As the sun starts to rise over Pamplona, and the less faithful, mostly foreign, revellers start to fall, I can’t help but admire Spanish stamina. Not content with drinking until dawn at what is arguably one of the biggest parties on the planet, they’re about to cap the night off with an early morning run pursued by several tonne of unforgiving muscle, hooves and horns.
I, on the other hand, am feeling every minute of the past 17 hours of sangria-soaked debauchery that constitutes the opening ceremony of the Fiesta de San Fermín, and would give anything for a quick siesta before the four-legged stars of the encierro come thundering up the street.
There’s no time for sleep, though. The beasts won’t be unleashed for another three hours but people are already claiming their places along the 825m route stretching from the Santo Domingo corral to the Plaza de Toros (bullring). Spectators are scrambling for the best spots to see the action; the runners for the best spots to savour it – or escape it, if need be.
Within an hour, every viewing spot at street level is taken, forcing latecomers to seek out higher ground, namely rooftops, awnings, trees and lampposts. The entire route is now awash in red and white, the double safety fencing a feverish frenzy of waving limbs and wide-eyed faces, while the street is a strangely silent sea of nervous shuffling and stretching.
When the obligatory safety announcements begin at 7am, the atmosphere is electric, charged with an intoxicating fusion of fear, excitement and unrestrainable anticipation. My breath is quickening, my palms are sweaty and I’m obsessively studying my surroundings for the quickest exit point should a bull get too close for comfort – and I’m not even running.
Yes, unlike the thrillseekers about to tempt fate on the other side of the barricade, I’m resisting the urge to test my bravado in this inimitable 200-year-old rite of passage. If that makes me a coward, I’m in good company. Even Hemingway, who attended the festival no less than nine times and brought it to international prominence in his seminal novel The Sun Also Rises, never ran with the bulls.
And for good reason: There have been 15 fatalities and more than 200 horn injuries since 1910. The most recent death was in 2003 when a 63-year-old Spaniard – who had run every year since he was 14 – was charged by a bull and died two months later from the severe head injuries he sustained. Enough said?
At 7.55am, the excited chatter subsides as the true aficionados gather beneath a statue of Saint Fermín at the starting line to ask him to guide them safely through the run. This is repeated at 7.57 and 7.59am, and then the moment everyone is waitingforfinally arrives.
When the clock strikes the hour, the boom of a rocket announces the release of the bulls and all hell breaks loose. A surge of anxious runners tries to push uphill, as onlookers crane their necks downhill to see the rapidly approaching beasts. You hear them before you see them. A distant rumble of hooves grows steadily stronger, but louder still is the rising crescendo of ‘Toro, toro, toro’ from the balconies overhead. On the street, the crush of runners whoop – some out of sheer excitement, some out of sheer terror – as their moment of truth bears down on them.
My first glimpse of the bulls is a few pairs of fierce-looking horns jutting above the heads of the runners, then they burst through the rapidly parting pack and then they’re gone, leaving behind a few injured, a few bleeding and hundreds gagging for more. Three-and-a-half minutes later, another rocket signifies that the bulls are safely in their pens in the Plaza de Toros and it’s all over.
The only thing more extraordinary than the bull run itself is the fact that it will be played out in all its machismo glory again in 24 hours time – and then again for the next seven days. And there’ll be plenty more revelry in between. Like I said, you’ve got to admire that Spanish stamina. Then again, if I’d had the balls to run with one of those hulking beasts and escaped with my life, I’d party like there’s no tomorrow, too.
The nitty gritty
Your guide to the Fiesta de San Fermín
• It all officially kicks off with the opening ceremony at noon on July 6, when the Mayor of Pamplona fires the ‘chupinazo’ (a rocket) from the balcony of Town Hall in Plaza Consistorial. Get there early if you want to be in the thick of the celebrations because revellers start filling the small plaza (and when that’s full, the surrounding streets) from about 9am. Do not wear your best whites – by the end of the ceremony you’ll be drenched in champagne and sangria and plastered with eggs and flour. As the minute hand closes in on the 12, a rousing chant of ‘Viva San Fermín’ (Long live San Fermín) builds, and red bandanas are energetically waved overhead. After the chupinazo is fired, bandanas are tied around the neck and the serious partying begins.
• For the eight-and-a-half days of the fiesta, Pamplona pretty much parties around the clock. Although, it’s the daily running of the bulls that captures the world’s attention, there’s plenty more to see and do.
