San Fermín, famously know as the “Running of the Bulls” is a 9 day festival in July, celebrated in the little northern, Basque town of Pamplona. It is considered the “mother” of all Spanish fiestas, where the wild, the out-of-control, the uncouth, and the unashamed come out to play. It is the “thought-I-got-that-type-of-behavior-out-of-my-system-in-college…guess not” type of fiesta. With a modest population of 200,000, Pamplona explodes from July 6th-14th every year as over 1 million people invade the city, sporting appropriate San Fermín attire of all white with red sashes and bandanas around their necks. There is little historical background as to why the festival has grown to such magnitude, as it was a modest summer festival back in the medieval era, and over time, adopted the tradition of the bull-run and bull fights. People say that the fame of the festival hit new heights after Ernest Hemmingway’s, “The Sun Will Also Rise,” was published in 1923 which gave a lively description of the event. He was very fond of the event and attended many times after.
My good friend Alexis is visiting me from California at the moment, and we decided to go head-first for our first and last San Fermín experience. After a bit of research and speaking with friends, we decided it best to pull and all-nighter and do a 12-hour, dusk till dawn San Fermín marathon (it is nearly impossible to find a place to stay in Pamplona during the festival not to mention reasonable, due to the astronomical price of accommodation – law of supply and demand). So, decked out in our white attire, we hopped on a bus from Barcelona at 3pm on Saturday, July 8th and tried to sleep as much as we could during the 6-hour ride north. However, we were un-successful as the two chatterboxes across the aisle were gabbing away. Well, they turned out to be two very entertaining 20-year-old college – Ziggy (short for Siegfried, grew up in South Africa, currently going to college in Michigan but doing an internship in Germany), and Bob (short for Robert, born in Amsterdam, spent half of his life in Brazil and the other half living in the states), both part of the same fraternity. We had many on-going jokes such as encouraging them to start a rock band, “Bob and Ziggy” and also, dubbing Ziggy with the nick-name of “Bull Wisperer.” We also passed the time by watching gory bull runs from past years on Bob’s i-pad, ooing and aweing as we watched men being tossed around like rag-dolls. We wished them good luck on their run the following morning, and offered our services of being the bearer of bad news to their mothers. They assured us that all would be fine and if things got out of control, Ziggy would be able to tame the bull with his “whispering” gift.
There were also more of Ziggy and Bob’s “not-so-fratboy-like” friends passed out asleep for most of the bus ride, whom we got to know during the our evening as we roamed around the streets (such as Ziggy’s friend from good old Milwaukee, Wisconsin pretending he was German). The two sitting in front of Bob and Ziggy were also very amusing. Two “friends” (actually, I have no idea, it is quite possible that they had just met on the bus). The first, a stout Peruvian guy who we named the Professional Bull Rider, or “The Bull Master” for short. This is his 5th year going to San Fermín – what you would call a really die-hard San Fermíner. He proudly showed us a picture on his phone from the year before where he is running directly in front of a bull with his hands waving in the air. The other guy sitting next to him was a young kid from Lithuania who spoke Lithuanian (obviously) and some broken Spanish. As the Bull Master was giving him tips, the Lithuanian, all of sudden, started smiling with excitement and was asking the Bull Master to take his picture as he pointed out the window. We were driving next to a small mountain and the Lithuanian explained he had never seen one before (apparently Lithuanian is an extremely flat country and I am guessing this was his first experience away from home). Lexi and I just couldn’t believe it and we spent the next 10 minutes trying to get the best shot of him with the mountain behind him to show his friends. After that, the Bull Mastersaid it was tradition to start San Fermín with a bottle of wine on the bus and they split the bottle between the two of them before we even arrived – we tried to get some rest.
