I want to acknowledge the conflict around bullfighting by stating that, while I have my own convictions about animal cruelty and ethics, my goal is to have an open heart and mind to cultural differences and traditions I may not understand. This specific post is about capturing the energy of the people and culture at San Fermín, not to take a stance for or against bull running/fighting.
We returned to Spain this week for an event we booked over six months ago. In fact, we made reservations for a balcony seat at this event before purchasing plane tickets, selling our home, or quitting our jobs.
The annual San Fermín Festival in Pamplona, also known as The Running of the Bulls, was on our trip radar from the beginning.You can google it for the details and history, but it's basically a massive party held every year in Northern Spain and it attracts people from all over the world. While the bull run is the main event, there is also music, dancing, sangria, fireworks, and more.
After leaving Santorini, we landed in Barcelona, picked up a rental car and made the four-hour drive to Pamplona. The run is at eight in the morning so we spent the afternoon scoping out parking, locating our balcony, and purchasing white and red attire for the festival. We slept at a campsite nearby since we couldn't afford any of the room rates.
When we woke at five the following morning, we were too giddy with anticipation to notice the early hour. We tore down camp, parked our car in town, and quickly dressed in our festival clothes. Neither of us had showered for a few days after having long layovers during our Greece to Spain flight, so clean clothes and deodorant had us feeling good as new. We completed our outfits off by tying red bandanas around our necks. Perfecto.
As we walked the cobblestone streets from the car, our feet stuck to the thick layer of sangria that covered the ground. The sun was barely up, but people were already making their way toward the running course to secure a spot. We didn't need to save seats since we had a balcony reserved, but our pace quickened in response to the adrenaline running through our veins. We both wore silly smiles as we took it all in.
Once at the balcony, we rang the buzzer and met our friendly host who had coffee and breakfast waiting for us. We were sharing the balcony with a father and son from Singapore and two guys from Northern California. We all made small talk and exchanged travel stories as we watched the streets begin to fill with people. The father and son had watched the run for the first few days of the festival so they explained to us the rules for the runners (no cameras, being sober, etc). We also learned the cops will pick up and toss runners over the fence if they are breaking rules.
About fifteen minutes before the run began, the participants entered the course to choose a starting point. We watched as they spread out, some of them hiding in doorways or hanging along the fence in case of needing a bailout. Not surprisingly, most of the runners were guys in their early 20s, although there were also a few women, locals, and gray-haired men possibly checking off a bucket list item.
At this point, you could feel the crowd shift as the excitement and anticipation began to build. A mix of nervous and excited energy radiated from the runners as they began to stretch or bounce on their toes, trying to calm any last-minute nerves.
And then, BOOM!
The canon went off signaling the release of the six bulls. My heart jumped out of my chest and I could barely contain my excitement.
The runners began to sprint, some looking over their shoulder and others barrel rolling under the fence. Before I knew it the bulls were in sight, mixed in with a sea of people. Right in front of our balcony, a man went down at the mercy of the lead bull (see video). We watched nervously as he was repeatedly trampled before the bull let off and returned to the course. Thankfully, the man was not gored or badly injured.
After the bulls rounded the corner and were out of sight, we piled into the living room to watch the rest of the run on tv. It only lasted a few minutes or so, but the adrenaline and energy of the streets remained alive as we left the balcony and joined the city at the bull ring for the encierro (literally translating to confinement).
After finishing the course, the runners can stay in the stadium while being chased around by juvenile bulls with capped horns. We excitedly joined the sea of red and white in the stadium to watch.
Again, the energy was electric. The celebration and pure fun had by the people in the stands and in the arena was contagious. The stadium was full of "Ohhhs!" and "Ahhhs!" as the runners were repeatedly chased down and flipped by the bulls. This went on for about thirty minutes before all the bulls left and the stadium cleared out to the streets for more celebration.
We spent the next few hours drinking sangria and joining a parade through the narrow streets of Pamplona. Music filled the city and we toasted to Spain and new culture. We were sad to leave, but we had to make it to the Pyrenees mountains before dark to set up camp.
The Running of the Bulls was everything we hoped it would be and more. It was worth every penny and travel hassle to get there. And while there are many debates and opinions about the festival practices, it was definitely worth stepping out of my worldview for a few hours to experience and celebrate this important tradition for Spain.