The lively bullfight clubs or peñas across the town are the best place to party with the locals. They’re hard to miss – the celebrations generally spill onto the streets. In the unlikely event that you get bored with the drinking and merriment, there are concerts, bull fights (if you can stomach it), open-air dances, fireworks, rural sports and street theatre to keep the good times rolling. There are plenty of parades as well; one of the most important is the Procession of San Fermín. Also keep an eye out for the Masquerade of the Giants, the Parade of Bands and the Fireworks Bull.
• The Pobre de mí is the last official act of the festival, but it’s not so much a sad farewell, as a reminder that it’s only 357 days until it all kicks off again. The townsfolk, many in tears, go to the Plaza Consistorial on July 14 at midnight with candles to hear the Mayor officially close the festival and invite everyone to come back next year.
• The bull run, or encierro, takes place at 8am daily from July 7 to 14. The fenced route encompasses four streets, a steep slope, and three tight corners. Six bulls run along with two herds of tame bulls, which are meant to keep the meaner bulls on track and reduce the likelihood of them getting horny with runners. The idea is to run from the starting line all the way to the bullring, but few keep up the pace once the bulls have passed. The bull run is traditionally a men-only event, but women are tolerated.
The Do’s and Don’ts
• Dress in the traditional red and white and kit yourself out with decent running shoes. The streets are often wet and slippery and there’s often broken glass lying around.
• Get there early. The streets are closed off an hour before the run and runners should enter the route by 7.30am at the latest. There are entry points at the starting line on Santo Domingo and at Plaza del Mercado and Plaza Consistorial.
• Walk the length of the run before hand, and, if you can, watch a run first to get some idea of what to expect. The entire run is unquestionably dangerous, but the Mercaderes and Estafeta Street corner, and the section between the Estafeta Street exit and the bullring are considered the most dangerous sections. Plaza Consistorial is recommended as the best starting point for first-timers.
• Take it seriously. Don’t attempt the run if you’re not reasonably fit and don’t overdo the partying the night before. The masses of thrill-seeking first-timers (and even worse, drunk or hungover first -timers) are the main danger of the run. If you’re noticeably drunk or ill, the police will remove you.
• Pace yourself. Don’t sprint as soon as you hear the first rocket fired. Start off slowly and speed up when you hear the bulls approaching. No one can outrun the bulls for more than 50m. If you fall, stay down and curl into a ball to protect your head.
• Don’t try to carry your pack, camera or anything else with you when you run. It’s a safety hazard, for you and others
• Don’t touch the bulls. They’re considered sacred.
• Don’t run towards the bulls, behind the bulls or try to distract them in any way.
• Don’t stop and wait for the bulls in doorways, on corners or on the street itself.
How did it start?
The Fiesta de San Fermín celebrates the martyrdom of Pamplona’s patron saint San Fermín, the son of a Pamplona senator who was converted to Christianity in the 3rd century. While travelling through France, the young Spaniard was imprisoned and beheaded, some say killed by bulls, by the Romans. When news of his fate reached Pamplona, the locals decided to honour him with a festival.
The customary white clothing, red bandana and red sash worn by revellers signifies the spilling of the saint’s blood. The festival as it is known today was officially born in 1591, when three long-running fiestas – the original San Fermín festival, the annual town fair and a celebration of bull fighting – were combined.
Party with the Spanish
Fallas de San Jose
Valencia, March 15-19
Both a pyromaniac’s dream and probably the noisiest of Spanish festivals, the ‘Fallas’ boasts massive street parties with monster fireworks displays and bonfires every night. On the last night, the titular fallas (papier-mâché effigies of famous folk ranging from Mickey Mouse to George Bush) are ceremoniouosly torched.
Buñol, August 29
Things get a bit saucy in this small village when 30,000 locals and visitors take to the streets armed with about 1.5 tonnes of ripe tomatoes and proceed to pelt them at each other for just over an hour. Don’t try to understand it, just enjoy the dirty fun.
Batalla del Vino
Haro, June 29
More messy mayhem in this massive wine fight, a lingering remnant of historic feuds between the wine town of Haro and its Riojan neighbours. The aim is simple: get as much wine – there’s about 25,000 litres at hand – over everyone else as possible. Water pistols, water cannons, and buckets are not so much optional as essential.
Festival de Jerez
Jerez, February 23-March 10
The clack of castanets, the stomp of tacones (heels) and the seductive melancholy of flamenco provide the passionate soundtrack for this internationally renowned festival, featuring the best flamenco dancers, guitar players and singers in the country. Forget Justin, these guys and guys know how to bring sexy back. Ole!
Sevilla Tapas Festival
Seville, throughout February
The only place you’ll be throwing food at this festival is down your throat – and you’ll be doing so in copious quantities. A savoury-filled tapas festival in the undisputed tapas capital of the world. Need I say more?