The minute anyone hears “Pamplona” – the word, the name, the place – they tend to think immediately of the Running of the Bulls, a rather insane festival that was popularized and that attained near mythic status in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
When scheduling my trip to Europe, I didn’t realize that my itinerary would bring me directly to Pamplona around the time of the festival. Deciding to throw caution – and my budget – to the wind, it was clear that spending a few days in Pamplona would lead to a few stories, some unforgettable experiences, and the chance to have a slightly better understanding of what exactly is going on in the minds of these crazy runners.
You can research what exactly the Fiesta is, but it’s hard to know what to actually expect until you get there. Your first word of warning – there will be a lot of Australian and New Zealand travellers. This festival seems to be on the party circuit and at the campground where I stayed, I was known as “The Canadian”.
So, a few tips for those who want to experience as much of the festival as they can:
Dress the Part
That means white pants, white top, red neck scarf (like you would wear in Girl Guides), and a red sash tied around your waist. You don’t wear the red neck scarf until you are told to do so during the opening ceremonies… just follow the crowd. They’ll figure it out.
A key component of “dressing the part” is wearing closed toed shoes, ideally with a reasonably thick sole. I have never seen streets as dirty, glass covered and hazardous as those in Pamplona during the festival.
Walk the Route and Understand Your Viewing Options
The actual “running” of the bulls is finished in minutes. These are massive animals, that are being directed down a narrow pathway with one goal in mind. The run also happens quite early in the morning – we took buses from our campsite well before the sun had risen so that we would be in Pamplona with plenty of time to figure out our plans. There are three options available:
- Watch from a balcony: these can rent for EUR 100, or more, and there are signs and brochures hanging up all over town which offer to make arrangements. There are also countless websites where individuals will act as brokers. I did not watch from a balcony – it was a little steep, for an already expensive add-on, and despite the free breakfast and champagne, it just wasn’t a purchase I was willing to make.
- Watch from the streets: if you’re there early enough, you can climb up on the barriers and watch from the streets. Images are beamed around the world every July of desperate runners trying to get into the crowd – if you get there early enough, you can be in that crowd.
- Watch from the arena: this option costs a few Euros to attend (less than 10, the price fluctuates each day) and you get to sit in the reasonably comfortable arena. There are video screens broadcasting what is going on outside, they announce the bulls during the leadup, and you get to boo the people who “run” with the bulls and enter the ring far ahead of any bull. To the locals, this is a sign of great cowardice.
I watched from the arena both mornings. After the bulls finish the run they are generally herded into the far side of the bullring until that evening… but hey, people paid good money for some morning entertainment! They release little bulls into the ring to chase around the people who were crazy enough to run. People were generally on the side of the little bulls, cheering when they managed to get a nice hit on one of the runners.
The benefit of walking the route is you understand what the bulls and the runners are facing, and you realize just how quickly the run itself will unfold. This is also the first town I have ever been to that has stores in the downtown that become barricaded every night for protection against an errant horn.
Realize That There is More to the Festival Than the Bulls
As with many festivals in Spain, the Fiesta is rooted in religion. After the first bullrun, we stuck around the town for a bit to explore and see what happened during the day. There were processions, street parties, performances, gatherings with lots of food… a lot of the Aussies who were on the trip had headed straight back to the campsite after that bull run to sleep off the night, but it was worthwhile spending some time wandering around the city.
I found the parade / procession to show a huge difference between raising North American children, and Spanish children. We have fuzzy mascots in costumes handing out candy and being silly. They have creepy looking guys with foam maces and hammers hitting children. With no candy.
One of the highlights was the “Toro del Fuego” which basically means “Fire Bull.” The woman at the tourist information bureau had dismissed it as being for kids, telling us not to waste our time, but she was wrong.
In a nutshell: a man puts on fireproof gloves, picks up a fibreglass bull that is laced with fireworks and sparklers, and runs after children in the street. Children cower in fear, and their parents protect them, but it’s all in the name of good fun. Except for the fact that the sparks will actually burn holes in your clothing.
If I ever have a kid, I’m raising them in Spain.
Don’t Go Outside the City Hall During the Opening Ceremonies
Unless you like being crushed, of course, or unless you go with a big, burly group. It’s very tight – we talked to a few people who went in and they said that their feet were barely touching the ground.
We stood just outside the square and had a great time, with a little bit of breathing room.
Leave Your Valuables At Home – Especially on the Opening Day
And in case you’re wondering – yes, people will throw sangria on you. Be prepared for that. If you plan on joining in, just know there’s a slight markup on sangria. In fact, there’s a markup on almost everything. Just throw caution to the wind and don’t stick too closely to your budget.
You can buy disposable cameras to capture the opening ceremony experience, or have a decent waterproof phone case, but sangria is sticky and alcoholic which means it can completely destroy your electronics. This is a great day to unplug and go with the flow.
If you’re camping, and don’t want to reek of sangria all day, I highly recommend taking one of the first buses back to the campground. It ended up pouring all night so the parties in town were somewhat subdued, but by being one of the first few in the shower I had access to some nice, toasty hot water.
Ok, let’s be honest. People show up, say they’re not going to run, but decide that it beats standing in the crowd and being a spectator. #YOLO and all of that.
Running is dangerous. The streets are slippery, there are lots of cobblestones, the bulls are big, they have pointy horns, and in some places on the run you have nowhere to escape to. Your travel insurance may not cover you, because Running with the Bulls is the definition of a preventable accident and from an insurance perspective, a stupid choice.
That being said: if you do run, try to seek advice. Busabout had guides and helpers who had run the route, there were people in town talking about it, there are websites, and there’s even a book written by an American, telling you how not to get gored (ironically, a year or so after publishing this book, he got gored). Watching the first run will also give you a better understanding of how things work. If you decide to watch, do it from inside the arena since you will be able to watch the entire run from the big screen.
Wear proper footwear, have a solid understanding of your fitness level, dress the part, don’t film it (in fact, leaving your camera with a trusted friend might be the smartest idea), and understand that if you fall you should probably stay down – trying to count the bulls running around, in front, and behind you is a losing proposition. They don’t always run in a pack.
And, no matter what you do, don’t touch a bull. Don’t pull its tail, don’t touch it, just try to keep away.
…and Don’t Be an Idiot
There are idiots in every crowd. When you throw thousands of people into a small Spanish city for a crazy festival, with a ton of alcohol, there are going to be idiots.
There’s a fountain in San Fermin that Australians (in particular – I’m sure there are other nationalities who do it, but they’re the majority) like to climb. This is not a local tradition, it’s one that has been started by tourists, and the locals hate it. They’ve tried to have the fountain removed, they’ve asked people to stay off it… it doesn’t work. Visitors have broken their necks, broken bones, etc. climbing and jumping off this fountain. It’s disrespectful. If you’re going to be an idiot, do it in an officially sanctioned capacity and run with the bulls.
This article from Outside Online has a great overview of the festival, what to expect, and what visitors should know, not to mention some great photos.