Finally we arrive in San Fermin, and purchased our final accessories – red sash and bandana – to complete the outfits. A few hours later we gather around in the park to watch the fireworks show that they display every night at 11pm during the festival. Directly after, we all headed to Plaza de Castillo to watch a free rock concert with Nazli and some her friends. Later we met up with the boys and tried to keep up with their young, college-frat-boy spirits, while simultaneously reminding ourselves that our college days are over and doing our best to hold a steady yet sophisticated level of alcohol consumption. During our evening stroll about the city, we explored the fairgrounds and also made a detour to go say “hi” to the heavily guarded bulls locked in their pens, waiting for the following morning – they were real happy to see us. A few unanticipated, unforeseen events did occur however such as somebody setting off a small firework next to us, running for dear-life and Lexi’s hand getting into a small scuffle with a hot-dog grill (the hot-dog grill won). But, all in all, we made it in one piece and at 7am, after watching the sunrise, we dragged ourselves to the fences to sit and wait for the bull-run. At 8am, the gun-shot sounded and they were off! Well, not really. We see participants slightly jogging, some walking, as they wave at friends and smiling for pictures. So, where are the bulls? Finally, about 1 minute in, the participants increase their speed and finally we see about 6 sleepy and rather lethargic-looking bulls trotting in-between them. Then it was over. Lame. We decided not to pay the 10 euro to go into the bull stadium, not really one who can stomach animal cruelty, even if it is something “cultural.” At 9:30am, we boarded our bus back to Barcelona and slept the whole way. Of course, we had nice views every time we were awaken as we were sitting face-to-face with two incredibly attractive, fresh-off-the-island Aussies the whole way.
Dominique’s Notes and Advice on San Fermín:
1.) “Una fiesta borrachera” – I wish I could say that San Fermin, like La Festival de Los Patios in Cordoba, is lovely and full of Spanish cultural, but I would be lying. There are plenty of Spaniards but I would say that at least 60% of “attendees” are tourists, the majority of which being Americans – go figure. Whatever San Fermín used to be about (celebrating a famous Saint and all), it has seemed to have lost almost every strand of what I would call culture relevance (aside from the bull running)…it is, to be frank, a completely uncontrollable, drunken madhouse – not for the faint hearted.
2.) Attire – I can’t stress enough to wear closed toed tennis shoes. As night falls upon the city, Pamplona becomes over-run by trash (I think trash cans might be against their religion or something). You will begin stepping through glass, empty plastic bottles and a lot of other things that I don’t want to mention. Aside from good footwear, buy some cheap white clothes that you don’t mind being completely destroyed – be ready to be drenched in wine or beer at any moment. Don’t worry about the red sashes and bandanas – the minute you walk out of the station, they are selling them by the bus-loads (I think I talked a vendor down to 6€ for both). Lastly, if you are going to pull an all-nighter, check the weather. The night-time highs usually hover around 60°F, so might want to pick up a cheap long sleeved white shirt or sweatshirt. Most people wear pants.
3.) Accommodation – Unless you are lucky (or wealthy) enough to have/find accommodation, the most common way “normal” people experience San Fermín is pulling an all-nighter. If you’re backpacking, find a good place to store your stuff and plan on sleeping on the bus or at your next destination. Some die-hard San Fermíners will camp out in the middle of the park – and by camping out I mean sleeping fully dressed with their bandanas over their eyes in the middle of a dirty trashed park. Not really my idea of a good time. Lexi and I were there for about 12 hours and by the end were 100% San-Fermíned-out!
4.) BYOB – Yes, bring your own beer and food if you can – disposable of course. The sheer amount of alcohol consumed at San Fermin is something for the Guinness Book of World Records, so best not to burn a hole in your pocket while “participating” in the festivities. However, word to the wise – pace yourself if you aren’t used to pulling all nighters like the Spanish, you are in for a LONG night. As for food, Pamplona restaurants are completely over-run during San Fermín as they do their best to accommodate thousands of people, so be ready to wait a while to have any kind of a decent meal. And keep in mind that between 1am-7am, your food choices are what the street vendors have to offer – cold hot-dogs and hamburgers. Yum!
5.) The Run – If you can, print out a map of Pamplona before you come with the layout of where the bulls run. If you want to be a bystander, find a spot towards the middle of the run. Getting there early (around 6:30am or so) will get you a fairly good spot but know you will have to guard it with your life for an hour-and-a-half in a most-likely extremely uncomfortable position. The best spot is to sit on the very top of the wooded barriers so you can look down on the run, but again, this is why I bring up the comfort thing. If you want to run and you don’t want to see or have contact with a bull, go to the very front of the group of runners. The farther back you are towards where the bulls are let out, the higher the chance you might have of one poking at your behind. If you run, please make sure you’re sober. Normally the police/guards weed out the extremely inebriated who attempt to run but they don’t catch everyone – liquid courage may be useful when trying to get up the nerve to talk to a girl, but running up a against a bull 10 times your weight?…Probably not the smartest. Lastly, contrary to popular belief, there is no outstanding San Fermín rule that states that females can’t run – you just won’t see many women running because we have brains. However, there is a semi-safe way to run ladies, stay in the front!