I don’t run with the bulls (I’m sticking with the excuse that it’s not traditional for women to run), but I choose to get among the masses at the opening ceremony.
Pamplona is a town of about 190,000 people, but every year on July 6 this number swells to about 500,000, making Fiesta de San Fermín one of the world’s largest parties.
Imagine all those people crammed into an unassuming town square. It’s so packed I can’t lift my arms above my head, in fact, I can’t move at all, except when the crowd forces me in a certain direction and then I have to focus all my efforts on staying upright. If I fall, I’m scared I may not get back up again.
It’s about 11.30am on the day of the opening ceremony and most of the crowd have been waiting for the show to kick off since 9am. Many of us are already well-oiled and are now happily being showered with water, champagne and sangria by people on the balconies above us. We scream with delight every time they pour down another dose.
The canon fires at midday signalling the start of the festival. Somehow I manage to free my arms to wave my red scarf above my head and join everyone jumping up and down, chanting “Ole!” and “San Fermín, San Fermín!” The collective roar is deafening. There’s more sangria, champagne and water. My once white outfit is saturated and smells like the floor of a pub, but by this stage I don’t care, I’m having too much fun.
After a while, the crowd disperses as we work our way to the next event on the unofficial itinerary, which was apparently started by some drunk Australians. People, mostly foreigners loaded with a skinful of sangria, beer and kalimotxo (wine and cola), climb up the six-metre-high statue of St Cecilia and throw themselves off, hoping the drunken revellers below will catch them. Sadly, this isn’t always the case and some have died as a result of the injuries they suffered after not being caught.
After cringeing every time someone hurls themselves off the statue, I decide it’s time to top up the energy levels at the nearby Mussel Bar – the most famous of the many surrounding drinking holes (whether you can get near the counter is another issue though, and if you intend to use the bathroom, don’t expect either cleanliness or toilet paper).
While dedicated party animals continue revelling through the night, I join those with less stamina and retreat to my hostel to rest before the main event – the bull run.
At 5am I drag myself back to the streets and jostle my way through the swelling crowd to find a prime viewing position.
For a few euros you can secure a seat in the bullring where the race finishes, but I decide to brave it in the streets – my crowd control skills finely tuned after yesterday.
At 8am a rocket fires, telling us the bulls have been let out of the pen. A second rocket signals the bulls have reached the street. The runners take off, slowly at first and then faster and faster as they hear the sound of the beasts behind them. It’s just the crowd at this stage, but soon enough all hell breaks loose and I can hear hooves thundering on the cobbles as the bulls try to stay upright around the sharp bends.
My adrenaline soars as the bulls pass us, but in a few seconds it’s all over. A third rocket fires; the bulls are inside the ring. A final rocket signals the animals are in their pens.
I find my mates and swap war tales. We survived the running of the bulls. Now it’s time to celebrate.
» Amanda Tomlinson travelled to Pamplona with Busabout (020-7950 1661; www.busabout.com).
Pick your position wisely. The most dangerous leg is about halfway along Estafeta Street where there are no fences for about 20m, just a stone wall, so you can’t escape. Also be careful if you’re hoping to run into the bullring at the same time as the bulls as there is usually a traffic jam because runners slow down on entry. People tend to get hit by bulls at this point.
It’s a simple fact that the bulls, which weigh about 600kg, run faster than humans. It’s impossible to keep up with them for very long. The San Fermín website (www.sanfermin.com) recommends runners start off at a slow pace when the bulls are still a good distance behind: “As they draw nearer, start running as fast as you can before they get too close. Hang in near them for a short time, as near as you are prepared to risk your skin, and then get out of the way as cleanly as possible. Be careful not to cross the paths of other runners. Look for a gap in the fence to slip through or jump over, or a space against the wall of the street.” Simple!
If you plan to watch the bull run, get in a position early as people start gathering along the route from about 5.30am. Good spots are around the Town Hall, which has the longest stretch, the end of Mercaderes Street and most of Estafeta Street. A popular place is the starting post, where a good view is possible, but only if you get there early and don’t budge when people try to push you out of the way.
The route is lined with two wooden fences and spectators must stand behind the second fence as the first area is set aside for runners who need to make a speedy getaway, and medics, police and media.
Undoubtedly, the best position to watch is from a balcony, but if you’re not a local the chances of securing a high-up possie are pretty slim. Some people rent their balconies, but prices tend to be expensive. Advertisements can found at the Tourist Office.
The race is almost 850m and only lasts about four minutes, but if you get a good position, the intensity of it is awesome.
A great alternative place to watch the action, though it will set you back a few euros, is the bullring where the run finishes. Here, the runners are barricaded for about an hour and the young bulls are let into the ring one at a time to run around. Often they are scared and just circle the ring, but some are fiesty and charge the runners.
It isn’t as intense as watching the run, but it is entertaining and you’re guaranteed a good slice of the action. Best of all, you’ll get a seat without having to fight for it. You can queue for a ticket (about €5-6) at the bullring or buy one from a scalper for about €10.
On the run
Matt Bywater, 23, from Melbourne, ran with the bulls on the second day I nearly shat myself. The adrenaline was pumping. It was massive; I couldn’t get over it. The scariest part was at the start when I didn’t know where the bulls were or when they were coming. Everyone panicked.
When it got going, it was insane. People would push and shove. Someone would panic and that would get everyone else going. Some people would push you in front of the bulls as they tried to get out of the way.
The people were more dangerous than the bulls. At least the bulls ran straight, but the people panicked and then ran all over the place. One girl got fucked up because she slipped and got trampled on by people.
When we got to the bull ring it was like going in the G [Melbourne Cricket Ground] on the day of a grand final. The people all thought the crowd were cheering for them.
» Stay calm and keep your feet.
» Wear good shoes because the road is really slippery.
» Don’t do it pissed. It’s really dangerous so you’re asking for trouble if you run when you’re drunk.
1 The festival celebrates Pamplona’s patron saint, San Fermín, who was beheaded, hence the red neckerchief worn by partygoers. While some say the origin of the encierro is unknown, others say it came about as a way to get the bulls from the pens in Santo Domingo to the Plaza del Toros for the evening’s bull fights. During the mid-1800s, runners started joining the herd.
2 The race is 846m and usually lasts about three minutes and 55 seconds.
3 Six leading bulls, which will be used in bull fights that night, are let out first. They are followed by a herd of tame bulls, which keep them moving and steer them the right way.
4 Bulls on their own are more dangerous than bulls in a herd.
5 There have been 14 deaths since 1910. In 2007, 642 people received hospital treatment during the festival, however, only 51 of them were a result of the encierro. There were 11 gore injuries (six more than the previous year). Four per cent of those who received treatment had alcohol poisoning.
6 Women are allowed to run with the bulls, but it’s not considered traditional to do so and is sometimes frowned upon by the locals as it is seen as a rite of passage for young men to prove their masculinity.
7 Doctor Danger (www.doctordanger.com) rates the running of the bulls as the most dangerous tourist, sporting or cultural event in the world, but also says it’s one of the most fun.
Dress for success
The standard outfit is white trousers, a white shirt, a red sash around your waist and a red scarf/neckerchief around your neck. It’s not compulsory but you’ll look out of place if you don’t don the garb. Don’t worry if you have nothing that fits the description in your wardrobe – there are plenty of shops and stalls in Pamplona selling everything you’ll need to dress the part.
Make sure you wear a good pair of shoes with thick soles and ample grip. This is important, even if you don’t run. The cobbled streets are slippery, and despite the clean-up efforts of the local authorities, they are littered with broken glass and rubbish.