreaking pictures of the bull run in the 1970s drew other international news outlets—as did his book, Run To The Sun—Pamplona's Fiesta de San Fermin, chronicling his photos of the fiesta from 1977 to 2002.
Hollander, 66, said his photos of a 1978 Basque riot at the fiesta landed him a job at wire services UPI and then Reuters, and he kept photographing Pamplona in between global conflicts. Other outlets started taking notice.
“They said, Hollander is covering San Fermin like a Super Bowl, like a story? Why are we letting just Reuters cover it?” he said, remembering how he went from being the only foreign photographer to one of dozens who descend on the annual event. He now photographs it for the European PressPhoto Agency.
The city of Pamplona declared Hollander “foreigner of the year” this year, honoring him at a lavish cocktail party and lunch at the Hotel Europa for the fame he’d brought them with his decades spent photographing the encierro—as the running of the bulls is called.
His work and the resulting international news coverage by other outlets arguably drew even more attention than Hemingway’s book had. While it attracted a great new crop of runners, and money for the city of Pamplona, it also created a bit of a monster.
Tens of thousands of tourists now seek to run with the bulls, changing the event from a sort of local fair to more of a rave, with sexual assaults against drunken revelers a growing problem, and the city’s cobblestone streets turned grimy with a sickening muck of spilled alcohol and worse that takes an army of garbage men to power wash away each morning.
The daily run itself has grown from a few hundred runners to up to 4,000 on the half-kilometer-long course. It was once a balletic test of speed, with local Basque runners and a few brave foreigners guiding the bulls from the paddock to the bullring through the narrow streets, using their bodies like human capes.
Now, especially on the weekend during the eight days of runs, it’s turned into a seething stampede of panicked humanity that ends up injuring a lot more runners than the bulls actually do. Spilled blood on the running route gets covered by sawdust and eventually ground underfoot.
Only 16 runners have been killed since the encierro’s start in the 500-year-old-plus event since they started counting in the early 1900s, but every year, dozens are injured and only the more severe injuries get recorded. (The city provides medical services free for Europeans, but charges foreigners, who often skip the hospital and town without paying the bills.)
So it was fitting for this small band of Americans to kick off San Fermines 2016 as the locals do, with a mass for three longtime attendees who’d died in the past year, claimed not by bull’s horns but by age—the starkest reminder of changing times.
The priest eulogized the last of the runners from Hemingway’s era—Noel Chandler, David Pierce and Hollander’s artist father, Gino, who had brought his son Jim to the festival as a teenager.
“We used to be the young guns,” Hollander said of his surviving compadres. “Now we are the old farts.”
The three fallen revelers probably would have gotten a kick out of the fact that a recently deceased nun was also being remembered at the mass, for entirely different services to the community.
Noel Chandler had been famous for his generous hosting skills, especially his annual champagne party at his apartment overlooking the run course to kick off the festival—open to all who walked through his door.
David Pierce was known to everyone in Pamplona as “Big Dave,” a 6-foot-plus Jewish Canadian who lived in Paris after World War II and called himself a “celebrated author,” for his LA-based detective novels. An infamous jokester, he would get dressed up in a matador outfit and floppy shoes, and walk up to tourists saying, “Donde esta la Plaza del Toros?” aka “Where is the bullring?”
“Everybody knew him,” Hollander said.
Hollander’s father, Gino, was famous for his charity, giving his paintings away even to those who couldn’t afford them.
“He thought anyone should be able to enjoy his art,” his son said.
The padre might as well have been eulogizing the loss of the simpler, less crazed celebration that still focused more on the saint, San Fermin, and a gathering of good friends over fine adult beverages, rather than on the chugging of the ubiquitous plastic bottles of pre-mixed sangria with a crush of strangers.
The morning after the mass, a couple dozen mostly Americans gathered for an homenaje or homage to Gino Hollander and absent friends. The crew raised a glass in the gutter of the street outside Casa Marceliano, moving the party to the sidewalk when the occasional police car or trash truck drove by at a respectfully slow pace.
“My dad, Gino Hollander, was a very incredible person, a wonderful artist, a lover of Spain, a lover of Pamplona, who brought me here when I was 13,” said his son, choking up at the memory during this, his 48th own fiesta.
“His motto in life was ‘Go out and get it,’” he said. “And 100 percent of the people in this street live their life that way.”
