San Fermin, Pamplona: Nine hot days of bull-runs and debauchery
The quiet Spanish city where I live turns to chaos every July
Think Paddy’s day, think Forbidden Fruit, think Electric Picnic, think Glastonbury. What do they all have in common? The sense of letting go, cutting loose and enjoying the moment. It’s the same here at the San Fermin festival in Pamplona. It’s the one time of the year that Pamplona in northern Spain hits the headlines. Sounds great doesn’t it? It is, sort-of; if nine hot, humid days of bull-runs and debauchery are your thing.
So what brought this Irishman here? Once the economy tanked at home in 2008 I was out of a job, having worked in finance for three years. I took the chance and fled with my new girlfriend (now wife) to Pamplona for a whole new experience. I taught English for about three years (a booming industry in the middle of a recession, who knew?) but that was never going to satisfy me long-term so I went home and finished my studies. I stayed and worked at home for a while in IT, but I always had my finger on the pulse here and once an IT job came available I was back.
So now, between my goings and comings I’ve lived in Pamplona for four years, that’s four festivals. Each year, my time at the festival has reduced and reduced. But before I try to explain why, let me tell you a little about Pamplona outside of the 6th to 14th of July.
She’s a quiet and quite reserved place. A place steeped in medieval culture, long-held traditions and unusual oddities. Her people are equally quiet and reserved. We consider us Irish to be a proud nation but the “Pamplonicas” really take it to another level and nothing is more important than the San Fermin for them. It’s bigger than Christmas. These quiet people become a different breed at San Fermin. They completely lose the head. And it’s great! But once the 14th is done and the final song is sung, it’s time to lock it all up until the 6thcomes round again next July.
The history of the festival itself dates back centuries and is in honor of Saint Fermin, born in Pamplona. Up until the early 1900s the festival didn’t stand out as anything particularly special. It took the writings of Ernest Hemingway to change all that. He first visited Pamplona and the festival in 1923 and kept coming back right into the 50s; San Fermin was the inspiration for his novel The Sun Also Rises. Once the literary genius gave it his stamp of approval, the “guiris” (“bloody foreigners”) came in their hordes, increasing year on year.
The celebrations for the saint himself take a backseat in comparison to the main event, the bull-runs. But every day from noon to 2pm, a sizable parade comparable in its makeup to the St Patrick’s Day parades in Ireland, snakes its way through the streets. The locals love it and kids go crazy. It makes for a pleasant break and a good excuse to give the booze a rest, which flows freely for the remainder of the day and night.
The shining light that makes San Fermin is obviously the bull-run, the “encierro”. Its origins are quite simple really; the need to get livestock from farm to market. As bulls tend to be hefty, unpredictable beasts they were generally herded as quickly as possible. Young men being young men, they saw an opportunity to prove their masculinity by running in front of them to earn bragging rights, and so a tradition was born.
Nowadays each run consists of about 10 animals, six main bulls and three or four steers to help keep the group together. The six bulls that run each day are put to death in bullfights in the afternoon of the same day. Each run takes place at 8am and takes about two minutes. If stragglers get separated then a few more steers are released to round them up on the route. The run ends in the bullring and running bulls are removed. Then six young bulls are released individually into the ring with their horns capped to charge the hundreds of runners who remain there. Do a fancy jump over one of these bulls and you´ll forever have the crowd’s admiration.
Have I ever been up close with the beasts? Absolutely not! I have a wife and if the bulls didn’t kill me, she might.
Every year there are multiple injuries, and sometimes even death. As outsiders, we look on and think the participants must be cracked, and wonder how on earth the authorities continue to allow this sort of thing. But this is Pamplona, this is tradition, and that’s pretty much the end of it. Not that there isn’t empathy with those who suffer. A young man who was gored to death on the run a few years ago. The mayor of Pamplona went to his funeral where the family told her to return to Pamplona, that she had a festival to run. T
So, does everyone in Pamplona go nuts for nine days straight? No, nobody who is from here or lives here does. For most, the threshold would the first two days, before they leave Pamplona for holidays to get away from the fetid stink of the place, which infects every nook and cranny.
Personally, I love the night of the 5th. The anticipation in the air is palpable. Walking around the old part as all the bars gear up for the 24-hour openings, and the barriers are put in place for bull-runs, is really special. The place hasn’t gone to ruin yet.
The absolute low point is the weekend the festival inevitably falls on, when everyone within striking distance (and further beyond) comes flocking to Pamplona. The city itself has a population of about 300,000, but that number has been known to scratch the 1.5 million mark during the weekend. Chaos; there’s no other word for it.
Pamplona is one of the safest places I’ve been to in my life; its quiet nature gives it an air of tranquility and security. That all changes during the festival. Girls are ill-advised to go anywhere by themselves, wallets are left at home and cash goes in the socks. For a city that requires little to no self-awareness year-round you really need to grow eyes in the back and sides of your head now.
Perhaps I’m giving San Fermin a bit of a hard time. The cultural events, the concerts, the bull-run and the parades are all great fun, and its history is intriguing. I was lucky to have my dad over for the first day and that really made this year a special one for me. He was completely blown away by it all. I’ve been out again and went in to see the bull-run this morning. But like most people here, I’m done and wishing for the end.