Pamplona never sleeps during fiesta
Today was the first of eight runnings of bulls in Pamplona. The Fiesta of San Fermin in Pamplona, known as the Running of the Bulls in the US, is a nonstop, 24-hour party. From July 6 to July 14 there is always dancing in the streets, bands around every corner, and continuous supplies of wine from bottles being passed through the streets, carried by seemingly thousands in the crowd. Six bullfights are held every evening and the spectacular European-championship fireworks light the skies every night.
Originally a religious festival, not wild revelry
San Fermin is a religious festival commemorating the patron saint of Pamplona and I have been attending religiously for the past 40 years. Why do I go back year after year? Bullfights can be found in scores of other Spanish towns and processions are a way of life in Spain. People dance everywhere and bands play throughout the world.
But in this fortress city in northern Spain in the foothills of the Pyrenees, these elements combine with the diverse personalities of people from around the world to create an addictive atmosphere. The magic of this fiesta in Pamplona is the virtual suspension of time combined with a chance to live life minute by minute once one is swept into the unique world of Fiesta. It is this creation of an altered state that makes this festival unique.
Made famous by Hemingway·in his novel “The Sun Also Rises,” and described more recently by James Michener, who extolled the experience in a chapter in “The Drifters,” the festival is most popularly known for its Running of the Bulls. It was Michener’s book that introduced me to the fiesta. I made my first journey only months after reading his descriptions.
The morning run in Pamplona
The world’s view of the fiesta is broadcast on TV and splashed across newspapers for two to three minutes each morning at 8. Six fighting bulls, averaging more than 1,000 pounds each, and seven steers run through throngs of anxious runners dressed in the traditional garb of white with red scarves. Most of the thousands of runners who cram the narrow course that winds between ancient buildings succumb to natural panic. They cringe in doorways and dive over fences to avoid the rampaging herd. But experienced runners dare death by coming as close to the horns of the fighting bulls as possible and then, hopefully, escaping injury by diving to the side at the last instant.
Over 42 years, I have experienced this group adrenalin rush along every cobblestone of the run in Pamplona. I have run toward the bulls as they first step out of the corral onto Calle Santo Domingo, whirling and sprinting for 50 yards through the 15-foot-wide chute in front of the horns before diving to the side. I’ve seen a runner only an arm’s length from me get caught by a bull, watching in anguished slow motion as he was tossed on the horns and eventually driven through the barricades by the 1,200-pound animal. I was transfixed as townspeople carried his bloody body to a nearby ambulance.
Running beside my youngest brother, I’d been trailing the bulls into the entrance of the bullring when one suddenly stopped and turned around. The ensuing panic was wild. My brother and I leaped to the barricades, clinging for our lives while the bull decided whom to charge.
Obviously, there is no logic to this event. It may be a form of sensation addiction.
The running is dangerous
Ambulances and first-aid stations are positioned alongside the barricaded streets and, after the run, do a brisk business. Dozens of runners are injured every day. During the past 100 years, hundreds have been seriously gored, but only 13 men have been killed by the bulls. Click here for a good video about how to run the bulls.
Some refer to this as a sport; others, perhaps more accurately, term it simple madness.
No one really knows why the “running” started. Years ago the local butchers were also the men who herded the bulls into the arena from the corrals on the outskirts of town. This herding or running of the bulls down to the arena eventually developed into the exciting spectacle seen every morning from July 7-14.
Two ways to see a bullfight -— well dressed and formal or drunk and singing
The bulls that run in the streets of Pamplona each morning perform in the bullfights in the Plaza de Toros that evening. Some of the best bullfighters in Spain come to Pamplona to fight for what has been called the rowdiest bullfighting crowd in the world. Many of the spectators, mostly those sitting in the cheap seats under the blazing sun, spend the entire bullfight singing, dancing, and spraying each other with bottle after bottle of champagne. They register their displeasure with underperforming toreros by raining seat cushions and the fruit from their sangria buckets down on their heads.
The serious patrons of the fights sit well-dressed and clean in the expensive shaded seats reservedly observing what has been called a ballet in blood. Aficionados may tell you they love bullfighting, yet hate what the bull must endure. The only consolation is that these creatures are allowed to live a bucolic four to five years — a full two to three years longer than their beef-supplying brethren — and they die a “noble” death.
Pamplona means more than only bulls and bullfights
This fiesta is far more than simply the early-morning run and evening bullfights, however. Officially this is a religious festival commemorating San Fermin, a black bishop martyred by the Moors. This Christian background is reflected in an occasional religious procession. The rest of the fiesta is pure escapism. While the bulls may conjure death and fear, the wild abandon of uninhibited drinking and nonstop dancing celebrates living life to its fullest.
Bars and cafes remain open virtually 24 hours a day. Each day is packed with street performers, marches, concerts, and hundreds of other activities. Local families pore through the newspapers and programs to carefully plan daily activities. At noon, papier-mache giants begin their march through the narrow streets of the old town, halting regularly to dance to music provided by an accompanying traditional band.
Every night some of the world’s most spectacular firework displays light up the sky for almost half an hour. This is the site of the annual European firework championships, where carefully selected companies explode their best and brightest pyrotechnics, leaving each night’s spectators with stiff necks vowing they have never seen anything to match it.
The closing ceremony of the festival takes place at midnight July 14.
Bands and crowds of people holding candles gather again in front of the town hall. As the bands begin to play a slow song of grief, the people fall to their knees, some hitting their heads on the streets in sorrow. They lament, “Woe is me. San Fermin is over. We must wait another year for San Fermin.” The music quickens. The crowd again responds, dancing wildly and happily. The slow, sad dirge and the fast, happy music alternate, until the candles have burned to small nubs and dawn begins to peek over the mountains outside of Pamplona. Once again, this city rests, waiting for the next year and another exercise in exuberance.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past ten years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.