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Monday, 04 December 2006

Spain: Reading Hemingway in the Land of Contradiction

Written by Evan Thoreau Heigert
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The train out of Barcelona leaves at a quarter to noon. On the wall of the station, the iron clock reads 11:23. I turn to the line of dusty travelers in front of me. This is going to be close.

I reach the window and the attendant feigns not to speak Spanish, let alone English. He regards me instead in the lispy drawl of Catalan. I’ve been through this before. I write my destination on the back of a receipt and hand it to him, ignoring the incessant ticking of the clock behind me. He reads it and motions to his watch in disbelief. I nod voraciously and he prints the ticket in the slow, careless Spanish way that is charming when you don’t have a train to catch. I am off; dodging children, nuns, and tourists lugging baggage. I find the platform and plop down in a raggedly upholstered bench as the train lurches into motion. How do you say ‘relieved’ in Catalan?

The ride across the northern width of Spain is spectacular. Each mile contradicts the one before. Thin streams cut deep gorges through farmland. Craggy outcroppings of sandstone burst from the prairie floor. Brown savannah stretches to the horizon, only interrupted by finger-like ranges of foothills reaching down from the northern Pyrenees. Suddenly we plunge into a tunnel only to emerge moments later on a high plateau; the Spanish call them mesetas – the sun-baked red clay contrasted against sapphire blue sky.

spainThis is the land of contradiction, of Don Quixote and La Mancha – where nothing is as quite as it seems and everything has the potential to surprise. It is mid-July and the sun reigns. The air takes on a heavy feel and by midday every living creature takes shelter for the siesta. My head bobs with the rhythm of the train and I am eased into sleep.

I am on a pilgrimage of sorts. Snoozing sedately, a ragged, dog-eared book rests against my thigh: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. The novel chronicles the story of a war-scarred writer as he comes to terms with life and love while traveling through the northern Basque hills. I first picked it up in sixth grade, rushing to finish a last minute English assignment. The book, and the author, has haunted me ever since. Hemingway epitomizes Spain; his portraits of the fiestas, the grandeur, the dust, the tragedy – it all seemed other-worldly to a boy from suburban Chicago. So, when in the midst of a summer-long trek through Europe a spare week presented itself, I jumped at the chance to follow Papa’s footsteps through the land of the bull.

I wake to the sun setting over lush green hills. Outside the air is crisp and surprisingly cold. It carries a familiar scent not present in the scorching heart of Spain: the sea.

The mountains here are old and weathered and wear a dense veil of vegetation. We follow alpine streams through gracious valleys, both flowing headlong towards the Atlantic. This is the Basque Country – a chunk of earth so old, so mystical, that its inhabitants speak of it as the original Eden- and it very well could be.

houseThe Basque culture is one of the oldest surviving in the world, claiming direct descent from Cro-Magnon man. The Basque language of Euskera – curiously resembling more closely the ancient script of the Incas than present day Spanish – is the only remaining pre-Indo-European language on the continent. These are the people that survived the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors and French, even Franco’s fascist armies – and lived to relate the story in their own tongue.

We arrive in San Sebastián, Donostia in Basque, from above. The city lies along the slender strip of land between where the mountains end and the ocean begins. I can see the Parte Vieja, nestled on a stocky peninsula stretching out into azure waters. beachIt is there that the jewel of the city sparkles, la Bahía de la Concha, an emerald harbor outlined by one of the world’s most beautiful urban beaches. Far to the west the hot coal of the sun sizzles out in the waters of the Atlantic.

We descend into the valley and rumble through town. Long shadows stretch along exquisitely manicured boulevards where palm trees and fountains are as frequent as pedestrians. An idle river cuts through city center; baroque bridges stitch together the old and new town on either bank. This is not my preconception of Spain – dusty, hot, spicy. This is something closer to the old world of Northern Europe – serene, classical, elegant. At the station, I step out into a chilly July night. I wonder for a moment if we didn’t turn a course north to Geneva or Luzerne while I dozed.

The doubt is fleeting. I am soon overwhelmed by the smell of spicy grilled shrimp, the quirk chirp of Spanish, and a more guttural, ancient dialogue that must be Euskera. Outside the station I look around, unsure of where to find lodging. A man approaches in green slacks and a wool vest. Luckily, he speaks Spanish. A clean room at a good price is more than my weary feet and empty stomach ask. I accept.

He directs me to an aging grey Land Rover and I hoist my pack in. As we drive, the city glows in the color of the dying sun. Wide avenues are set against linden trees and flower gardens. The buildings of the new town stand proudly at the same height, composed of granite from nearby quarries. They retain a type of architecture wholly unto the region. Unlike the colorful clay abodes of southern Spain, the style here has a more reposed, classical mood, similar to cosmopolitan northern cities, but with a distinct Spanish flair. On iron balconies, open French Doors offer fluttering curtains to the light sea breeze.

