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
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
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,
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.