Running with the Bulls in Pamplona
July 10-12, 2005

San Fermin is the patron saint of wine, so naturally, the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain is celebrated with endless drunken revelry. The event runs from July 6-14 every year and is most famous for the running of the bulls, which takes place each morning at 8am. At that time, the bulls that will be slaughtered in the dayīs bullfights run 850 meters through the heart of the city from their pens in the north to the arena. Accompanying them are hundreds of thrill-seekers who are run along with the bulls to hasten their journey.

I originally had no intentions of attending the festival, but when Paul, a friend that I met in Ireland, mentioned the event and indicated that he was looking for someone to go with, I jumped at the opportunity. After doing some other traveling on our own, we rendezvoused in Pamplona on Sunday, July 10.

Of course, when you arrive without reservations at an enormously popular festival in a small town, you canīt expect to find an affordable hostel or hotel. Iīve always indicated to friends that Iīm perfectly comfortable sleeping in parks or under bridges if the conditions necessitate such extremes. Someday, my friends will learn not to assume that Iīm exaggerating.

Waking at 6:45am from a cold night in a park, Paul and I made our way to the bull pen in our traditional white pants, white shirts, red scarf, and red sash - all items that can be purchased for a few euros from the street vendors. As we waited for the 8am start, we solicited as much advice as we could - pick an escape point about 50 meters ahead of you; if you fall, stay on the ground; and keep a rolled-up newspaper in one hand to feel behind you for other runners or distract bulls if necessary.

A few minutes before the race, the anxious crowd chanted a prayer to San Fermin three times. Then, promptly at 8, a rocket went off to indicate that the first of the six bulls has left the gate. A few seconds later, a second rocket indicated that the last of the bulls was on its way. Everyone looked intently in the direction of the bulls, waiting to see them coming up over the hill. Seconds later, I could see the crowd starting to run in my direction, with broad, sharp horns peeking out over their heads each time the bulls bounded forward.

Everything happened incredibly fast. Paul and I started to race ahead and within 15 seconds, the bulls had drawn to within a few meters of us, so we each bounded over the fence and watched as the six massive bodies darted by. Two minutes later, a third rocked announced the arrival of the last bull at the arena.

Although Paul and I played it very safe, there are always others who take a lot of chances. There havenīt been any deaths in several years, but people are commonly trampled in the chaos of the event.

Despite the hype behind the event, the running of the bulls is really just a preparatory step for the real showdown - the daily bullfights where six toreadors test their skills in front of a packed crowd. The event is part athletics, part dance.

At the start of each round, a bull is led around the ring by five or six toreadors. The first wound is then inflicted from horseback with a long spear. The horse is draped in simple wicker and leather armor and is blindfolded to keep it from being spooked by the bulls. Next, six knives are stabbed into the shoulders and spine of the bull, two at a time. Finally, the other toreadors leave the ring, and one fighter is left alone to finish off the bull. He first toys with the bull in an improvisational dance in a show of Spanish machismo, occasionally throwing a stab at the bullīs shoulders with a long, slender sword.

Finally, when the bull is sufficiently exhausted, the toreador slowly raises his sword and points it toward the top of the bullīs neck. He then plunges the foil deeply into the flesh - often up to the hilt. Even then, it may be several minutes before the bull finally collapses from blood loss, foaming blood through its nose and mouth and struggling to stay upright. To insure a clean kill, a small knife is finally jabbed into the skull to make sure the bull is dead before three horses haul the carcas out of the arena.

Despite the undeniable cruelty and brutality of the fight, the event is immensely engaging and appeals to raw human emotions in a battle between grace and power.

Just as intriguing as the fight itself is the audience. Paul and I bought the cheapest tickets available, which placed us in the part of the arena that isnīt sheltered from the sun. As it turns out, this is also the area where rowdy young students choose to celebrate with buckets of sangria, only about half of which is actually consumed and the other half of which is hurled unapologetically at other spectators. By the end of the fights, Paul and I were drenched in wine and pelted with bread, fruit, and anything else that found its way into the hands of the innebriated crowd. Our clothes were unsalvagable and eventually had to be thrown away.

Adding to these raucus events are incessant parades, parties, and dances. It seems you canīt walk a city block without finding yourself in another parade in a sea of identical white revelers in red scarves.

Paul and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Pamplona, but after three days and two nights of the sights, sounds, and smells of the Festival of San Fermin, we were ready to leave to Barcelona.

Time has flown by so quickly that even my stay in Barcelona is now nearly at its end, and in a few hours, Paul will once again accompany me on my journey to Zurich, Switzerland. There we will part ways and Paul will head to Italy while I will head to Slovakia to meet Tomas.

Parades in the streets of Pamplona, all day... Parades in the streets of Pamplona, all day...
...and all night ...and all night
Pamplona at dawn Pamplona at dawn
Parade of the giants Parade of the giants
Packed arena for the daily bullfights Packed arena for the daily bullfights
Paul Hollister and Rob Jagnow, soaked in Sangria after the bullfights in Pamplona Paul and Rob, soaked in Sangria after the bullfights
A runner is pulled out of the path of the bulls A runner is pulled out of the path of the bulls in Pamplona.
Umbrellas at a cafe in Madrid Umbrellas at a cafe in Madrid
The Chueca district in Madrid The Chueca district in Madrid
La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, by Antoni Gaudi La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, by Antoni Gaudi
Entry doors of La Sagrada Familia Entry doors of La Sagrada Familia
Spiral stairway in one of the towers of La Sagrada Familia Spiral stairway in one of the towers of La Sagrada Familia
Towering scaffolding in La Sagrada Familia Towering scaffolding in La Sagrada Familia
Cathedral of Barcelona Cathedral of Barcelona
Sculpture at a Barcelona park Sculpture at a Barcelona park

© Copyright 2005 by Rob Jagnow.