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PAMPLONA, Spain (Reuters) - Spain's world famous annual San Fermin festival may have bullfighting as its centerpiece but the carnival atmosphere also lures unorthodox fans given to food fights, singing and dressing up.
The festival captivated Nobel Prize-winning novelist Ernest Hemingway when he first came to visit in 1923 and inspired him to write "The Sun Also Rises," the book which made a name for him and the northern town of Pamplona and drawn tourists here from around the world ever since.
The traditional running of the bulls got under way on Thursday morning without any of the gorings which usually mark the week-long celebrations.
In the afternoon, local fan clubs known as "penas" packed the cheap seats on the sunny side of the bullring.
Many will spend much of their time with their backs to the three bullfighters who will challenge six bulls in the course of an afternoon.
They also fill the stadium with music so deafening many reputable bullfighters decline to come to Pamplona and fans in the more expensive shaded seats argue over the noise.
"Here the bullfighter has two opponents, the bull and the racket," said Antonio de Miguel.
Near neighbor Angel de la Cruz disagreed.
"A good bullfighter won't be distracted, and they shut up if the fighting is well done," said de la Cruz, who journeys every year to the festival from San Sebastian. "Without all this, it wouldn't be Pamplona."
The bulls lined up for the bullfight were goaded through the streets that morning with many fans in traditional white garb choosing to defy death by running ahead of them.
The Red Cross reported minor injuries only and there were none of the gorings which are common and have killed an estimated 15 people since the modern bullring was built in 1922.
One of the personalities in the crowd of 20,000 was photographer Francisco "Canito" Cano, who took pictures of legendary bullfighter "Manolete" when he was gored to death in 1947.
"Manolete" was a household name in his day, but today most bullfighters haven't anywhere near the profile of famous soccer stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi or Oscar-winning actors such as Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem.
Bullfighter Jose Maria Manzanares, Miguel Angel Perera and Julian "El Juli" Escobar told Spain's top-selling non-sports daily El Pais in May that they wanted more television airtime.
"We feel excluded compared to other arts," they said.
Bullfights also face growing public opposition. They were banned more than 20 years ago in the Canary Islands and last year the regional parliament in Catalonia voted to end them in 2012 in the northeastern region, where attendances have dwindled in recent years.
Polls show, however, that Spaniards -- especially young ones -- are increasingly indifferent, although many on principle oppose government restrictions, whether it is of bullfights, smoking in bars or speed limits.
Reporting by Martin Roberts, editing by Paul Casciato