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The Running of The Bulls in Pamplona

by Ken Baldwin - Totally Spain

The excitement you feel your first time in Pamplona during the San Fermin Festival is something almost indescribable. Every sense is assaulted in the most magical way and you realize you've arrived at one of the most thrilling and unusual religious celebrations in the world.

Pamplona, situated in the Northern Spanish province of Navarra, attracts thousands of visitors annually from the 6th to the 14th. Of July. They come to enjoy the celebrations for San Fermin, the patron saint of the city, but mostly they come to see the Running of the Bulls or "Encierro" made world famous by avid visitor and adopted Pamplonica, the writer Ernest Hemingway.

The history of how this particular run, for there are many throughout Spain, evolved is actually quite simple. It began during the festival when the bulls being used in the bullfight that evening were "run" by the drovers from their enclosure through the streets and into the pens within the bullring "Plaza de Toros". The exciting event became popular with locals who decided to also run along with the bulls. From this the more daring challenge of running in front of the bulls took off. Since 1852 the route from Santo Domingo Street, through the Plaza Consistorial and along Estafeta Street via the dangerously twisting Mercaderes Street has remained unchanged.

The San Fermin festival begins proper at 12 mid-day on the 6th of July when a firework, the "Txupinazo", is ceremoniously set off from the Town Hall in the Plaza Consistorial. Thousands gather for this moment when sprays of corks explode into the air and champagne drenches the packed crowd. The streets are filled with singing, cheering and revelry while the whole population of Pamplona and their visitors tie around their necks the distinctive red, San Fermin scarf and commence partying - continuing this non-stop high until the 14th of July. The streets buzz constantly with laughter, music, organised concerts and many other special events with the daily morning Bull Run and nightly bull fight being two of the biggest highlights.

The act of "Running with the bulls" is by no means an easy task. As time goes by the number of injuries and deaths increase, the last mortality having been in 1995 when a young American, Peter Mathews Tasio, was dramatically killed on the horns of a bull. One of the most tragic runs took place in 1947 when the same bull "Semillero" killed two people. And again in 1980 a bull named "Antioquio" also left two fatally wounded. Serious injuries are also on the increase often caused by falls and sometimes stabs from a horn. On these occasions lives were saved purely by the efficiency of the local ambulance service. That said, it is an incredible spectacle and people still run undeterred.

The run itself is about half a mile long through cobbled, narrow streets marked out by a tall, sturdy double-lined fence. The gap between the fences is strictly for police, medical teams and runners who need to make a quick escape. Spectators must stay outside the second fence where can be found a number of good vantagepoints along the route. These include the Plaza Consistorial, and the end of Mercaderes Street as well as Estafeta Street. Other good locations are the starting point in Santo Domingo Street and the entrance to the Plaza de Toros. To secure a good spot, you´ll need to get there between 5.30am and 6.30am as any later and you´ll be battling the crowds. Early mornings are cold so be sure to wrap up well.

Alternative viewing possibilities include the renting of a balcony from a local. These start at about 4000 pesetas (IR19.00). Phone numbers are available at the tourist office in the Plaza San Francisco or sometimes renters will hang a notice from their balcony. Free seats are available in the bullring where you can watch the bulls and runners charging into the ring at the end of the run. But by far the Best coverage of all is on the TV. The run is shown live every morning and viewers can enjoy the entire run plus action replays.

For those crazy folk who choose to take part in the challenging run then there are a number of basic guidelines to be followed.

