A First Timer's Guide To The Running Of The Bulls Festival In Pamplona, Spain
If there's one thing I found to be true about Spain, it is that they take their parties seriously. All over Spain and especially throughout the summer season, you'll see fiestas left and right. The Running of the Bulls festival is just one of them... and it also happens to be one of the biggest all over the country.
Referred to by the locals as Sanfermines, the festival is held every year for a week between the 6th and 14th of July in Pamplona in Northern Spain.
It is said that the origin of the practice of herding the bulls to the ring dates back centuries earlier when bulls were taken to the market to be sold from the farms where they're bred. The bulls were provoked by the herders to make them run faster, and this practice became more popular and has turned into a hallmark of the festival of San Fermin, Pamplona's patron saint.
Interested in experiencing the Spanish fiesta in Pamplona? Here's a list of what first timers should experience and expect during the infamous festival.
The festivities start with the txupinazo, or rocket launch, which happens at 12 noon on the first day of the week-long celebrations.
The people gather in Plaza Consistorial a few hours before noon, drinking wine and champagne as they wait anxiously for the lanzador de txupinazo (the person chosen to launch the rocket) to come out in the balcony around noon. The lanzador then lights the rocket as the clock strikes 12, signalling the start of the festival. This ceremony is televised and is viewed by millions of people all over Spain.
The txupinazo can get really crowded, so having children tag along is unsafe and impractical. There are large screens available in squares around town, where elderly and families can watch the txupinazo more comfortably.
Encierro comes from the Spanish word encerrar, or to keep enclosed. At 8 am every day during the week-long festival, the bulls are herded by hundreds of runners, or mozos, on an 846-meter run to the bullring on a fenced path. This is inarguably the most famous yet dangerous activity during the San Fermin festival.
The encierro starts at the Corral de Santo Domingo and passes through Mercaderes, Calle Estafeta, and onto the bullring. Runners have to be inside the fenced area half an hour before the encierro starts.
There's no registration required for those who wish to participate, but do know that this is not something to be taken lightly. There has already been more than a dozen fatalities ever since the festival commenced and your safety cannot be assured if you decide to go on with it.
There's also quite a number of people who show up for the encierro under the influence of alcohol, so the local government has called on the help of the police and some volunteers to make sure that those who actually end up within the fenced area are sober, able, and fully aware of the risks they are undertaking.
Bullfights are scheduled throughout the day every day during festival week. Tickets are sold at the bullring's ticket office a day before the scheduled fight.
It is worth noting that although still popular in certain parts of Spain, bullfighting is a hotly debated topic in the country. Many regions such as Cataluña and Canary Islands have moved to ban what has been called a barbaric and cruel practice, although many supporters claim that it is a cultural heritage that has to be preserved.
On the 7th of July, an image of the patron saint San Fermin is brought to the streets for an hour and a half from the Church of San Lorenzo accompanied by band players and the the paper-maché gigantes (giants) and cabezudos (big-heads).
Traditional basque games And dances.
The festival is also made alive with traditional Basque games at Plaza de los Fueros in the mornings. These include fronton (hand ball), aizkolaris (tree chopping), sokatira (tug-of-war), and harrijasotzailes (stone lifting). Meanwhile, traditional dances are performed every day by locals and professional performers alike at the main squares all over town.
Cabezudos and Gigantes.
Children and families look forward to the daily parades of the giants and big-heads as they go around town twirling and dancing to the beat of band music. Some of these paper-maché figures are called kilikis, chasing the young ones around and bopping their heads with a soft ball on a stick. They surely help amp up the festive mood!
Sanfermines has a way of making everybody go into a drinking frenzy. You'll find people both in bars and in the streets, with beer, sangria, or kalimotxo (a strangely delicious mix of bad wine and Coca Cola) in hand. To get into proper party mood, head over to the bars along Calle Estafeta. You can also go to the all-time favorites Cafe Iruña or Casino Eslava, both located in the huge Plaza Castillo.
A Spanish fiesta isn't complete without live music. During the Sanfermines, you'll sure to find concerts every day during the whole week in any of the main squares around town:
- Plaza de los Fueros
- Plaza del Castillo
- Plaza de la Cruz
- Plaza Consistorial
Every day during Sanfermines, at around 11pm, the people gather to watch the fireworks at the Ciudadela.
For a complete list of activities, head over to the Sanfermines official page.
How To Prepare For Your SanFermines Trip
Wear something white and red.
This isn't a must, but something that first timers are keen to do. After all, it's not every day that we get to party this hard! I bought my Sanfermines outfit when I arrived at the bus station, but you can always opt to rummage through your clothes and find something red and white.
Book your flights, transportation, and accommodations way ahead of time.
I underestimated how crowded Sanfermines could get... and I paid highly for it! I thought showing up without reservations wouldn't be a problem, only to find out everything was booked except for two insanely expensive hotels. I ended up sleeping in the bus station's underground. So booking your accommodations well in advance is a must if you wish to experience Sanfermines. You can head over to booking.com to scout for hostels in Pamplona.
You can also opt to stay in accommodations in nearby towns like Puente la Reina if you find yourself booking last minute. There are regular buses going to and from Pamplona. My friend Cesar stayed at Albergue Jakue for less than 15 euros a night... not a bad deal at all! I also stayed here during my weekend Camino de Santiago trip and loved how homey and clean it was.
I said it already and I'll say it again... Sanfermines is a proper Spanish fiesta. You'll have to be ok maneuvering through and being surrounded by thousands of people. You'll also have to be ready to get your clothes stained with sweat and alcohol, so there's no point in getting all dressy. My tip is to pack light and only include items that you don't really mind spilling a kalimotxo or two.
There's a left luggage office at the City Hall where you can leave your belongings for 4,50 euros/day. You'll need to show your passport or NIE (foreigner's identity card), afterwhich they'll issue you a slip that you need to keep and show when claiming your luggage.
Be prepared for the cold.
When we hear Spain, we'll most probably imagine ourselves enjoying a pleasantly warm climate. While there's a grain of truth in that, temperatures can drop drastically in these areas, too... so it's always better to bring a light jacket and a pair of thicker trousers just in case this happens and you're caught outside partying all night.
Get up early.
If you want to get a good spot for the running of the bulls or encierro, you have to be there early. You can secure your place anywhere along the trail of the bull run, with most people staying behind or atop the safety fence. The run officially starts at 8 am, but we were there at around 6am and even found the area already filling up with people.
Take it easy on the alcohol.
Pamplona's San Fermin Festival is one of the craziest there is out there - crazy good and crazy bad. Everyone's in the mood to party and suddenly feels entitled to get drunk. You'll see people passed out on the streets or falling off the fence during the bullrun (true story!).
While this can turn into a funny story afterwards, the risks are real. Sanfermines is fun and all that, but there's also physical injuries, sexual assault, and stolen wallets. Stay sober (or tipsy, if you can´t help it) and safe.
Read "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway for some inspiration.
This literary classic features the San Fermin festival of which Hemingway is a fan. This can serve as a great inspiration for your trip.
Ever been to Pamplona's Running of the Bulls festival? Or are you just planning for your upcoming trip? Share with us your favorite things about this fiesta in the comments below.
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