I’d been to Pamplona for the encierro – the running of the bulls – twice before, but it still scares the bejaysus out of me. People keep asking me about it, and the same questions keep coming up. For such a famous festival, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. First of all, here are the answers to the questions frequently asked of me:
- No, it’s got nothing to do with tomatoes. That’s somewhere else and it’s just a bunch of people throwing tomatoes at each other for half an hour. Leave me alone about the tomatoes.
- Yes, it’s incredibly stupid to put yourself in harm’s way like that. What’s your point?
- The bulls run through the streets early in the morning; they die in the evening at the bull fight. It goes on for a week, so it’s a new set of bulls every morning.
- No, bullfighting is not very sporting. Nobody ever said it was.
- No, I don’t know why every New Zealander in Europe under the age of 30 is there. It must be a visa obligation.
- No, it’s not as dangerous as you heard – the last guy to get killed by a bull there was in 1995.
If you go there yourself, it won’t be very long before some local explains to you that only the foreigners get injured in the run. This is nonsense – statistically, Basques are just as likely to get injured as anyone else, despite what they will tell you. Seriously, what? You think because you grew up Basque, you’re genetically better at running away from large animals than I am?
So preamble and FAQ out of the way, here’s how it went for Donnie, Razz, and I in July 2008 when we went to the Basque country to see the sights and run away from the bulls. We spent some time on the beach, at the Guggenheim museum, and so on but you don’t want to hear any of that, do you? No, you want to hear about stupid people being chased down by angry bulls. So, onwards. Ola!
First of all, there’s the dress code: white pantalones, white shirt, red sash, red neckerchief. Ridiculous as this get-up looks, you’re more self-conscious dressed otherwise, when the whole town looks like a ‘Where’s Wally?’ convention.
Razz, the very picture of sartorial elegance:
At the opening ceremony, the txupinazo, on July 6, the mayor makes a brief speech, sets off a firework (the titular txupinazo)…
On the night before their turn in the sun, the bulls wait in the pen at the bottom of Santo Domingo street. It’s always strangely calm and quiet down there, regardless of what party mayhem is going on just up the road.
The origins of the running of the bulls is that it was the most practical way to get the bulls for the evening’s bullfighting from the corrals at the edge of the town into the bull ring in the centre of town in the early morning. The colour scheme stems from the uniform of first people who thought it would be a laugh to run through town ahead of the bulls – the butchers.
Ahead of the run this statue sits in a little niche in the wall above the street where the run takes place and everyone says a little prayer:
“A San Fermin pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro, dándonos su bendición. Viva San Fermín. Gora San Fermin.”
(“We ask San Fermín, because he is our Patron, to guide us through the bull run, giving us his blessing. Long live Saint Fermín. Long live Saint Fermín.”)
I’m not religious but I’m hoping the guy’s looking out for me too. I’ve adopted this prayer as my drop-running mantra on the water too, but I usually only get as far as “A San Fermin pedimos…” before the lip.
First of all the six bulls are run through the streets in the morning from the corral to the bullring. They are accompanied by about six steers (they’re the ones with cowbells) that make the journey every morning, adding a calming female influence. The theory being that an orderly pack of animals being lead by steers that do this all the time will result in less carnage. Single, isolated, confused bulls are really dangerous and apt to do all sorts including turn back and charge the other way back into the crowd. I’ve seen it and it gets ugly, because you have a horde of people running one way having been over taken by the bulls, only to have one of them come back at you. The look of horror on the faces would be comical, but when you’re close enough to see those horrified ashen faces up close, it doesn’t seem all that mirthful.
For the duration of the run, all the side streets are blocked off at the sides with double rows of these stout fences so that the bulls can’t go on a complete rampage, just a location-specific rampage. The fences act as filters for the bulls, but can be surprisingly porous to people in a hurry. The no-man’s land between the fences is where you’ll find the Red Cross setting up shop.
About half of the run is along this street, Calle Estefeda. It’s fairly crowded, as you can seen, but space does tend to appear when the bulls get close. Balcony space is at a premium – literally – with local residents and businesses renting out these viewing spots. Ernest Hemingway watched the corrida from his hotel balcony further up this street on the right.
