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Big Trip: Take the bull by the horns - Pamplona's Running of the Bulls

Thundering hooves, pounding feet, the scent of sweat and fear in the air, screaming onlookers, cobbled streets sticky with sangria ... all in the name of fun? It can only be the festival of San Fermín, also referred to by Aussies and Kiwis as ‘Pamps’ after its host city Pamplona, but best known for its famous Running of the Bulls.

This amped-up festival in northern Spain’s Basque Country is a riot of colour, tradition, drama, danger and controversy, with critics calling the treatment of bulls ‘barbaric’ and the life-threatening risk to runners, well, nothing short of lunacy. 

 But has that put off the crowds that flock here in their thousands each year? Not a bit. In fact the highly charged atmosphere for many is one of the biggest draws. Fancy seeing what it’s all about this year? Here’s what you need to know to make the most of the festival – and come out the other side of it in one piece.

The fest: encierro to party time

The tradition of the man and bovine run was born from the need to get bulls from outside the city into the bullring for fighting, so their minders would shout and prod them tomake them run the route. This bull run, or encierro, turned into a festival to honour St Fermín, the patron saint of Pamplona. In the 1800s, runners began to join the herd alongthe way. Ernest Hemingway’s classic 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises made the tradition famous outside Spain, and now thousands of people descend on the city for a week to party,run, watch and generally try not to get themselves gored. Runs take place every morning between July 7 and 14, beginning at the corral in Calle Santo Domingo at 8am sharp.Two rockets are launched to signal the release of the bulls, and they charge behind anyone brave enough to run the half-mile, which usually takes about four minutes.

Later on, around 6.30pm, bullfighting takes place in the ring, and the sport continues until the bulls are killed. It’s a violent scene, and not for the weak-stomached. It’s said the bulls are beaten and drugged pre-fight to weaken them (stopbullfighting.org.uk) and many animal rights campaigners are calling for an end to the blood sport element of the festival altogether.

As it is, many festival-goers prefer to avoid the bullfights and spend the rest of the week merrily chugging sangria or red wine in the streets and squares of Pamplona, and thearea around the bullring. All in all, it’s a thoroughly hedonistic, primal week. 

The near-death experience

Brit Oliver Myles, 29, is completely hooked. After taking on the bull run twice, oncein 2011 and once in 2012, he’s written an ebook about his experience. He says despitethe danger, the rush is every bit as heartstopping as it
sounds. This is the encierro through his eyes: “Most first-time runners end upalong the wall or by a fence, gripped with fear as the herd stampedes past. This is exactly what happened to me when I tried to run with the bulls. I had felt both mentally and physically prepared for the run, but that quickly changed once the panic of the crowd, the deafening noise of feet, hooves, screams and shouting took over. It was total chaos, mass human hysteria, grown men literally running for their lives. I was overwhelmed by my own survival instincts that had overridden my desire to get near to the animals.

“My first run was still incredible. Not because I ran with or in front of the herd but just because I had done it. Just being in those streets when the bulls pass, even if you shelter in a doorway, is a risk. Anything can happen. Those people that hide in doorways or put themselves flat against walls can still find themselves looking death in the eye – if a bull is separated from the herd and switches into survival mode it might attack anything it sees as a threat, even including nervous people cowering.

“When I got home after the first run my fascination had deepened so I returned the next year. I had been told by an experienced runner that it’s better not to wait until I saw the bulls because that would be too late to run with them.

But when that rocket went off and the run started, everything changed. Tactics and plans quickly evaporated and fear took over. I waited for too long in my spot and suddenly the bulls were right on top of me. There were so many people running up the street at such speed that I became pinned to the wall and unable to move. I managed to turn and take a few paces before seeing an open spot on the fencing. I threw myself onto it and turned to see nobody between myself and the herd. I watched the bulls pass only a few feet away.

Although my plan to actually run with them had failed again, this was still an incredible experience for me. I will never forget the beautiful sight of one black bull in particular and the sound of his hooves on the cobblestones as he and his brothers ran together for the last time.”

 

Staying safe

So by now you’re either shaking your head in mystification, or your appetite is well and truly whetted. If it’s the latter, there are some important safety measures you must take.After all, 15 people have died at the Pamplona event over the past century and countless have been injured. The first precaution should be pretty obvious – don’t get too drunk.

Sure, the runs take place at 8am, but since the festival seems like one big piss-up at times, there’s every chance you might be wobbly in the morning, whether still drunk ornastily hungover. This is not the time to take on a herd of stampeding bulls. Police say excessive drinking by tourists has caused safety concerns in the past and the official website forbids any form of intoxication while taking part.

It’s best to spend the first morning watching how it’s done and walking the route yourself so you’ll know what to expect. Experienced runners have techniques for getting the most out of their dash, so chat to people who clearly know the score and watch what they do.Finally, there’s a good chance you’ll fall over, since the narrow streets are packed. If you do take a tumble, stay down, keep still and don’t move until the bulls have passed.

Cover your face and just lie there until police or onlookers let you know it’s safe to get up again. And if you need to stop running at any point, move off to the side immediately.

 

Best of the Basque Country

Vitoria-Gasteiz

The capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz, isn’t on many typical itineraries – it’s a little on the sleepy side – but you can easily keep busy for a laid-back day or two. Check out the two cathedrals (Maria Inmaculada and Santa Maria), stop in at galleries The Atrium and Museo de Bellas Artes or just wander around the city’s picturesque Old Quarter.

vitoria-gasteiz.org 


San Sebastian

After a mad week of boozing and bull running in Pamplona, many travellers take the chance to decompress in some of the less manic hotspots of the Basque Country. San Sebastian is just over an hour’s drive away, so before you know it, you could be lying on the hot sands of La Concha beach or surfing the waves of Zurriola. The best views of the coastline are from the top of Monte Igueldo, which you can reach by taking a scenic ride on the 100-year-old funicular. When you’re not beach bumming, spend your time in the bars of the Parte Vieja (Old Town), with a mouthful of pintxos, the Basque take on tapas.
sansebastianturismo.com

Bilbao

Bilbao is best known for its arty side – the shiny titanium wonder of the Guggenheim Museum is at the top of everyone’s must-see list when they get here. The Fine Arts Museum is a treasure trove, too, with contemporary works by Paul Gauguin and Francis Bacon, and influential Basque pieces. But it’s not all high-brow culture – there are plenty of outdoorsy activities on offer. The Gorbeia and Urkiola hills just outside the city are great for hiking, cycling and horseriding. And there’s the three-day Bilbao BBK Live musicfestival, where Green Day and Kings of Leon headline this year. It’s perfectly timed to coincide with Pamps on July 11-13. visitbilbao.info;
bilbaobbklive.com

When to go: The Running of the Bulls is on from July 7-14. If you’re planning to visit outside the festival, remember temperatures are most comfortable in spring and autumn (between 20-25°C).
Currency: £1 = °Ë1.18  
Accommodation: Hotel Avenida has spacious, basic rooms near Old Town from £45pn. Book early to get one during the festival. hotelavenida.biz

If you want to avoid the crowds, you can rent space on a balcony along the route from £65pp from Pamplona Balconies. pamplonabalconies.com

SEE: bullrunpamplona.com

Oliver Myles’ ebook: Ole! Capturing The Passion Of Bullfighters And Aficionados In The 21st Century is out July 15 from amazon.co.uk