This year was my fifth at the Feria de Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Cuéllar in Castile y León, Spain, running with bulls in the oldest encierros in all Spain. When I first arrived in 2012 the town opened its arms to me and so when I left I wrote an article in the regional newspaper, El Norte de Castilla titled ‘Thank you, Cuéllar, from London‘. The following year the headline was ‘And again thank you, Cuéllar, from London‘. Then in 2014 it was ‘See you soon Cuéllar‘.
However, the following year I broke my ribs running with the cattle there and forgot to write, so this year I made sure my article came out early, on the opening Sunday of the fair, the day I arrived. It is reprinted in English below (the original Spanish is online here.)
There is Fiesta and Feria in Cuéllar
In 1923 Ernest Hemingway arrived in Pamplona and witnessed the great explosion of life that is the Fiesta of San Fermin, through the heart of which a path was carved from the corrals to the plaza by the Feria del Toro.
By the time he returned in 1959 the city was so changed he almost didn’t recognise it. He wrote that “40,000 tourists have been added. There were not 20 tourists when I first went there nearly four decades ago.”
When I arrived sixty years later – to the day – there were over a million tourists. And although sanfermines has been like a father to my afición – with the southern elegance of April in Seville as its mother – Cuéllar is a far older and more personal thing than those spectacular parents. Which is why I have come here every year since I met the sculptor Dyango Velasco on the opening Saturday of the feria in 2012.
Since then I have never come alone. Over the years I have come with a strange and wondrous mix of people to your town. In 2013 I brought to your town of the horse the Earl of Westmorland, whose father was Master of Horse to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and along with him the greatest jockey my country ever produced, Richard Dunwoody, who won the most dangerous horserace in England, the Grand National, not once but twice.
The following year I brought Nicolás Osorio, eldest son of the Duke of Alburquerque, whose ancestral castle embraces your town in its arms. His grandfather did not win the British Grand National, despite riding in it twenty or so times as an amateur. He did, however, become famous for breaking more bones in it than any other jockey and was nicknamed the “Iron Duke”, not, like Wellington, for his political resolve, but for all the metal pins and plates that kept his skeleton together.
This year I come with more foreigners than ever, some of whom Cuéllar knows, and some of whom are new. There is that great photographer of wars and bulls, Jim Hollander of European Pressphoto Agency, who returns having been awarded the EHToro prize for writing about the encierros – ‘bull-runs’ – of Cuéllar last year and having just been named “guirri del año” by Mikel Urmeneta in Pamplona this year.
To celebrate the publication of his book Pizarra To Pamplona: Across Spain On Horseback (available to purchase here), about his childhood travels with his father, Gino Hollander – a great taurine painter whose work covers the walls of the Casa Misericordia in Pamplona – Jim will be photographing the encierro of Cuéllar for the world’s press from the back of one of its horses with me providing the words from the horse next door.
In the streets we will have the great Texan rodeo champion who moved and married to become your neighbour and a university professor in Valladolid. Larry Belcher, who is already familiar to readers of these pages following his 40th anniversary in the encierros of Spain (as is his wife Dr Ana Cerón of the hospital there.)
Alongside these veteran taurinos, there will be younger faces too (having turned 40 this year I do not include mine.) There is Jordan Tipples from Wales, who has the heart of a lion, and follows in the tradition of that great Welsh runner of bulls and aficionado, Noel Chandler, whose death last year we mourn still.
It is Noel who taught me the philosophy of the first foreign runner to be accepted by locals, a veteran of the Marine Corps in the Second World War, Matt Carney, whose children Allen and Deirdre I run with in Pamplona. This is that one must not run for glory, but for the joy of it. (This lesson is too often forgotten today, as is the lesson I was given by my first teacher in the plaza, Juan José Padilla, who said to me after he had lost his eye in Zaragoza in 2011: “scars are not medals of honour, but the marks of our mistakes.” This sort of pride has no place in the plaza or the street.)
And then there is Chloe Drakari-Phillips. Chloe first went to Pamplona twenty-five years ago, although she is only twenty-four years old. (Her first San Fermín was when her mother was pregnant.) This adopted child of the Fiesta of San Fermín is the soul of that side of Pamplona, in all its passion and its vibrancy, who has shown me a less serious side to the taurine life of Spain, adopted child of the Feria del Toro that I am.
As part of this spirit of cooperation between local and foreigner, I have asked the principal pastor, Enrique Bayón Brandi, to join with me in arranging a “breakfast of runners” following a tradition begun in Pamplona by the great runners, and our good friends, Julen Madina and Joe Distler thirty years ago. We hope to bring a new international tradition to the oldest encierro in Spain. As a mark of respect to the bulls and those who work with them, this first will be held in honour of the memory of Victor Barrio and attended by David Mora the morning before he faces the same risks himself with the bulls with which we have just run.
It is nice to be able to bring a tradition from Pamplona back to Cuéllar since Cuéllar is most likely the parent of Pamplona’ most famous. The 3rd and 4th Dukes of Alburquerque – Nicolás Osorio’s father is the 19th Duke – were viceroys of Navarre from 1452 to 1464 about the time when encierros began to be written about in that region of Spain.
So, as I pack my old school athletics blazer with its distinctive red and white stripes in honour of the marriage of Spain’s traditions and my own, I can barely contain my excitement to once again check into the Hotel San Francisco and attend the ferias of Nuestra Señora del Rosario and the grandfather of all encierros that runs through it.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, August 30th, Julen Madina died in hospital following an accident while swimming, itself following an incident in which he was badly injured in an encierro in Tudela. And so ended the life one of the most prolific and skilled runners of bulls in the history of the encierro. Although I did not get to know him as well as I might have liked, I counted him as a friend, we spent a little time together and he kindly contributed to the book I compiled, edited and co-authored along with mutual friends of ours such as Joe Distler, Miguel Ángel Eguiluz, Jokin Zuasti and photographs by Jim Hollander.
On my flight back from Madrid last week, I scribbled a few lines on a napkin to describe the simple but profound thing that is fiesta. It is not much, but I thought I would put it up here.
Farewell To Fiesta
Farewell to fiesta, farewell to the sun,
The candles are burned down and the bulls are all done.
But though the shrine’s empty and altars are bare,
We know the way back now and will return there.
As we grow older and some of us fall,
We’ll still lift our glasses and toast to us all.
For fiesta is in us, and those who we love,
Those still among us, and those up above.