Hemingway came here on summer weekends away from Paris in the 1920s. He came south for the bullfighting season but had to appease his young wife by splitting time between the rough, steaming towns of Pamplona and Zaragoza and the this fine old Dame by the sea. To my dismay, I notice we are not heading further into the city, but out of it. My host and I wrestle with the language barrier and I learn that his home sits atop one of the weathered green mountains that look down on the city. I am unsure, but he is kind and promises me “grandes riquezas de la belleza,” great wealth’s of beauty.

Up in the hills the air is even cooler. It takes on the fresh scent of fall even though we have barely reached July. We pull up to a heavy-timbered hunting lodge, wood smoke trickles out of the flagstone chimney. Inside it is dimly lit and smells of burnt oak. He shows me to a room that is clean and modern; twin doors open onto a small balcony. I step out and understand instantly of what he spoke. Below the hills stretch out in three directions, rich green turned charcoal in the approaching darkness. In the V of two slopes the little city pools against the black of the sea. Streetlamps and tavern lights flicker on like fireflies appearing in the night. The breeze is steady and carries the smell of the sea and the light sounds of a town at play.

spainA shower warms my weary bones, but my stomach has yet to come to peace. As I towel dry, I am assaulted by a sultry smell. Throwing on light clothes, I walk down to the rustic dining room. Under candlelight a feast has been laid and the aroma is simply intoxicating. Other guests trickle in and soon everyone is seated. The innkeeper speaks a few words of prayer – provincial Spain is notoriously Catholic – and the food begins to be passed. Mussels, breads, fruits and nuts make the rounds. Spain’s national dish, paella is the coup d’gras, a steaming cornucopia of seafood, saffron, rice, and vegetables. Wine bottles, empty and unlabeled, begin to collect on the table like a centerpiece to our pleasure. The chatter ranges from Spanish to Catalan, Euskera to French, English to German – truly a nod to a country that has witnessed the come and go of innumerable cultures. Full and sated, I retire to my room. I put on a sweater, pull out the old Hemingway, and lie across the bed. With the cool breeze and the careful, unhurried prose, sleep comes to me easily.

The morning brings with it a low fog. It slides in slowly from the ocean and settles in the deep valley. I take coffee on the porch – thick and strong, with a touch of cardamom and nutmeg. I follow the gravel road down the mountain and catch a bus into town. The morning is fresh and cool, but with the rising sun comes the promise of warmer temperatures. I get off at the edge of the Parte Vieja – directly across the river from the train station. People are strolling through the cobblestone streets, peeking in shops, lounging at outdoor cafés.


The old town dates back to just the mid-19th century when a fire ripped through its tight streets. The relative youth of the quarter gives the buildings a dignified, colonial air. The streets here are much narrower than in the city proper. Wandering through the limestone canyons, it is easy to get lost among the shops, boutiques, and outdoor campas. It is meant to be traversed without hurry. Life in Spain runs at a tempo all its own. The Basque take their time, out of necessity as much as leisure, and all shops and businesses close for the afternoon siesta.

beachEnjoying the sun, I take mine on the beach. San Sebastián is renown for la Playa de la Concha, a stretch of golden sand that curves like a seashell for two miles along the bay, where icy Atlantic waters are warmed in the shallows by the Spanish sun. In its heyday, the town rivaled the beach resorts of Biarritz, St. Tropez, and Nice as the summer playground for the famous and beautiful. Today it is more accessible, but still retains those luxuries of the golden age: sparkling jewelry shops, designer boutiques, and above all, la Concha.

Before long the sun gets the best of me and I strip and dive into the frothy surf. The water on the surface is warm as a bath, but a body’s length below the cold currents of the ocean remain out of the sun’s reach. I swim out into the sparkling harbor where a large raft floats tranquilly. I pull myself onto its wooden deck and lie with my face in the sun. A chorus of mast lines from anchored yachts chime along with the sharp call of sea birds. It is easy to understand how Papa found inspiration and calm here along the edge of a continent. In this quiet solitude it is hard to imagine that tomorrow will bring the utter chaos that is the most quintessential of Hemingway’s Spain.

The next morning I wake before first light. The bus leaves at 5.30. Dozing passengers bounce in their seats as we roll through the Basque highlands. I stay awake, watching my reflection in the dark windows. The blackness soon gives way to a deep grey that reveals the outlines of distant mountains. At half-past six we are rolling into the outskirts of Pamplona, Iruña in Basque. This is the home of the world-famous San Fermín festival, the pride of which is the legendary Encierro, commonly known as the Running of the Bulls.

townLa Fiesta de San Fermín consists of a weeklong orgy of booze and bulls in celebration of the city’s patron saint. During this week in mid July, the tiny provincial town nearly quadruples in population. It’s a chilly pre-dawn as the bus dumps us out in the middle of a large square. Everywhere revelers are decked out in the fiesta’s official garb: white cotton pants and shirt with a red handkerchief around the neck, perhaps a symbol for the end-result of the bullfight.


