This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Australia-New Zealand
Padilla 'the bold' strikes a defiant pose. Chest out, buttocks clenched, he shimmers resplendently in the afternoon heat in his gold embroidered jacket. They love him here in Pamplona, the spiritual home of the corrida (bullfight). Had loved him even before his miraculous comeback from a horrific 2011 goring in which he was skewered from jaw to eye socket by the bull and dragged by his face across the plaza. That injury forced the father of two to relearn how to speak and eat again. It also left him permanently blind in one eye (hence the eyepatch) and should have forced him out of bullfighting forever (such is the importance of depth perception in a sport where the opponent is a highly agile, one tonne animal with pointy horns). In a surreal twist, not only was the incident captured on camera but a documentary crew was present in the home of Padilla's parents, Ana and Pepe, at precisely the moment they watched their son gored through the face live on TV.
Today, having made a successful return, he has become one of the most adored figures in the history of the corrida. His chant deafens as it rings out around the packed plaza:
Grotesque, stomach turning and unquestionably barbaric, the ritual slaughter of bulls is in no a way pleasant experience. It's not meant to be and in recent times the 400-year-old practice in Spain (which has roots as far back as 2000 BC in other parts of the world) has come under heavy pressure to cease. Bullfighting was even banned in the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia in 2010.
"Each year, approximately 10,000 bulls die in 'bullfights,' an inaccurate term for events in which there is very little competition between a nimble, sword-wielding matador (Spanish for "killer") and a confused, maimed, psychologically tormented, and physically debilitated animal," explains the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) website of its position.
Animal rights groups were on the offensive again in the lead up to the fiesta I attended. PETA, along with Spanish group Animal Naturalis, staged a large-scale protest in the city of Pamplona featuring a few dozen naked protestors curled on the ground and slicked in fake blood. Later in the week, Padilla himself would have his fight interrupted by a shirtless protestor with the words "Stop Tortura" (stop torture) scrawled across his back. Almost 90 years after Ernest Hemmingway's seminal exploration of the fiesta in The Sun Also Rises, San Fermin is under threat. Or so it would seem, from afar.
I arrive in Pamplona by bus and am collected by my Basque friend and his Pamplonan girlfriend. Neither bother to conceal their disdain for my choice of clothing. I'm dressed in civilian attire, a terrible faux pas in the week of San Fermin when the city of Pamplona swells from a population of 200,000 to around 1 million – 99% of which, I've realised, are dressed in traditional red and white.
With my outfit hastily borrowed from a friend, we rush to a local bar for a traditional breakfast of sautéed beef, chips and fried egg before the opening ceremony. Beers and cherry liqueur are the refreshments and we're given our first taste of law and order San Fermin-style when a pair of uniformed police officers join us for a a beer and a grimace as the highlights of last year's running of the bulls play out on the screen in the bar. Day one of the running of the bulls will see seven people injured, and total of 10 by fiesta's end, though miraculously no deaths.
After breakfast we make our way to the main square for the ceremony, overlooked in the far corner by Ernest Hemmingway's place of residence when he was here, La Perla. Here we are confronted by another kind of police, the Riot Squad, who've set up all over the square in preparation for any trouble from the Basque Separatists. As Spain's financial woes continue, the calls for secession are growing in various parts of the country. A simulated referendum in 2014 revealed 81% of Catalonians (the region encompassing Barcelona) wanted autonomy from Spain, citing their reluctance to keep subsidising the country's poorer regions. Certain sections of the Basque population feel similar.
Right up until the nineties the Basque Separatist group ETA fought a controversial war, first against the Spanish dictator, General Franco, and later against the might of the Spanish Army and police. With many of their members still in prison, and many more having melted back into civilian life, Basque independence sentiment runs hot at San Fermin, which they see as the ideal platform to make some noise.
Pamplona is technically part of the Navarra region, adjacent to the Basque country, but the current mayor of the area is a Basque Nationalist. At the opening ceremony he takes the aggressive step of raising the Ikkurina (the Basque flag, seen as symbol of culture and independence during the Franco dictatorship) alongside the Spanish and official flags. It is a tense moment. In previous years anyone seen waving an Ikkurina risked arrest, and various San Fermin opening ceremonies were marred by crowd violence as riot police rushed into remove flags and arrest those waving them.
While they might have laid down their arms, the Basque separatist remains one of the most respected figures in Basque culture. To dine in their presence, as I did the morning of the corrida, is to know you are in their presence. Sullen and brooding, with an unspoken menace and a deep mistrust of foreigners, they reminded me of every hardman I'd ever known back in Australia. Except these guys weren't marginalised outlaws. Their menace and the threat of political violence they carry is seen as the key to keeping the Spanish government honest and maintaining the Basque identity. What you have to realise about San Fermin is that it is their party, and it is a brave man or woman who tries to crash it.
At midday the cracker is sent skyward signalling the official beginning of San Fermin. It's also the moment in which some 30,000 revellers – the young, the old, the disabled and disorientated – start showering each other in Sangria, the cheap, sweet Spanish wine squirted from balconies and leather Botas (wine sacks). As the wine melds with the stifling heat you're reduced to a sticky mess very quickly, and that's how you will stay for much of the next nine days. Leave your pretension at the door. San Fermin is sticky and dirty.
