Hemingway’s Obsolete Machismo: For Whom The Bulls Still Toil!

By Nasser Tufail

Sobrino de Botin – Dinner at the World’s Oldest Restaurant and Hemingway’s Favorite Haunt

During our early days of discovery in Spain, the first time Ernest Hemingway’s name comes up is when my wife and I are having dinner at his favorite restaurant in Madrid, Sobrino de Botin, the world’s oldest restaurant. It has been around since 1725.

Hemingway's favorite restaurant

When my wife inquires from the waiter about famous people who had visited the restaurant, he tells us that we are probably sitting at the very table where Hemmingway often sat. But I suspect every waiter says that to every customer, whichever table they may be sitting at. The famous Spanish painter, Goya, was a waiter at the restaurant and Ernest Hemmingway, James Michener, Spanish novelist Benito Perez Galdós and many other famous folks were regulars.

Hemingway’s Novels

The mention of the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author’s name reminds me of one of his novels I read many years earlier, The Sun Also Rises. The story was inspired by his first bullfight experience. His graphic description of the running of the bulls at Pamplona’s Fiesta de San Fermín certainly helped popularize a local event into the world’s most recognized ‘bovine madness party’ which attracts over a million visitors every year. 

Soon after the publication of Hemingway’s book, other world famous celebrities of the day would start flocking to the fiesta – Orson Welles, James Michener, Arthur Miller and Ava Gardner, to name a few. Hemingway was an authority on bullfighting and quite an aficionado of the ‘sport’; a regular at the Pamplona Fiestas, he attended nine Bull Runs and many bullfights across Spain.

  • Hemingway's fascination for bullfighting
  • Hemingway's fascination with bullfighting

Hemingway even competed in amateur bullfighting in the Pamplona San Fermin Festivals.

After finishing dinner at Sobrino de Botin, during the 5 minute walk from the restaurant to Plaza Mayor metro station, my wife and I have already decided on our next destination: Pamplona.

At Café Iruña in Hemingway’s Pamplona

It is still late winter and the Fiesta de San Fermín does not take place until July, nevertheless, five days later I and my trusted navigator and travel partner are already in Pamplona enjoying our lattes at the most famous café in town, Café Iruña, another place regularly frequented by Hemingway.

Plaza del Castillo

The city’s oldest hotel, still in operation, Gran Hotel La Perla, is located in the historic square called Plaza del Castillo, cynosure of the city’s social scene. Many famous historical characters have stayed here, including Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin and the famous Spanish bullfighter, Cayetano Ordoñez. This 5-Star hotel’s balconies are among the most coveted spots from which to view the Running of the Bulls as they face the main route on Calle de la Estafeta.

Plaza del Castillo. Hotel La Perla is on the far right

Monumento al Encierro

We walk past the magnificent Monumento al Encierro, (Bull Run Monument), a full-scale lifelike bronze sculpture on Avenida Roncesvalles in City Center that pays tribute to Pamplona’s famous Running of the Bulls festival. This marvelous work of art depicts the intense energy and exhilaration spawned by spirited bulls charging through the streets on the heels of mozos (runners) as they dash towards Plaza de Toros.

I consider the running of the bulls an asinine and callous pursuit, though admittedly I can’t overlook its entertaining value and must confess that I have watched it live on the Spanish RTVE network for many years. I do wonder why there are almost always only men chasing the bulls and being chased by them? Might it be a macho rite of passage; a test of one’s mettle in tempting the hand of fate; a pursuit of death-defying thrill? Whatever it is, it definitely is a man thing.

Bull Run Pamplona
A sort of ‘frozen snapshot’ bronze sculpture in honor of the Bull Run of Pamplona

My imagination, inspired by a visit to key landmarks connected with the Bull Run in Pamplona, has already piqued my curiosity to explore Hemingway’s passion for bull spectacles that he so passionately wrote about.

A Street named after Hemingway and his bust near the Pamplona bull ring
A Street named after Hemingway and his bust near the Pamplona bull ring

Iglesia de San Saturnino

Next, we visit the 13th century church in the Old Quarter called Iglesia de San Saturnino where the Patron Saint of Pamplona, Saint Fermin, was baptized and after whom the festival is named. The toll of the bells of this church when the clock strikes eight o’clock in the morning, accompanied by the firing of two rockets, marks the beginning of the raucous and unpredictable Bull Run.

Iglesia de San Saturnino
Iglesia de San Saturnino (Church of San Cernin) The turmoil starts with the toll of these bells!

Perhaps one day, I think to myself…

No Guts, No Glory… No Bull?

Although many Spaniards are now opposed to bullfighting, there are still those who find it hard to conceive Spain’s ethos and culture without the spectacle of bullfighting. Of course, if you ask a matador about his views on the ‘sport’, here is what you might hear:

Well, it’s not about torturing and killing animals just for the heck of it, but more a case of allowing the bull to demonstrate his courage and daring and eventually ending his life, “gracefully and in a highly respectable way”, to quote one.

In his novel, ‘Death in the Afternoon’, a manifesto on bullfighting that was published in Esquire, Hemingway explains: “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”

Back in Madrid

A few weeks after returning to Madrid from Pamplona, the San Isidro Festival bullfighting season is just about to start. Both, my wife and I, are totally opposed to any form of animal cruelty. All the same, occasionally, at least I can be tempted into those ‘once in a lifetime experience’ capers whenever the opportunity presents itself. After all, I did not repudiate escargot (snails), grenouille (frog legs), eel, and gambling (casinos, greyhound dogs, horses) in my younger days.

I keep thinking about the ‘once in a lifetime’ experience of bullfighting – my next ‘escargot’ or ‘grenouille’ moment. Perhaps I am subconsciously reflecting on the allure and the force and zest of this oxen drama which ostensibly gets intensified by the presence of presumed death in the case of the bulls and the conceivable horror of serious injury, or even death, in the case of the matador. Surely, even the best matadors must have their moments of foreboding and fear.

Making Plans to Visit the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid

There are bull fights almost daily for 20 days during the festival. “It is, after all, a symbol of Spanish tradition and ‘cultural heritage’, the sort of things we always embrace,” I remind Selma. Eventually, she relents. We will get to witness the pomp and pageantry associated with Arte de Torero when we attend the national spectacle of Spain, Corrida de Toros. The venue is Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid, one of the world’s most prestigious bullrings that can seat about 24,000 spectators.

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Click here for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings on Hemmingway : Death in the Afternoon: In the Footsteps of Hemingway

Nasser Tufail

Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the US where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and MBA. After working in the field of aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM in various engineering and management positions, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence, Data analytics/mining and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world.

Nasser has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.

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