This guest post is brought to you by Peter Hall, a 25 year old freelance journalism graduate from the University of Central Lancashire. He recently visited Spain where he jumped right into the local culture and participated in the San Fermin Running of the Bulls Festival. Here is his first hand account of this infamous Spanish spectacle.
I like to get involved. Immerse myself in local culture, and festivals around Europe are a great place to see how different regions enjoy their leisure time, regardless of how bizarre they may seem upon first viewing!
The small city of Pamplona, in the Navarra region of Spain, close to the French border, comes alive for the famous festival of San Fermin – The Running of the Bulls; an event I felt I must see! The festival lasts for just over a week, from 12 Noon on 6th July until midnight on 14th, attracting visitors from all over the world to witness the madness that is Sanfermines.
I tried not to learn too much about the origins of the spectacle until I arrived, and learn from the very people that the festival origins from; the Basques.Research can only get you so far, and to have such a rigid understanding of what goes on at any event can sometimes take the element of surprise out of it, thus the experience may not be as thrilling.
Having visited Spain on many occasions, my first impression of the modest-looking city didn’t really fill me with excitement, as it seemed anything but out of the ordinary.However after speaking to fellow festival-goers, many of whom were on a repeat visit, this was simply the calm before the storm.
The festival itself was born out of necessity. Originally in October, the coming together of local commercial fairs and traditional bullfighting created a week-long event. Farmers would transport their cattle from their place of holding to the market through the narrow streets, and eventually the transportation became a sport, as young ‘runners’ would goad the bulls to create fear and excitement. This tradition still exists today. The event takes place in July simply because the weather is better at this time of year, something as an Englishman I could appreciate!
Nowadays, tourists well outnumber local runners, taking some of the authenticity out of the event, but Basque traditions are deep-rooted, and a few hundred thousand tourists aren’t going to put a damper on their spirits.
Myself and my friend Ian kitted ourselves out, as we were assured by all the locals that it is a must. White trousers, white t-shirt, red neckerchief and a red scarf around the waist are the accepted attire, as we found out upon our arrival for the opening ceremony. Everybody, and I mean everybody, had the same thing on.
The idea is to crowd around City Hall on Plaza Consistorial, and wait for the Chupinazo to be set off at 12 noon. This rocket signifies the official start of the festival. The whole thing is still a huge blur, as I have never seen so many uniformed people crammed into a small space.The crush made breathing very difficult, and I could barely see anything. Once the bang had reverberated around the square, those locals fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to live in the surrounding apartments all came out onto their balconies and poured litres and litres of sangria all over revellers below. I thought I was going to drown!
The rest of the day was just as chaotic. We had been pre-warned by anyone who could understand our pidgin castellano, but nothing could have prepared us for the carnage we found ourselves in.Tourists and Spaniards from all over the country came together and celebrated for no particular cause or reason. Basque participants seemed to know more about what we all should be celebrating, but as one told me; “Just drink much Sangria, and shout ‘Viva San Fermin’,” so that’s exactly what we did. The atmosphere was something else, pure ambiguous celebration, without a care in the world.
All the action took its toll on us after our long journey to the festival. Two days was needed to recuperate and give us a chance to make a decision as to whether we were going to actually participate in the Encierro – The Running of the Bulls. This is what we came for. Whether to just watch or to forget all our inhibitions and take part, this ten minute daily event is what the whole festivities are planned around, and what we travelled so far to get to.
Much deliberation and toing and froing we came to a decision – we had to do it.
I didn’t want to regret coming to one of the most famous events in the world and not actually taking part, regardless of how apprehensive I was about it.We heard all the horror stories, and all watched the videos of previous accidents and it didn’t look pretty. To try and set our minds and ease we walked the route of the Encierro, to get a flavour of what we were up against. It seemed difficult to imagine a herd of angry bulls fitting through these streets.
The route starts at Calle Santo Domingo, where the Bulls are kept. They then charge uphill past City Hall Square, around the aptly name ‘Dead man’s corner’, then uphill through the very narrow Calle de la Estafeta to the Bill fighting arena, which signifies the end of the run. It only lasts for four minutes or so, depending on whether the bulls become separated or not, and you start as far up the course as you like.
My original plan was to simply run ahead of the bulls and stay in-front of the rampaging beast at all times. Then, when I enter the bull fighting arena, which marks the end of the run, I would simply climb over the fence once inside to safety.