At 42 years old, Padilla lacks the flair and fluidity of younger matadors. The prize for the day's best performer – an ear which is crudely hacked off the dead bull – will not go to him, but rather another younger, more stylish performer. What Padilla lacks in flair he makes up for with the precision and calm you'd expect of a veteran. He doesn't waste a stroke in sending his three bulls to the afterlife, each time hitting the money with a single thread of his sword down the spine. The crowd appreciates the swiftness of the kill. It is one of the most important marks of the matador: to respect the bull's valour by putting it to death quickly when the time comes. The aficionados – those passionate fans of the corrida who spend each fight seated on the shaded side of the plaza (the punters and brass bands sweat it out on the sunny side) – argue that the the bull is given a noble death in this way. It is given the chance to go out fighting for its life, oblivious to the impossible odds stacked against it. They point out the bulls used in the San Fermin corrida are given an extra year to live compared to livestock cattle. And that, moreover, each bull is allowed to live a free and largely natural life until its death. This is more humane, they will argue, than a life spent sweating, shitting and grunting in a steel pen not much larger than your body, alongside thousands of your relatives, all the time having your stomach pumped full of maize, a subsidiary of corn, which they don't naturally eat.
This was the topic of discussion at the bus stop after the fight when I ran into a family of American cattle-ranchers, all suitably dressed in cowboy hats and boots despite the million or so people in red and white around them. "I didn't like it," said the woman, "We like how we treat our cattle." Is a life of crushing monotony and discomfort preferable to a free range existence with a grisly end, I put it to her? The rancher's husband weighed it up in silence. "I don't agree," the woman replied eventually.
There are many questions which can't be answered in the case of bullfighting and this is a large part of why it has been allowed to continue into 2016. How does anyone know what the bull is actually thinking and feeling as it fights for its life? Does the sensation of having spears and swords jabbed into it create pain and hurt in its mind and nerve endings? Or does adrenaline and a never-ending fight complex overpower the pain? Bulls are strange creatures. They never backdown. Even as their charge becomes a slow cumbersome walk around the plaza, even as the mucus and saliva and blood pours out of its face and wounds, and its vital functions begin to shut down, still they advance, always trying to kill the matador, right up until they're not more than a couple of metres apart, staring each other face to face in a slow motion gruesome portrait of murder. Then it comes. The bull lumbers slowly at the matador with one last attempt to kill and has a blade swiftly plunged into its spine, ending its life.
Following Padilla, a less-experienced matador feels the incredible humiliation and abuse of failing to give a bull the desired send off. The bull is always the hero of the corrida. It is respected, applauded and grieved for with equal measure. "Within the world of bullfighting the bull is seen as the main protagonist of the corrida and the King of the Fiesta, recognised worldwide as a symbol of bravery and resilience as well as the totem of Spanish culture," explains the International Aficianados website.
The matador on the other hand can easily lose face (literally, as Padilla found out). When this inexperienced matador has multiple jabs at the animal in its dying stages without managing to kill it cleanly, the howls of derision in the crowd turn to anger. It's a butchering and the plaza is afire with jeers and whistles. The poor, tired animal has put up a noble fight and deserves better than this. As he returns to collect his hat following the butchering, the matador's head is lowered in appropriate shame. The plaza is ablaze with fury. Now it's time for lunch.
It is fitting that the most gruesome death of the day comes moments after we've finished eating a sampling of finely cured meats, bread and cheese. A bull's aorta is inadvertently sliced during the final stages of the fight, but instead of dying it shakes its head from side to side as it runs around the ring spraying blood from its nose and mouth, and signing its death in the sand like a man pissing his name in the snow.
Moments earlier a platter of deliciously prepared-and-cured serrano ham, spanish omelettes, and traditional fish stew had been served out of tupperware containers by our friends. All around the stadium this went on. The care and preparation shown to the food got me thinking about the cultural significance of San Fermin. This is a culture that takes food seriously. It is an ancient version of Europe, one that understands culture and identity in a way places like America and Australia do not. Meat is cured, prepared and eaten with dignity and respect here.
At a time when the average westerner has never been more disconnected with the origins of their food – when living creatures are racked, stacked, killed and packaged, often so their carcasses can be left to rot in the back of a fridge or a waste bin behind a supermarket – the forced connection of you to your food at San Fermin is interesting. It is not for the faint of heart nor the queasy of stomach and it is unquestionably barbaric. But so is life. Man's dominance over animals is barbaric. Eating meat is barbaric. But it's also delicious. And if you accept that it will be forever eaten, maybe it's time to face the truth. A truth that modern economics, food processing, and an unscrupulous meat industry has allowed us to avoid for too long. It might sound machiavellian, but it seemed to me that if anyone should be trying to shut down bullfighting it is the meat industry. You will never look at a piece of steak the same after attending the corrida in Pamplona.
Critics will argue there are other ways to force a connection between humans and their food – through reading, or watching a documentary, perhaps. And they may be right. San Fermin says that's not enough. Some things you need just to see in the flesh.
With fights over, those who want to can enter the arena. The blood and flesh of the dead bulls is still scattered around the sand and gets stuck to the bottom of your shoes. Come the end of the corrida the many Basque, Navarra and Spanish social clubs congregate behind their respective marching bands and march out of the plaza singing folk songs. There is a moment of tension when a man pulls a gun and points it at one of the marching bands, but it is a joke, apparently, and my Pamplonan friends tell me not to worry. We march through the old part of town, singing and dancing along the cobbled streets, the noise ricocheting off the tall stone buildings. Eventually we arrive at the famous fountain, which Australian tourists made infamous by climbing to the top of and jumping into the sometimes waiting hands of the crowd. This is not a San Fermin tradition, the locals tell me. It was invented by idiotic tourists and is incredibly dangerous and bizarre, in their opinion.
It's dusk as I make my way to the bus station. The cobble streets are lined with the first wave of refugees fleeing war in North Africa, West Africa and the Middle-East. They sell fake handbags, hats, watches and other things. But now they too are partying, striking a frenetic drum rhythm for the enjoyment of their fellow Africans and handfuls of Roma (gypsy). Music, dance and laughter is the remedy for their bad hand. The resilience is impossible not to admire. I am reminded of the bull.