The crowd starts to gather at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in front of the town hall when I arrive at 6:30 AM, trying to find a spot I can claim as my own, running in my head my guide’s suggestions for novice runners. As time passes, I am surrounded with people dressed in the traditional attire—all white, with a red scarf around the waist and a red handkerchief around the neck. I cannot help but notice the nervousness that shows in their faces and the many ways they manage to hide it.
As the countdown begins, everyone eagerlywaits for the signal the policia does a final sweep of the crowd, checking for things you’re not supposed to bring with you and removing the occasional drunk.
At 8:00 AM, the first rocket sounds off and you feel the tension in the air as runners look behind them. The second rocket sounds off and pandemonium ensues. People are running through cobbled streets, followed by the hooves of six bulls and their guiding steers.
You try to make your way through this throng of humanity, extending your elbows to keep from being crushed; looking in all directions, trying to find a way to move forward, sidestepping those who have fallen while, at the same time, avoid getting trampled by either the people behind you or the bulls. From the corner of my eye, I see the bulls coming up behind, thundering on.
Here I am in Pamplona, in the Navarre region of Spain, on the fifth day of the 426-year-old festival of San Fermín, which is held each year from July 6 to 14 and has the enciero, running of the bulls. The annual fiesta, made famous by American writer Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, involves a run each morning at 8:00 AM, starting on the second day of the festival. The run starts at Calle Santo Domingo, where the bulls are released from their holding pen to chase a few thousand people for about two to five minutes, and finishes in the bullring (plaza de toros in Spanish) where the bulls meet their end that afternoon.
The morning before I left Madrid for Pamplona, news coverage of the event showed two bulls staying behind on the route and wreaking havoc amongst the runners. The next day several runners were injured. I watched a guy being loaded into a waiting ambulance from the balcony of my apartment rental. During the festival, 12 people, including four Americans, have been gored in the running of the bulls. Despite the obvious dangers, people still come to experience the adrenaline high of running with the bulls.
San Fermín Festival is bigger than just the running of the bulls; it is a fiesta for all ages, young and old, men and women, and for people the world over. The Plaza del Castillo is where it all comes together, with live concerts and locals dancing to traditional music starting at mid-morning. Packed bars and restaurants stay open until the early hours of the morning. Surrounding the Plaza are several places to discover, and people walk around with a cup of wine, beer or sangria. Don’t be surprised to see people sleeping off their hangover in the streets anytime of the day. And let’s not forget the Spanish cuisine! It’s the biggest party in the world.
Pamplona has a lot to offer during the nine-day festival. Each day includes a bull run, a parade of Giants, a bullfight, live concerts, fairgrounds, all-day music by the brass bands from the peñas, Toro de Fuego (flaming bull), and an international fireworks competition. An in the hours between, it’s parties everywhere!
After the morning bull run, things tend to quiet down and you can take this opportunity to explore Pamplona. For pedestrians only, there’s the beautiful Old Town with its stone-paved streets that winds its way through the historical heart of the city. The Plaza del Castillo is the center of life and lined with restaurants, cafes and hotels. The most important monument of the city is Santa Maria Cathedral, which is part of the Cathedral Museum containing the largest amount of artistic and historical treasures. Other interesting places to check out include the Casa Consistoral (City Hall), Navarre Museum, Citadel & Vuelta del Castillo Park, Taconera Park, and the Church of San Lorenzo.
The morning before I left Pamplona, I managed to squeeze in my last run, this time making it all the way to the bullring. Once in the bullring, the bulls are directed back to their pens, and a few minutes later, fighting cows or Vaquillas are released into the ring with the remaining runners in an unofficial “bullfight.” It is quite a sight to witness the thrill of ordinary Joes acting like would-be matadors getting their butts kicked by the Vaquillas up close.
It was a wonderful end to six days of festivities, and an adrenaline-filled run with the bulls. This is one more thing off my bucket list. But, I might just go back someday for another run.