Every year for nine days in July the San Fermin Festival takes over Pamplona, Spain filling the streets with white & red, thousands of litres of beer & sangria and an exciting kind of atmosphere that I have never experienced anywhere before. If you’re heading to San Fermin or The Running of the Bulls there are a few things that are handy to know before you arrive.
Being someone who loves animals, but also values tradition, this festival is a bit of a catch 22 for me. I know it is very controversial for many people and I definitely respect their opinions. However, whether or not you agree with the methods or purpose of the festival, it has an incredible atmosphere and is certainly rich with history and not something that you will find anywhere else but Spain.
The San Fermin Fiesta or The Running of The Bulls (as us western tourists may know it as) can date back to the 13th and 14th century where bull fights coincided with the religious ceremonies in honour of San Fermin. Now it is a festival that brings tourists from all parts of the world that literally take over the entirety of the Old Quarter Pamplona from the 6th to the 14th July every year.
The Running of The Bulls (The Encierro)
Originally as way to move the bulls from outside the city to the central bullring (for the bullfight each night), the Running of The Bulls begins every day during the festival at 8am when the church tower clock strikes. Two rockets are launched and the fighting bulls are released throughout the streets filled with tourists and locals. There are also six steers that run with the bulls every day to lead them to the ring, and three steers that are released after the original group to pick up the stragglers. The length of their run is 825m, the distance between the corral and the central bullring.
If you are looking to be a part of the run, it is recommended to arrive an hour or two early and start as close to the corral as possible. This is because the organisers will spread out the runners throughout the morning, moving them along the path. It is ideal to start half way down the 825m path in order to run with the bulls, but also make it into the bullring before the doors close allowing you to miss the ‘bullring’ part of the festival.
It is incredibly fascinating to watch the bull run from different areas if you are at San Fermin for a few days. You can station yourself somewhere along the runners path, you can decide to be a runner, or you can buy a ticket to the bullring. If you are along the path and have a good view, you can see locals lining the path fences. The spanish locals can get quite brutal if a runner (especially an over zealous tourist) tries to jump the fence to get away from a bull, they will push them back down into the line of fire.
If you choose to sit in the ring (away from the imminent danger), the pressure mounts as the moments get closer to 8am. There are large screens that build up the bulls that are going to be running that day that show their names, weight and age, preparing the crowd. The entire bullring cheers as each bull is announced. When the bulls finally reach the ring they run straight through the ring to the pen on the other side. Steers are then released periodically into the ring after this as entertainment for the crowd.
I chose not to go to the bull fights as I do think it is cruel and I did not fancy spending upwards of 30 Euro to watch six animals get killed. The bull fights are conducted each night of the festival and the bulls that ran in the morning bull run are brought to the fighting ring to face the most senior matador. The bullfighting is said to be more of a dance in which the matador executes specific moves signature to the matadors bullfighting style, and are then finally killed with a single sword thrust.
Although there is no enforced ‘dress code’, the participants of the festival do tend to go along with tradition and dress in full white (shirt & trousers) with red neck scarf (Pañuelico) and red waistband. We arrived and immediately felt out of place and rushed to find an outfit in order to fit in. Nearly every corner in Pamplona has a store open with second hand white outfits and red accessories to ensure you can fully embrace the festival traditions. Looking out over a sea of red and white is incredible and does make you feel part of something iconic.
Night Life/ Fiesta
After the morning bull run and the evening bull fight, the city continues with a crazy nightlife as the streets line with locals and tourists all ready to party, eat, drink and dance. Our group discovered the litre ‘worlds best sangria’ jugs that could be bought at every convenience store for only €2.50 very early on and consumed far too many throughout the festival. Despite the name, it was definitely NOT the world’s best Sangria, but did the trick for tourists wanting a cheap drink.
Every night of the festival there are world class fireworks creating a competition that is awarded after San Fermin ends. Each night a new pyrotechnical team designs an incredible fireworks show to end the night and light up the night sky. I can vouch that they were pretty amazing, and watching thousands of people, all dressed the same, all hyped up on beer and sangria and filled with adrenaline and the excitement of both the festival and being in a new city, really does create a ‘pinch me’ moment that you know you would never get if you had stayed home.