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San Fermin kicks off in Iruñea! Photo via Wikimedia Commons

July 6 sees the kick-off of perhaps the best-known of all Basque festivals: the festival of San Fermin, which begins to the shout of Gora San Fermin! (Long live San Fermin!). This is most famously celebrated in Iruñea (also spelled Iruña, or Pamplona in Spanish), Navarre, where the most emblematic moment is probably the daily morning running of the bulls through the city streets. But there are many more dimensions to the festival than just the running of the bulls, as this anecdote in Basque Culture: Anthropological Perspectives by William Douglass and Joseba Zulaika demonstrates:

While conducting fieldwork in Etxalar [Navarre] in the early 1960s, Douglass had one of only two private cars in the village–a Volkswagen Beetle. He was encouraged by several of his informants to attend the festivities in their capital city, and, of course, to take them along. Interest was particularly high because Lopene had entered the competition of the livestock fair.

Lopene was a corpulent bachelor in his mid-thirties. A livestock buyer by day, at night, he used teams of contrabandists to smuggle horses from Spain to France, where they were slaughtered for human consumption. In a given year, Lopene moved literally thousands of horses across the international frontier, which formed part of Etxalar’s municipal boundary, as well, providing supplementary employment to most of the village’s households. Lopene was a bon vivant and generous to a fault, frequenting (scrupulously) all three village taverns and inviting one and all to a drink.

Douglass arose in the dark, collected his three companions, and arrived in Iruña about daybreak. They went straight to the lower city, where the livestock fair is held. The fair was physically well removed from the tourist haunts, the route of the bull running, and the plaza de toros, but for rural Nafarroans, his companions, the fair was the real event. To everyone’s delight, Lopene was prominent in the parade of the contestants in the best-of-breed competition. He had won the blue ribbon for his superior pair of oxen.

Afterward, Lopene joined his fans (us) for a mid-morning snack, and then everyone scattered to make the purchases demanded of them by their spouses as quid pro quo for assenting to their husbands’ escapade. By early evening, we excursionists were homeward bound, having never mentioned (let alone experienced) the bull running, encierro, or corrida [bullfight]. It was then that Douglass observed, to everyone’s enormous merriment, “But, wait a minute, I have never seen an ox in Etxalar!” The anthropologist’s naiveté proved to be the perfect capstone to the perfect day–Lopene had smuggled the pair of oxen into Nafarroa from France for the competition, and the prized pair were already on their way to their home north of the Pyrenees.

If Iruñea is the international face of the San Fermin festival, it is expressed in more modest (though no less intense) fashion in the town of Lesaka in northern Navarre. Indeed, the festival of San Fermin in Lesaka is also highly renowned, not for its bull running, but rather for the traditional zubigainekoa (on the bridge) dance, performed by the town’s ezpatadantzaris or sword dancers. Check out a video of this unique event here and a slightly longer video including other dances performed as well as more general scenes from the festival here.