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Running of the Bulls

Travelogue Entry
Tags: festival, running of the bulls
City: Pamplona, Spain
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Pamplona July 5, 1995 was the day I left for my first European vacation. I had no idea what to expect. I was meeting two of my friends in Paris. We spent about three hours there because we were catching the next train to San Sebastian, Spain. Why? We were going to see the running of the bulls! The only way I had even heard of this event was from the movie “City Slickers”. But we were going.

I have learned from being there and through research that the Fiesta San Fermin is a religious festival which honors the patron saint of Pamplona. And, like most Spanish celebrations, it is a great excuse to relive native traditions and enjoy great food and spirits annually! It starts at exactly noon on July 6 when the mayor announces, “Senores y senoras, viva San Fermin!” Or in English, let’s party! Next thing, fireworks are booming, champagne corks soaring, bands are playing and people start dancing in the streets until midnight on July 14. In San Sebastian many people approached us at the train station offering a place to sleep. We did not know what to think about this, but after we found out all of the hostels were full and most other listings in our guidebook, we decided to call back one of those people from the station that had given us her card. We negotiated a price and we had a great place to sleep in a pensione. The next day we bummed around San Sebastian still trying to meet up with a fourth friend whom we never found. But during this day we met many people who had been in Pamplona for day one of the running. We heard all kinds of stories about how great it was and where to line up, etc.

That night (July 7) we got on a midnight train to Pamplona which is about 1.5 hours away. We left all of our luggage in lockers at the train station because we had heard there would be no room in the lockers in Pamplona, and also no rooms for the night because these are booked for months in advance. We knew that half of the fun was staying up the entire night before the running to enjoy the all night party. So, that is just what we did. Everyone was wearing the same outfit; white shirt, white pants, a red waist sash and a red bandana around their neck. It was so cool. They were playing games while dancing and listening to live bands all over the city. Food and drinks were everywhere along with other types of outdoor vendors with jewelry and leather goods, etc. The children were even staying awake for the fun. By about 4:30 in the morning we were getting a little bit tired, so we went to an amusement park where we rode the ferris wheel and roller coasters and other rides. Now we were awake! And it is time to start lining up to get a good view of the event. My friends decided to watch the whole thing from inside the arena. I wanted to be on the street, just like what I had pictured from the movie. So, we made a place to meet later and parted. We had been told the day before that the crowd would be forced to move behind the second barricade. The streets are lined with two rows of barricades to guide the six 1,200 pound bulls from a corral at one end of the town to a holding pen behind the bullfight plaza for the afternoon corrida de toros (bullfight). I met some people and tried to explain to them that we could not sit on the front fence because we would be moved, they did not believe me, but sure enough, the police made us move behind the second fence. This is all around 6:30 in the morning! It was mass chaos. People everywhere, trash all on the streets, fighting for seats or standing room, and those wanting to actually run were looking for the place to line up.

Finally, after a night of partying, the much anticipated event starts at exactly 8:00 a.m. as it does for eight days straight. Brave men and some women test their courage by running ahead of the bulls, ducking into buildings or jumping over the fence when danger (bulls) approaches. Behind the second fence, it was going to be a pretty poor view. So after it started and even the police were watching the reckless people running up the street with a panic look on their faces, I crawled through the fence and climbed up onto the front one. I had two cameras on me and there was no way I was going to let this go by without getting some photographs. I straddled the fence behind another photographer wearing a press pass and began to snap away. And then suddenly, my leg was struck by a bull!!! My adrenaline went crazy because it scared me so bad, but I realized that bulls don’t know how to turn, they just follow where they are led and I was sitting on a turn! Luckily it was just the body and not a horn or I may not have left walking. Bulls run in herds and follow the path of the six steers which they let go first. The risk of being gored or trampled occurs when one bull is separated from the herd, and this is the danger that draws people to this test of manhood or womanhood. The whole thing only lasts about 3 minutes, so if you had to take a bathroom break, you would have missed it. It was great though! Three minutes of people running like crazy and jumping fences to save their life! The look of panic and terror on faces, everyone dressed alike and all they are allowed to carry for protection is a rolled up newspaper! And you can bet they are carrying these! Any protection is better than none I guess. The crowd is cheering and toasting and waving flags from their apartment balconies. This was the celebration of San Fermin. This is what I had pictured with so much more spirit and emotion that is indescribable. You have to experience this one yourself. Whether you are watching or running, you will be proud to say you have experienced this one. After the street thing is over, the bulls and people run into the arena. Only a few bulls are let back out at a time to be taunted with newspaper rolls hitting their backs while others are tempting them to charge before they hop the wall to escape the bulls. It is like a bullfight without weapons (unless the daily news counts) but it is about 1,000 to 2. This part of the event is hilarious. It is where you can really see how brave (and looney) these people are as they run around in a ring with bulls ready to charge at them! The arena is completely packed to the gills. I had to climb up a stair rail to get a view for photographs in here. This part lasted for about 30 minutes or so.

After it is all over, there is a parade! But not too many people seemed to care since they all just found the nearest spot of grass to pass out and sleep. I would hate to see their sunburned bodies in a few hours! We then got on the next bus out of town, since the train station was packed, and went back to San Sebastian to the same pensione to sleep for the rest of the day.

Ernest Hemingway made this event famous in his book “The Sun Also Rises” where he wrote, “The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences.” Hemingway has put it into words which truly describe the feeling you get when you attend the running of the bulls. Wherever you may be in Europe, extend your trip if you must, but make your way to Pamplona for an event you won’t want to miss! July 6-14.

Hint: As always, be sure to keep all of your important documents: ID, credit cards, passport, money, etc. in a money belt on you at all times, or something else hard to get to like a jacket with a big front pocket because with so many people around you at all times, you could loose something without knowing it! Also, if you plan to fall asleep outside, these things had better be well hidden or attached to you in some way that thieves cannot easily see them. For cameras, get a case that you can attach to your belt.

Written By:
Heather Greene
Atlanta, Georgia