It’s that time again – Fiestas de San Fermin – or the running of the Bulls in Pamplona. You’re booked, your ready to go: what do you need to know last minute?
It all starts at midday on Monday 6th July. Gather in front of City Hall in the Plaza Consistorial early complete with your red handkerchief (pañuelos – they are available in shops everywhere). Be there early, hundreds of thousands of people flock to this event. At exactly 12 noon the Mayor of Pamplona will fire a rocket (called a cohete) into the sky signalling the beginning of the San Fermin festivities.
The end of the ‘run’ once the bulls enter the arena
Once the festival is open the crowd goes crazy. It starts with a mass of handkerchief waving and quickly erupts into madness of flying sangria, water balloons and waterguns. At times you struggle to stay on your feet in the frantic revelry. Both local Pamplonicas and visitors often count this as the highlight of the week. Dress in traditional white and red for all events today – locals can become quite offended and verbal at those that are not.
Recommended sobriety level: Happy drunk – but remember things have just got started – this will be a big day drinking!
After the opening ceremony and ensuing madness the revelry spills over into the smaller plazas with an insane tradition known as the Fountain of Death. This is extremely popular with drunk foreigners and involves climbing to the top of a tall fountain and diving into the arms of the cheering crowd below. In recent years this tradition has been clamped down by Police due to the large numbers of serious injuries, but that only led to people jumping off the balconies – so we will see what happens this year.
Recommended sobriety level: You would want to be pretty numb and more than likely out of your mind.
Opening day continues with a mass procession known as Riau Riau from the Town Hall to the Church of San Lorenzo. The procession starts about 4:30pm and carries on till late with thousands of people marching, chanting and drinking throughout the streets.
Recommended sobriety level: it’s been a long day by this stage and needless to say everyone is pretty drunk
Waiting around for the start of the ‘run’
The actual reason most visitors go, the Running of the Bulls starts on Tuesday and goes for the full week. The running starts at 8am but you need to be well inside the running area by 7:30 am at the latest as they will eventually shut the gates if there are deemed to be too many people. At 7:55am local runners will sing an invocation to the patron saint of San Fermin – get involved! At 8am on the dot all hell breaks loose – a rocket is fired signalling the opening of the bull pens followed by another as all six bulls are loose (the main bulls are accompanied by steers – giving a total of 17 massive beasts).
People will be scrambling everywhere and the sheer number of runners will mean that the bulls will quickly catch up to you. You want to try and kind of work out where you want to encounter them – depending on your bravery or stupidity level. You certainly don’t want to be so fast that you don’t meet the bulls on the streets – you will be booed by the huge crowd if you avoid them totally i.e if you reach the stadium before the bulls!.
For first timers the Plaza Consistorial-Mercaderes and Estafeta-Bajada de Javier are two recommended places to run with the bulls. Both have more places that you can duck and hide such as doorways. For the keen the stretch known as the Telefónica is where you prove yourself. This is the stretch of wooden barriers we see on TV and the place where the “divinos” run – that is, the famous, experienced runners. The bulls are tired here and they will make erratic turns if they get separated and with the wooden barriers the only place to go is to try and climb the wall. Regardless of experience the lane leading to the Bullring and the initial Santo Domingo should be avoided – both are narrow funnels and can lead to large human pileups. The lane in particular boasted 8 of the 14 more recent deaths. For inexperienced runners the Curva de Estefeta can be dangerous too. The bulls slide and crash into the outside barrier of the famous sharp turn and those not prepared can find themselves tangled in the mess and confronting the horns of a raging bull.
Bulls in action
Once in the Bullring the dobladors take over and coax the bulls back to their pens. The crowd can be exhilarating, but can also quickly get out of control and dangerous – often due to drunk inexperienced foreigners getting in the way. With that in mind – running drunk is not recommended. Don’t be under any illusion, people die and many are injured in this great, but mad event – save your drinking for the celebrations afterwards.
One other word of warning – if you fall over stay down! So many more injuries happen when someone jumps up unsighted and a bloody great bull is coming. You might get trampled – but it is better than a punctured lung from a bull horn. Other runners will tap you on the back when it is safe to get up again.
The whole bull running experience is over in about 3 to 5 minutes!
Recommended sobriety level: Stone Motherless Sober!!!
Once you have had your fix of near death experiences watching the bull running can be just as much fun. The slopes of Santo Domingo is probably one of the best places to watch as you can see everyone sing before they set off. Most of the route is fenced on which you can perch on the side (there are two layers of fence creating a corridor for police and scared runners) but you need to be there really early if you want to get a position. As above, the Telefonica area is probably the best fenced area to watch. Alternatively you can watch in the stadium as everyone arrives.
Getting up early is not as bad as it sounds and every morning one of the great traditions of Pamplona is the “Dianas” involving the local brass bands and thousands of people chanting the songs of San Fermin. These are great festivals.
Another great experience is to go to a local bar and watch the bull running live on the TV complete with graphic replays. See the video below for some of last years highlights!
Recommended sobriety level: It’s a long wait when you get there early – so a skin full of Sangria helps pass the time – many of the revellers are unlikely to have even been to bed!
Every night throughout the week ends with a fireworks display in the central city.