Running of (NOT with) the Bulls

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Pamplona in July: an estimated one million people pour into the usually small, calm Northern Spanish town, all dressed in the traditional white clothing and red scarf. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was an odd-themed, massive pub crawl. But then there are the bulls running through the street. And then there are the people running away from said bulls. It’s quite a sight to see.

The world-famous festival celebrates Saint Fermin, who was the first Bishop of Pamplona. He was decapitated in France on a preaching voyage and is now considered a martyr in the Catholic church. There are many different explanations as to why people wear white and red, but most agree that the red handkerchief symbolizes San Fermin’s blood that was shed.

This week-long fiesta attracts people of all ages—toddlers in strollers smile alongside grandparents in wheelchairs who smile alongside burping, cussing young men who chug a beer every ten minutes and scream, “SAN FERMIN!” Not to mention, people travel from all over the globe to run, watch other people run, or do neither and just enjoy the merriment! I can’t even count how many different languages I heard—Spain alone has three languages technically: Spanish, Catalan, and Basque.

July 6th is opening day, complete with a flour and egg toss, which I somehow managed to avoid. The fact that my clothes were still white by noon is incredible, especially since people have taken the egg and flour tradition and added a few twists. Mustard and ketchup can be seen on many once-pristine outfits, but most popular seems to be a nice sangria soak. Within minutes, people’s crisp, snowy get-ups are transformed into light purple dripping things. Why anyone would want to waste wine is beyond me, but then I realize that you can buy one and a half liters of sangria or tinto de verano (red wine and soda) for a mere euro. Most people can be seen carrying these colorful bottles around like infants in their arm, many times with a loaf of bread in the other arm—the perfect two-euro meal!

Opening day really kicks off with a ceremony in which everyone removes the red bandana from their wrist, holds it above their head, and chants “San Fermin!” until a rocket goes off. Then, everyone cheers loudly and ties the bandana around their neck, where it is supposed to remain for the rest of the festival.

For the remainder of the day, music, dances, and parades fill every hour, as they do every day for the entire festival. Souvenir tents are everywhere, along with food and drinks of course. All shops are closed, except for a few supermarkets, which must sell more in one day during San Fermin than one entire week at any other time. Restaurants and bars are open and thriving, with bathroom lines wrapping around buildings and waiters hustling to take orders. It’s hard to imagine that Spain is in the middle of a major economic downturn.

All of this fun is leading up to 11 PM—the massive international firework contest. Each night, a different “fuego artificiales” company puts on an incredible show. Every inch of Citodel Park is covered with people sitting extremely close together, waiting for the entertainment. It is most definitely worth the wait and the claustrophobia. People stare, entranced, at the sky for nearly an hour.

July 7th is the first day that the bulls run through the streets. Six bulls and six steers (which act as herders) are released at 8 AM and runners shoot forward. Runners have to wake up extremely early to get in line, where the daredevils are supposed to be over 18, sober, and properly dressed. If you don’t line up in time, you might be one of the people running behind the bulls, which doesn’t make much sense to me, but I guess the point is to “run with the bulls” not “run from the bulls”.

If you want to get seat to watch the run, you also have to wake up quite early—the “good spots” along the street start filling up by 6 AM. Because of this, many people simply stay up all night instead of going home. The parks are covered with trash and campers. Some people come prepared with tents or sleeping bags; others simply curl up on a bench or in the grass. Many people do this simply to save hundreds of dollars—even hostels, which are usually only 20 euro a night, more than triple their prices during the festival. Not to mention, many are completely booked over a year in advance! I found a gem in Elizondo, a small town outside of the city, with AirBnB, which is similar to Couchsurfing, but with AirBnB, you pay to rent someone’s extra room.

Fences line the traditional half-mile route that the bulls take, which leads to the huge bullfighting arena, or Plaza de Toros. Many people are crouched on the fence, standing on top of garbage bins, and sitting on shoulders in order to catch a glimpse. The priceless seats, however, which everyone eyes jealously, are the small balconies above, where people leisurely stand outside, sipping coffee.

I find a decent spot somewhere in the middle of the route, but I still have to peer through bodies and over heads in order to see the street. Two ambulances sit nearby, which makes me nervous. There have been 15 deaths since 1922, the most recent in 2009, all caused by being trampled or gored by a bull’s horns. The amount of injuries is much higher—the count for this year is already six and it’s only day two of the running.

When I hear the people on the balconies start to cheer, I crane my neck and see a massive amount of runners, most of which are flying through the street at an epic speed, not looking back. However, I see some looking behind them, purposefully slowing down, waiting for a bull to get closer because they want the thrill of running right in front of or right beside a bull. The bulls are flashes of tan hide and then it’s over. The crowd goes wild for less than a minute and then the runners are out of sight, hopefully making it safely to the bullring. The entire run usually lasts for about three to four minutes.

Later in the afternoon, the bullfight takes place—matador, waving red flag, the whole deal. I didn’t go, but I wasn’t too disappointed because apparently I’ve been living in a naïve dream world—I had no idea they actually killed the bulls in front of the crowd. At least the meat is sold and eaten.

My summer voyage ended here, but the festival continues with the same schedule every day until closing day, July 14th. To make this experience even better, my birthday happens to be July 7th. Since middle school, when we read about San Fermin in Spanish class, I’ve been telling people that one day, I’d be traveling through Spain for my birthday. I was told that if I had been born in Pamplona on the same day, my parents would have named me Fermina—a tradition. I contemplated introducing myself as such during the trip, but I realized my Spanish isn’t good enough to pass as a true Fermina. Oh well, maybe next year! Until then, I’ll occasionally wear my red scarf while drinking tinto de verano, reminiscing.

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