Anyone can run, all you have to do is be on the street by 7 AM and sober enough to avoid being removed by the police. There’s an unofficial, halfhearted ban on girls, but only if the police are feeling macho. There’s a ban on intensely stupid people too – a few years ago a pair of Chinese rollerbladers were prevented from participating. Bulls, crowds, rollerblades, and cobblestones – can you imagine?
Contrary to what you may have heard, most of the crowd is not drunk – the drunken ones tend to be passed out at that stage. That said, most people on the street have been up partying all night, but sobering up rapidly as they realise what they have got themselves into.
Sorry to be so long-winded, but I’m trying to clear up some of the misinformation you hear about Pamplona. That things that the locals tell you (no, boast to you) that it’s only foreigners that get injured, because being born Basque somehow gives you an insight into the mind of the bull and allows you to run safely, really bugs me. Everyone quotes you this as a fact, and it’s just not true.
The police closing off the street to latecomers is a great excuse if your courage fails you and you need an ‘out’ – this is the excuse used by a certain Cork paddler for partying all weekend in Pamplona, but never coming within breathing distance of a bull. There’s no shame in not running (clearly it’s a stupid idea) but the elaborate stories you hear from guys telling you how they would love to run, but didn’t, are great. The best one I heard was a local guy who’d never run because as a kid, he told me: ‘I promised my mother I wouldn’t.’
So anyway, at eight in the morning they signal the release of the animals by firing a rocket. The popping sound you hear from halfway up the road around the corner makes the heart jump. If you weren’t awake and sober before, you will be now. A second rocket lets you know that the last of the bulls has exited the corral. The closer together those first two rockets, the better it is for everyone. It means the animals are running as a tight pack.
The street section is about 800 metres from start to finish. Bulls are really fast and get total right-of-way. You can’t run the entire course with the bulls – you’ll get left behind. Most people pick a section and try to stay the pace as long as they can. Imagine thousands of people running one direction in a narrow street, while looking over their shoulders. People are falling over other people, tripping, diving to the side – it’s not a sprint, it’s a hurdle race. And bulls are not very tall, so sometimes you see them too late as the crowd parts behind you.
At the top of the course there’s the bullring, and everyone streams through the narrow gate into the arena. This is traditionally the most dangerous part – because the gateway is so constricted, mounds of bodies build up in the alleyway, and then the bulls arrive and try to force a way through.
That said, the feeling of elation when you emerge out in the sand-covered bullring ungored and wheel away to one side or the other is the reason you’re here – the parallels to kayaking are fairly obvious here. You know how it feels to break into the eddy below some rapid or waterfall and realise it’s over, you’re not going to die today, and you’re going to be just fine. It’s exactly like that.
I have no photos from the run itself, due to being kind of busy with self-preservation issues. It all went according to plan the two days we ran, and the three of us met up again in the bullring at the end of the course; I was never so happy to see Donnie and Razz. Here’s how Spanish TV covered the first encierro of the 2008 festival. We’re in there somewhere.
In the bull ring…
In case being chased down the road by bulls isn’t enough fun for you before you’ve had your breakfast, there’s a little extra item on the bill. Once all the bulls are safely secured in the pens located in the bowels of the bullring, they release young bulls “toros bravos” back into the crowded arena for a while. They whizz around and around tossing people up in the air for sport. They are not anywhere near as big as full-grown bulls, but it’s quite exhilarating.
Thanks to Lee for the picture above from his Flickr stream.
Some people we know from the states and other parts – regular visitors to San Fermin:
Kelly (from work), husband Jonathan, Pamplona author Ray Mouton, John Hemingway (author and grandson of…), and Micheal. Read about their Pamplona experiences here: Pena de Los Gatos.
Giants – Los Gigantes de los San Fermin.
In an annex off the old bus station in the center of town, for most of the year the giants sleep. For the festival, these massive depictions of kings, queens, and assorted nobles of the court parade around the town. There’s a king and queen for Europe, Africa, Asia, and America.
The Gigantes are accompanied on their leisurely strolls around the streets by a court of Cabezudos (the Bigheads) and a band. The children follow them around, in turns delighted and terrified as the medieval cabezudos ‘attack’ them with spongy maces. It’s traditional and the meaning is lost in history.
You should probably go this year; you’d love it.