Today is the final day of the festival and it shows. Thousands of drunken partygoers stumble through streets littered with the debris of a week well spent. The town itself is a conglomeration of narrow medieval streets, snake-like alleys, and dirt tracks. I wander for twenty minutes trying to find the race route, assuming I can just follow the crowd. But the whole town is one giant crowd, literally every street is packed with white-clad men singing and fighting.

A couple of dubious lefts and I come out in a wide canyon between buildings. Along the street a gang of men work feverishly in the coming dawn, fitting hundreds of heavy timber posts in gaps between the cobblestones. workersI have found the course. For nearly 900 meters it twists and turns through the narrow streets, starting at the Coralillos de San Domingo and spilling out finally into the bullring across town.

I walk for a few blocks along the timber rails that separate spectator from bull, stopping where the course makes a left-hand curve. I had been debating whether to run or not for days, but finally decided to remain a spectator rather than a target for a quarter-ton muscle with horns. route


I find my perch on a post offering a view of about twenty meters in each direction. The wooden barricades slowly take shape as the morning sun rises above the buildings before me. People begin filling in behind the partitions and runners slowly walk around, talking, sharing advice, stretching. Loudspeakers across the city blare warnings in five different languages: “Do not run if you are physically unable… do not attempt to run the entire course… if you fall, attempt to protect your head and vital organs…” I begin to feel relieved I’m not taking my chances with the bulls.

Hemingway first came here in 1923. He had served as an ambulance driver in the Italian army during the Great War and stayed on in Europe to write. It was here in Pamplona that his love for Spain first blossomed. Perhaps nowhere else in the country is its contradictory nature more apparent. Both the beauty of culture and the violent nature of tradition coexist in a town that is hopelessly lost in the ancient times, yet the center of a modern world phenomenon. Chaos and order – this is Spain.

At exactly 8am, a cannon fires and all hell breaks loose. The street is transformed into a blur of white and red as runners streak towards the bullring. A moment later and there’s a black flash in the crowd. I see a short-statured bull with its head down, come tearing through at amazing speed. The term ‘running with the bulls’ is an utter misnomer; the bulls reach top speeds close to twice that of the fastest man. ‘Deftly avoiding death with the bulls’ is a much more realistic term. A split second later – two, three, four, five more bulls (much larger than the first) –follow in similar fashion. The city is reduced to mayhem; people are screaming, running, cheering, dodging. Medics in bright orange jumpsuits attend to those runners who have escaped over the barricades. Finally the sixth and last bull comes charging through. He is a great hulk, off-white hide with dark brown spots, and he strides with a slower, more confident gait.


Ten seconds have passed and the race is over. Runners continue to trickle down the street in the bulls’ wake. I jump down from my safe perch to snap some photos of the crowd passing into the distance. I reach the ground and duck as white cotton and red bandanas continue to flow past me. I aim, release the shutter, and catch my breath.

BOOM. I stop. “What was that,” I ask out loud. BOOM, again. Two more cannons are fired and my stomach drops. I turn and from the direction of the corralillos come three massive beasts. I start moving. Wearing only sandals, my feet struggle for traction on the muddy cobblestones. The bulls catch up and move along side me. For one frozen moment I glance over and witness three stud bulls charging at the same pace. They are massive and I can see the muscles shimmering beneath thick coats. Then they are past me and I duck out beneath the barricade, my heart absolutely racing.

bullringLaughing to myself, I follow the crowds toward the bullring. The excitement is electric. Shopkeepers on either side are pulling plywood off of storefront windows. The same gangs of city workers are now taking down the wooden posts, in essence storing the festival away for another year. The stadium stands in the middle of a wide park dotted with linden trees. Inside, throngs of runners are tussling with an adolescent calf with corked horns. Cheers pour out as someone gets thrown. Meandering through the streets, I ask about tickets to the night’s fight. On the last day of the festival they’re hard to come by.

I soon find my way to the Plaza de Castilla, a large dusty square that is the heart of the old town. Arcades and cafés line all four sides, promising hot coffee and cold beer. Café Iruña is an old Hemingway haunt. He used to sit here in the mornings after the run and read the bullfighting papers over chilled drinks. I sit down and order a coffee – black and piping hot, the perfect antidote for a cool summer morning. The sun is rising steadily over the plaza and slowly the white and red begins to disappear as everyone takes leave for the siesta. I think I’ll spend my time here in the shade of the café. I take out that tattered old novel and turn to page one.


© Evan Thoreau Heigert

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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