It was an eclectic gathering of old-timers and a new generation of Americans, and a few other international interlopers, all clad in the traditional white clothes with red sash and red neckerchief. The older members of the group had actually lived in the upper rooms of Casa Marceliano until the city took over the building and turned it into offices.
Making drinks was 30-year-old Ivy Mix, cocktail maestra of Leyenda Brooklyn Cocteleria and 2015 American bartender of the year. She’s been attending the fiesta since 2008. At Hollander’s request, she had created their traditional drink, “Yellow Shit,” in this case, comprised of orange juice, gin, turmeric and other more secret ingredients.
“I figured we needed the turmeric for cleansing,” for the days of drinking to come, she said of the concoction.
Standing next to Hollander was American Deirdre Carney, who raised a toast of “Yellow Shit” to the three men, all compatriots of her father, Matt, who passed away in 1988. Her father was a World War II Marine who lived in Paris after the war. He’d met Hemingway in Pamplona in the 1950s. According to novelist and Pamplona regular James Michener, in his book Iberia, the two men promptly got into as a fistfight. His daughter says it was simply an “altercation.”
On Carney’s deathbed in Ireland, he wrote a letter to Pamplona, thanking the city for its kindness and beauty.
Daughter Deidre still comes to the festival every year, one of the few women who runs with the bulls. Her brother Allen also makes the occasional appearance to run. Deirdre Carney is representative of the new generation of American festival-goers in her bohemian uniqueness—a sometime schoolteacher and aspiring writer who hopes to spend the coming year bartending in Antarctica.
The homenaje ended with a toast of the obnoxiously named yellow brew to Gino Hollander, by his son Jim. That final toast just might have included sprinkling the elder Hollander’s ashes out of an Italian coffee can at the base of a tree across from Casa Marceliano.
That may or may not be illegal, but nearby police did not intervene. In Pamplona, this sort of act tends to be embraced by locals, who appreciate the foreigners who love their city as much as they do.
Then it was on to the siesta—the nap that becomes a matter of survival a few days in to the fiesta—to rest before that night’s bullfight, followed by a drink at 9 pm outside Mafia’s near the ring, then an evening’s repast at 10pm, then to bed by approximately 1am and a brief nap before waking for next day’s race.
At 4 am, workers install heavy wooden fences all along the route, some covered in heavy steel to take the impact of skidding bulls and scrambling crowds at sharp corners. Watchers of the event have to stake out the few spaces where it’s possible to see the bulls pass at least three hours before the race, when the streets are still dark.
The runners have to get onto the course before the police shut it off at 7:30 am for the 8 am start. They spread themselves throughout the course depending on their skill level. Anyone visibly drunk or carrying a bag or a cellphone is kicked out.
The runners sing three times to the saint, San Fermin, represented by a statue tucked in the alcove of a stone wall near the start of the race.
They ask to survive what’s coming.
When the bulls are released at 8 am sharp, the runners take off ahead of them, trying to pick up speed to match the bulls’ average of 15 miles per hour.
The experienced runners know which way the bulls are coming from, and when to dive for cover when the bulls get too close. The beginners? Not so much.
“As I’ve gotten more experienced at running, I’ve noticed more and more how unexperienced and mad all the tourists are,” said Briton Alexander Fiske-Harrison, a relative newcomer to the festival, first partaking in 2009. He quickly won the respect and a place in the American group, because he’d trained as a bullfighter and written the well-received book Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight.
“He’s actually killed a bull,” Hollander said, with a rare touch of awe for a photographer who has spent decades in combat zones.
The Oxford-educated Brit also won their respect by taking their advice and starting small, first practicing in other runs in smaller Spanish towns. He now runs the Pamplona race in his tattered red-and-white Eton College jacket, when he can overcome the unease that grows with each passing year over the number of tourists now clogging the course.
“The people who stand there and say ‘Which direction do the bulls come from?’ Things like that now scare me,” Fiske-Harrison explained, over the customary post-run breakfast of fried eggs, Iberian ham and rosé wine, served on a long picnic table on the freshly washed cobblestone streets. “I physically feel fear for them, so I have to move away from them,” he said, taking a swig of wine for comfort.
Hemingway’s own grandson, writer John Patrick Hemingway agreed, as we chatted after another morning run outside another Hemingway hangout, Bar Txoko in the Plaza del Castillo.
“There are tons more people now,” the younger Hemingway said, while sipping the de rigueur post-encierro drink of “Kaiku and cognac.” Kaiku is a Yoohoo-like milk drink that comes in vanilla or chocolate flavor.