  • It is forbidden to run if are under 18.
  • Never, ever run if you are drunk or excessively tired.
  • Do not carry items such as cameras, videos, backpacks, etc.. They´ll get damaged or impede your exit. Unsuitable clothing or footwear is forbidden.
  • You must enter the route at an official gate either at the Plaza Consistorial or at the Plaza del Mercado. Gates close at 7.30am.
  • Never stand still during the run.
  • While running you must be sure to look all around you. Up ahead for other runners who might trip you and behind for the bulls. This is not a race and you won't be able to run the entire route so have in mind beforehand a spot where you plan to exit. The bulls run very fast and will be ahead of you before you know it.
  • Do not try to touch the bulls or catch their attention as a distracted bull may decide to break from the herd. A lone bull is extremely dangerous and much more likely to attack. Also the drovers, who carry very large poles, do not tolerate messing and freely whack offenders.
  • If you should fall there is one and only one thing to do. Stay down and cover your head. When all the bulls have passed someone will tap you on the shoulder to let you know you're safe. It was by attempting to stand up that Peter Mathews Tasio was fatally gored. You may receive some bumps and bruises but that should be all.
  • If you happen to run the last section of the route into the bullring then upon entering the ring spread out to the sides and let the drovers do their work of sidling the bulls into the pen. There will be a lot of runners in the ring and again a distracted bull can cause serious danger.

So what´s the run like? The moment before the actual run begins is full of anticipation and nervous energy. At the starting line on the steep and cobbled Santo Domingo Street the runners gather and repeatedly sing their simple prayer for protection to a small statue of San Fermin, which is placed, in a niche in the wall overlooking the crowd. At exactly 8am a firework explodes and the gate of the bull enclosure is flung open freeing the beasts, each weighing 500-600 KGs, and allowing them to commence their run through the streets. A second firework is heard a moment later to signal that all the bulls have been released. There are normally about 10 to 12 bulls followed by several "caBestros" which are harmless bell carrying cows that help the drovers to guide the bulls and collect any strays.

The atmosphere is electric as the crowd cheers, gasps and screams. The runners sprint forward, heads turning wildly, trying to stay fully alert and focused on what´s happening and when exactly they should make their escape - some diving into doorways and others leaping fences. Each section of the run is different and each has its own unique dangers. It´s mad, frantic and magic all at the same time and it´s over before you know it. The feeling afterwards is quite amazing. Some spectators are shocked while others are incredulous. Locals and experienced runners take it all in their stride and re-commence partying. First time runners and those who´ve had a narrow escape or even a near death experience are found wandering or sitting quietly no doubt sharing a few grateful moments with San Fermin himself. The injured nurse bruises and cuts while bravados hoot and holler and boast loudly to their companions. Everywhere can be heard the festive music of the traditional brass bands known as "charangas" who play continuously as they tour the streets, plazas and bars livening up every minute of every festive day.

The nightly bullfights, which take place at 6.30pm, are also a noisy, colorful affair. However, tickets are quite limited and vary in price depending on whether you choose a shaded seat or a seat in the sun. The latter being the cheapest.

Dining in Pamplona during San Fermin tends to be done very much on the go unless you make a restaurant reservation. All bars serve the popular and very tasty miniature treats known as "pinchos" (like tapas but more varied). A typical early morning breakfast might include "caldo" which is a delicious clear soup or "chocolate con churros", a large mug of thick hot chocolate served with fried dough and coated in sugar. The tasty spanish omelette known as "tortilla" is available everywhere. And a local drink which you´re certain to encounter is "kalimotxo" a 50/50 mix of coke and wine. Not as bad as it sounds.

Hotel accommodation in Pamplona and the surrounding area during the festival is at a premium and needs to be reserved early. Another option is camping although the nearest site is several miles from the city and again needs to be booked early. Many visitors simply try to last the pace grabbing a few hours sleep here and there to keep them going and sleeping outdoors happens everywhere.

An excellent alternative for those wishing to combine the experience of San Fermin with a more complete and varied tour is to stay in any of the neighbouring cities of Vitoria, Bilbao or San Sebastian. All offer a variety of accommodation options and frequent bus services specially laid on for the San Fermin festival. Local specialist Tour Company, Totally Spain owned by Dubliner, Ken Baldwin are offering special packages and can provide all the necessary information.

One final word if you are to truly enjoy the festival, obey the authorities and have respect for this incredibly welcoming city.

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