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The Running of the Bulls

Author: vagabondginger (More Trip Reviews by vagabondginger)
Date of Trip: July 2016



THE RUNNING OF THE BULLS July 11, 2016 by vagabondginger

The Festival of San Fermin or “the Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona, Spain opens at noon on July 6th followed by 8 days of bulls runs until it closes on July 14th of each year. The bulls that run each morning at 8am will be in the bullfights later at 6pm. This event is hundreds of years old and altho there are many such bull festivals all over Spain, Pamplona is the most famous due to Ernest Hemingway’s book “The Sun Also Rises” published in 1926. Since then this festival has attracted thousands of people from all over the world.

My daughter and I took the train from Madrid on July 10th and stayed at Hotel Burlada, which was booked many months in advance. I chose this hotel because the manager spoke English and buses nearby ran often to the city center, but it was also walkable. The room was nothing special but rates on all hotels are hiked up during the festival time.

We immediately changed and headed off to the city street party going on all day and all night for the whole festival. Everyone is wearing white with red bandanas around their necks. (We got ours beforehand on-line, but they can be bought there). It’s such a cool thing to be joining in the festivities. We also reserved spots on an apartment balcony many months ahead of time, so with beers in hand we scoped out where our balcony was located for watching the next morning’s run. Then we walked the streets from the corral where the bulls would be released to the bull ring where the run ends, a distance of just 1/2 mile with a couple of curves. Along the way we met many people, some who were staking out their plans for the run. The runners are not just a bunch of crazy young drunks, they take it seriously as they know the risks.

But meanwhile there is much merriment, music, dancing & drinking. There are huge amounts of trash, some get into spraying each other with sangria but probably even worse things happening cause the stickiness under our shoes. Occasionally have to step around someone sleeping it off right where they fell. At one point we joined a parade with a band and banner carriers heading to the bull ring. We stopped at a beer stand and met people who had 2 tickets to the bullfight that they weren’t going to use so they gave them to us free. All tickets were sold out & scalpers were selling them outside at inflated prices. We had not planned on going to the bullfight as we had gone to one in Madrid a few years ago. We got right in for the 6pm start and altho we were pleased with the seats being on the shade side, we were among the more serious spectators. Across the arena in the “sun” seats were all the bands & their instruments, partiers with buckets of beer and sangria on ice that they brought in and most weren’t even facing the ring.

The best bulls from various ranches thru-out Spain are brought to Pamplona to make for an exciting event. Certain ranches breed bulls with characteristics to make them brave and aggressive. The bulls are raised 4-6 years in rural pastures with no human contact. These Spanish Fighting Bulls get to a weight of at least 1,300 lbs. and have longer horns than other breeds.

Bullfights have a lot of pomp and pageantry, but also passion and drama with protesters. We do not condone or condemn but feel much like Hemingway did in his book “Death in the Afternoon” that it’s part of Spain’s tradition. Someday it may be outlawed.

We found the great asador restaurant Zaldiko for dinner but it was 9pm before it opened, so we enjoyed mojitos while waiting We had excellent meat cooked over a wood fire. During the whole festival there is a nightly international fireworks competition so to cap off our first day was a spectacular fireworks show at 11pm lasting 45 minutes.

July 11th - my birthday- and we are up very early and dashing out the hotel door to catch a bus down to the plaza as we have the reserved spots on an apartment balcony. This is the best way to see the running of the bulls. The owners of these apartments make money and can be elsewhere during the festival as the agents take care of the bookings and have the keys. Streets are being cleared 6:30-7am so we are escorted up to our first floor balcony on Estafela Street, the longest stretch of the run following Dead Man’s Curve. We watch the preparations below as streets are swept and washed, police set up barriers and order people off. Runners must be 18 and sober so they are not a risk to themselves or others. Lots of Red Cross medics are in place between the double fences, shop and bar doors are closed. Everywhere on the balconies up to 4 stories high on each side of the street are people wearing the white clothes and red bandanas as are the runners behind the barrier, quite the colorful sight.

Excitement is building as police now allow the runners to spread out along the route. At 8am the sound of the first rocket signals the corral gate is open, a second rocket sound means all the bulls are out. Six bulls are released along with six steers wearing cowbells.

Bulls are most savage when they get separated so having the slower steers behind them is suppose to keep them together. But it doesn’t always work. A couple of days before we arrived a bull stopped, turned around and tried to run back, then became very angry and gored and trampled some runners who were seriously injured. Pastores (bull shepherds) are along the route with long sticks to try to get the bulls moving when this happens.

When a runner falls, they know to just curl up as it’s better to be trampled than gored. There is much pushing and tripping as “macho” runners want to be in front and then jump out of the way. Many carry rolled newspapers to wave at the bulls. If they are not quick enough they may be the headline on the next day’s paper. Runners probably only experience 20 seconds near the bull and try to touch them. But even Usain Bolt would not be able to outrun these bulls. So watching them on the street below us went very quickly and it was a pretty clean run. There was a problem with a bull falling on top of some runners in the tunnel leading into the bull ring and we saw that on TV in the apartment. The whole run is televised live with cameras running on wires above the streets and then replays follow. Each time you watch you see something different happening as it’s all so fast. Some runners do wear distinctive colored shirts so they can pick themselves out when watching the replays later. The photographs in the newspapers are almost chilling. A third rocket firing signals all the bulls are in the ring, then the fourth rocket means they are in the pens and the run is over. The average run is only about 3 minutes unless there are problems along the way. We did hear many ambulances as there are always injuries.

Since 1924 there have been only 15 deaths so most of the runners do make it, the bulls of course do not.

It was an experience and a spectacle unlike any other and the adventure of being there made me feel very alive on that July morning of my birthday and that may not have been true if I had actually tried to run with the bulls.

To learn more or reserve a balcony for next years run go to runningofthebulls.com Ole’

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