“Sometimes there are 2,000 people on the course in one day,” Hemingway said. “So you have more danger of getting knocked down by someone else than you do of the bulls.”
The official Pamplona guide to the encierro states there are 2,000 people mid-week and sometimes 4,000 or more during the weekend runs.
There are few figures available from Hemingway’s era. Little known fact: Hemingway never actually ran with the bulls, according to his grandson.
The younger Hemingway, Fiske-Harrison, Hollander and the other Americans wrote an e-book of their own experiences called Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona, giving advice to would-be runners. Hollander’s photos line its pages.
One of the longest-serving runners and one of the Fiesta manual’s co-authors, Joe Distler, hands out beermats advertising the e-book. They are emblazoned with a Hollander photo of a charging bull and the words, “This beermat could save your life.”
Distler is over 70 but refuses to give his exact age. Over a full-bodied Rioja at a steakhouse that he wants to keep nameless to hide it from tourists, the native New Yorker said when he started running in 1968, the streets were nearly empty and the bulls visible charging toward him from 40 yards away.
“I used to run in the center of the street very casually and wait for the bulls to come up the street,” said Distler, who is so famous for running the course that even Basques stop him and ask him for selfies.
“You attract its attention and try to pull it along with you as you are running,” Distler said, describing how experienced runners run “on the horns” of the bull, just in front of it and never touching it.
“Now there are so many people, I can’t even see the bulls some mornings,” he griped.
He blames getting gored four times on the crowds, not the bulls.
“With the bulls, I've always felt like part of the herd. Once I run with them, they don’t bother me,” he said. “What distracts the bulls are when people hit them and push you.”
Outside Bar Txoko, another of the American tribe Chicago native Bill Hillman, 34, was sporting abrasions on arms and legs and a massive purpling bruise swelling on the back of one calf. He was rubbing a spot on his skull where he thinks a bull or human kicked him in the head.
He’s been seriously gored twice, in the thigh and the knee, but said it was the crowd’s panicked behavior that drove him to scramble for safety mid-run.
“This year is the first year I’ve ever gotten off the course since I was a beginner because I felt afraid,” said Hillman, who authored Mozos: A Decade Running with the Bulls of Spain.
“It wasn’t because of the bull. I would have loved to have run with that bull,” he said, describing how he sees the run as a way of helping guide the animal up the street. “But the people around me…were acting very erratic, and I couldn’t anticipate their next moves and I started feeling claustrophobic.”
“I can imagine a day when it’s just a massacre and the bull smashes through standing crowds of people,” he said.
One of the course’s most famous runners, Basque Julen Madina, is worried the growing crowds will eventually destroy the event.
“I’m very worried that the encierro is suffering,” he said over champagne at the Europa Hotel, ironically to toast Jim Hollander for his world-famous photographs bringing all those crowds. “I think we need to find a way to control who joins the race,” Madina added with a shake of his head.
Distler said the town had tried. He’d been the only foreigner invited to take part in a Pamplona city conference five years ago, to try to figure out how to limit the numbers on the course—but a lottery might mean longtime runners like him don’t get a spot; a fee to run might drive out poorer Spanish runners; and changing the start time from 8am to earlier in the morning would make it too dark for television to cover. The run, like the bullfights in the evening, are covered wall-to-wall with commentary, slo-mo replays and close-ups just like soccer or baseball.
No one could decide what to do, so the clueless still come in droves.
Fiske-Harrison offered his 30-second advice to tourist greenhorns considering a bucket-list-fulfilling once-in-a-lifetime run.
“Don’t. But if you insist on doing it, learn about it first,” he said emphatically. “Look it up. Read anything. Watch it on YouTube. Understand the chaos you are dealing with.”
And on the day of your run, two more key tips: “If you get hit, stay down,” he said. “And never run all-out. Because if it changes, you need gas in the tank. If a bull turns and you’ve run yourself out, what are you going to do?”
Afterwards, if you’ve avoided being carted off by one of the medical teams that lines the route for bandaging or surgery, go to Bar Txoko. Order a Kaiku and cognac, toast Ernest Hemingway, Jim and Gino Hollander, and absent friends—and start drinking.
Update 9:04 am 7/17: This story has been updated to reflect the bulls run 15 miles per hour, not 24, and the encierro has been run for 500 years, but records of those killed only started to be recorded in the 1900s.