San Fermín: Running of the Bulls

“A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro, dándonos su bendición. Viva San Fermín. Gora San Fermín.”

“We ask San Fermín, because he is our Patron, to guide us through the Bull Run, giving us his blessing.”

A full grown, male bull weighs as much as 600 kilos, has two lethal horns protruding from the head and is behooved with equally hardened trampling devices. And I was going to outrun a marauding group of them at the annual Fiesta of San Fermín in Iruñea-Pamplona, Spain.

What I was about to undertake is, of course, the encierro, or “Running of the Bulls”. Every morning from July 7th to the 14th, a large group of mostly males brace to make the adrenaline dash some 800 meters to the finish line.

I awaited the sound of the first rocket, indicating the bulls had been let loose, a bit before Estafeta, where the running is a bit slower ahead of the start in the Santo Domingo area. Around me still half-drunk fiesta goers were clad in head-to-toe white, a bold red sash (faja) tied about the waist, red handkerchief (pañuelo) about the neck, and an occasional vomit stain flourish. Don’t forget 13 have died since 1924, the last being in 1995.

Photo by luistxo eta marije

Spanish gentlemen nonchalantly read the morning’s newspaper before they twisted it into a tight roll to batter the bulls. Another runner held is young daughter on top of his shoulders. A foreign visitor sat passed out with his head between his legs. How in the world had I come here?

I was studying during the 2001 summer in Grenoble, France and missed my intended train loitering too late at a party for an extra glass of wine. Not an auspicious beginning.

Luckily I was able to jump the next train and complete our journey to San Sebastián, a convenient base of operations on the north coast, blessed with the beautiful (and sometimes topless) La Concha Bay.

My party of three entered by taxi (about €100/1 hour from San Sebastián) since our preparation was nil and buses, of which there are extra, were full. Pamplona can also easily be reached by train from Madrid and Barcelona. Because the city is so inundated with tourists, commuting in can be an attractive alternative. Full transportation details can be found here.

On the way we made Nutella sandwiches and pondered out nonexistent sleeping arrangements, and as expected, we were without accommodation. In a city with under 3,000 hotels rooms and many more times that number in visitors, book well in advance and prepare to pay two or three times the usual rate. Hotels are often booked months in advance.

Or you can just show up like I did. My bed for the night was a public park a few hundred meters from bustling lines of vendors and boisterous tents with sangria and cerveza guzzling revelers.

Even a darkened, vacant corner is not the easiest thing to find during San Fermín. Young lovers and drunken sleepers vie for the best spots, but the three of us eventually found a nice quite tree to curl up near. To combat the chilly night air, I bought several woven blankets of Spanish design to stay warm under. I think one friend cried a little on the outside, and we all cried a little on the inside.

Photo by wili_hybrid

Pamplona descends into chaos during San Fermín. The sheer drunkenness of those around you can be appalling. The city is on 24-hour siesta and mounds of garbage pile up from the constant party. It can be the best time of your life, or the worst if you are not prepared.

These mounds are raked and hosed away from the running route of the encierro immediately before the day’s run. The resulting wet cobblestones provide a precarious sprinting surface for both bull and human.

When the first rocket sounded, I set off at a leisurely trot. Double layers of wooden barricades sealed off the narrow Spanish streets. Suddenly, there they were. Right behind me. Somehow the thick crowd had thinned out and my attention was on the spectators hanging off roofs and balconies. Snapping back to reality, I sped off as fast as possible. A shirtless, muscular foreigner and I elbowed each other for position frantically. The calm Spanish, rolled paper in hand, deftly sidestepped any threat and at the same time delivered an embarrassing blow to the bull’s nose. It was a blow to their dignity, and a young foreigner is the easiest target to exact revenge upon.

Photo by henribergius

I quickly ducked to the side hoping the pack behind me would pass. They sped up to the nearly 90-degree turn of Estafeta Street where the wet cobblestones felled several of the hulking beasts.

After dashing out again I quickly found myself in the same position with bulls bearing down on me. This time I made a dive under one of the double wooded barricades, smearing dirt on my white attire. The third time I had to scamper for cover I went over the barricade, foolishly displaying my backside as an easy target for any bull’s horn.

My hands were shaking with from the rush of adrenaline, like a needle full of it straight to the heart, and would continue to do so hours after the event. I had my fill and finished the last bit of the route mostly behind the bulls saying a blessing to San Fermín, thankful to be unharmed.

My friends rejoined me, jumping up and down in excitement of what they just witnessed: their friend nearly gored.

A successful run with the bulls takes three things. The first is respect; respect the prowess of the bulls and the runners around you. Don’t push and shove anymore than you have to and treat the situation seriously by not showing up after a sleepless night or with a hangover.

The next is confidence. Never lose faith in your legs or decision-making, a falter in either might give you a bottom-up view of a bull.

The final ingredient is fear. Fear keeps the other two things in line and, with a little luck, helps you pull off an event to remember.

Polaroid photo by flickr user photoreb.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 ken on 11.08.08 at 9:55 AM

Can’t wait till my first “Encierro”!! Nice post

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