In reality, if we were to go ahead with this sequence of events, we would have in fact been attacked by the traditionalists in the crowd, who are encouraged to throw all manner of sharp objects at anybody, especially a tourist, who enters the arena before the rampaging beasts.Not one to mess with tradition, it seemed as though we would deeply offend the regulars, so would simply have to take part in the Encierro normally – it was too late to turn back.
On the bus on the way there, it was deadly silent. Apprehensively we made our way to City Hall, where we were advised by our local friends was as safe a place as any to start, and would almost guarantee us a spot in the run.Just before the race the police pick out sections of the crowd to be removed from the circuit, as is often the case with many popular festivals, there are simply too many people who want to take part.It also helps to be properly dressed, with clean white clothes and not to be under the influence of alcohol, as any excuse given to the authorities will be seized upon without a second thought.
As we had several hours to kill before the start of the run, we had a wander down the circuit, past City Hall to the statue of Saint Fermin himself. It is here that the local runners come to sing the ‘chants to San Fermin’, paying homage to their patron saint, and asked for safe passage.These regulars were fascinating to watch, with the deeper meaning of their participation etched all over their faces. They were doing vigorous warm ups, muttering their prayers and chants, reading the morning newspapers, getting the lowdown on the bulls that would soon be baying for their blood. Rather than throwing away the newspaper they simply roll up the used print to use a tool to keep the angry beasts at bay, whilst agitating them enough to enhance the thrill of the chase.
Starting ten minutes before the first rocket signified the release of the bulls, we set off on a brisk walk, to make sure we made it past dead man’s corner, to set our minds at ease a tad.
Then, just as we did so, the loud screams of spectators and runners alike meant we were actually in the midst of our first Encierro!
What was most frightening about the whole thing was the sheer mass of runners, all pushing and shoving for a fraction of space to run into. Imagine the feeling of thousands of people all running through a narrow street, as fast as their legs would carry them, without looking back. The charging bulls seemed somewhat insignificant as I struggled to avoid being crushed by terrified tourists and locals alike. If one person fell, many more went with them. I couldn’t hang around and wait, it was every man for himself, and before I knew it, I had some other running companions less than a metre away.
It is such a cliché, but time did stand still as the rampaging beats thundered past, creating a serene scene like no other I had experienced.
Before I knew it, all hell had broken loose again, and the panicked revellers were all pushing and shoving me through the gates of the stadium, to be greeted by rapturous applause. Even though I hadn’t really achieved anything, to be part of the tradition, and run alongside the regular enthusiasts was a real honour, and to share the acclaim with them was very satisfying.
Due to my lack of research, which as previously mention was not done for a reason, I thought that was it all over. Once in the arena, I just assumed that was the end of that particular day’s run.However, just as I was on the hunt for my comrades, the last thing I wanted to see was another bull, and that is exactly what came hurtling towards me! After making a quick exit over the barrier I was informed that this beast had not simply broken free, but it was normal for several bulls to be released once the gates to the arena had been closed.
Despite this frightening thought, these bulls are more of a tourist friendly feature of the event, as they have rubber balls strapped to their horns to minimise any potential damage done to us pampered holidaymakers. I still was not going to take any risks, and made a swift exit. That was enough excitement for one day.
Most of the Spanish contingent certainly made the most of the carnival atmosphere, and seemed to be consistently worse for wear from the over-consumption of cheap alcohol. The most fascinating aspect of their party lifestyle is their accommodation choice. As Pamplona is a small city, there isn’t a great deal of hotels available, and those that have availability at this incredibly busy time of year charge extortionate rates. So instead, they simply sleep where they can. In the early hours of the morning you can just see a mass of people littered all over the place. The bus station, parks, alleyways, you name the public place, there will be someone sleeping there. I met one group of young men who were planning to stay for the entire week, and had brought a mattress for the four of them to share behind the bus station! The lengths that these people had gone to be part of the most unusual of events shows just how exhilarating it can be.
To cap off a day I will never forget, we walked to the other side of the city to witness one of the most spectacular firework displays I had ever seen. A veteran of many a over-hyped pyrotechnics show in various corners of the globe, I never get to enthusiastic about such events, but this was simply magnificent.
It was a fitting end to a day that was certainly something out of the ordinary, and an early exit in the morning gave us time to reflect on what we had put ourselves through.
Adrenaline of that magnitude cannot be appreciated until long after, and reminiscing about the sheer mayhem of the Encierro, and all that it entailed, we could draw our breath, and count our blessings we hadn’t taken the packaged holiday option instead.