Fiesta de San Fermin: Spain’s Annual Running of the Bulls

After our day spent in Bilbao, we went to bed early in the hopes of a smooth execution of our plan of waking up at 3am and driving southwest towards Pamplona for the Fiesta de San Fermin, most widely known as the running of the bulls. Weeks in advance, we booked balcony seats to watch the running of the bulls from above. Every year, owners of the apartments along the route of the run will open up their homes to tourists or local spectators so that they can watch from the balconies. We actually should have booked months in advance because tickets were very pricey, but we decided that it was an opportunity too good to miss and bought the tickets anyway. We were supposed to watch over the “dead man’s curve,” a sharp corner with a slightly downward slope that tended to provoke a lot of action.

We laid our traditional outfits out the night before–head to toe in white with red bandanas, belts, and other accessories. Needless to say, despite all of the preparation, we woke up in a flurried rush as we scrambled to pack our bags and shower in the middle of the night, adding bloodshot eyes to our red/white outfit mix. But we made it to Pamplona safe and sound by 5AM, driving into streets crowded with people and noise. We even found a parking spot right away in a large garage!

But as we got out of the car and made our way to the ground floor of the parking garage, a rude awakening awaited us. Boozed-out teens lay strewn along the steps of the garage. The place reeked of a rancid odor, coming from the walls and the ground which were covered in an unidentifiable mix of liquids. We finally got outside and saw that the large, open field of grass adjacent to the parking garage was entirely covered in trash. Never in my life have I ever seen this much public littering! It was probably the last place I wanted to be while dressed in an entirely white outfit–ironic. As we tried our best to avoid broken glass that glittered across entire sidewalks, we made our way to the main square.

Under the yellow glow of the street lamps were hundreds of people out partying until dawn. Every discoteca was thumping loud music, while almost everyone’s white outfits were splashed with red sangria or tinto de verano. Because we got there only on the second day since the beginning of the week-long fiesta, the partying was going stronger than ever. Everyone was really friendly and just wanted to have a good time.
Soon, the sun began rising and everyone who had been partying throughout the entire night began going home, and those who replaced them on the streets were the runners, sharp from a good night of rest and mental preparation. Big trucks rolled through the streets and moved the trash to the sides by spraying strong water. Though it moved the trash out of the way, it actually added another dangerous element to the run because both runners and the bulls were more likely to slip and fall.

Finally, we made it to the apartment that we booked! They were very accommodating Spaniards who had set out breakfast for us. The views from the balcony were perfect. We even chatted with runners who wanted us to take their photo and send it to them via their email, which they yelled up to us as we typed it into our smartphones and sent it to them instantly (oh, technology..).

Us in our traditional outfits, waiting for the run to begin.

Spectators filling the balconies.

The news coverage was already playing on TV as runners slowly filled the street below us. Soon, all we could see was a sea of people in white and red. Spectators who didn’t book a balcony climbed the wooden fences that bordered the running path to get a view, while others climbed small trees. One man even climbed up the piping on the side of an apartment complex, all the way up to a balcony, and we watched a whole dramatic episode of the house owner, an 80-something year old woman, who was infuriated an shooed him off while he begged and pleaded with her to let him stay. We knew that things were going to get crazy when we saw the paramedics drove up and started setting up stretchers and medical supplies.
Soon, our friend Ken (also an American who studied as a part of our degree program) found our apartment and joined the runners below us. He held up a newspaper for us to see, and the front page was about a man who had been gored by a bull by the running the day before. I started feeling really nervous and antsy even though I was just a spectator. I had no idea what to expect, and the idea that I could see someone get seriously injured or even killed in front of me really scared me!

Before the run began, everyone chanted a prayer to Saint (San) Fermin three times to ask him for protection during the run. The first canon goes off to signal that the bulls have been let out from their corral. A second canon then goes off to signal that the last bull has left their corral. The entire circuit is only about three minutes long, and the end of the route is at the Plaza de Toros, or the bullfighting ring, where the bulls will later be slaughtered. The runners and the bulls enter the bull fighting ring which is booming with the cheers of spectators who fill the stands. People usually start running too early and never see the bulls at all, while the ones who crave more danger start running when they actually see the bulls in the distance.
And then we saw them; six fighting bulls charging through the streets while runners panicked and stuck their bodies up against a wall or ran ahead as fast as they could. To our horror, a man fell down while a bull was coming up right behind him. They say that the best advice for someone who falls in front of a storming bull is to lay flat on the ground and cover their heads. That’s exactly what the man did as the bull tripped over him, lost balance, and then regained it as it continued running. And just as quickly as they came, they rounded the corner and were gone. We finished watching the run on TV, and fortunately no one was seriously injured. There was a loud gasp as a bull’s horn got caught in someone’s shirt and consequently, the person was thrown around a bit and carried for a distance, but other than that, I think the most that the runners ended up with were cuts and bruises.

I had mixed feelings about the run. The bulls seemed scared and bewildered more than anything else, and it felt unjust that they were being thrown onto the streets surrounded by chaos and screaming just for pure entertainment. The bulls avoided stepping on people just as must as they didn’t want to be stepped on, but in all the commotion, it seemed like their animal instincts kicked in and they began lashing out. But at the same time it was cool to see that old traditions were still being kept alive, to the point that it is now out of context; it seems bizarre in this modern day and age.

After the run was over, we left the apartment and saw the aftermath in broad daylight:
Although we wanted to do some more exploring, it was a Sunday so we knew almost everything would be closed, and we wanted to get out of the sea of trash ASAP! So within a few minutes we got in the car and were on our way back home to Madrid.

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