San Fermin a.k.a. The Running of the Bulls

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The Running of The Bulls

Location: Pamplona, Spain

Dates: 6 – 14 July

Frequency: Annually

Overview

San Fermin, or the Running of the Bulls, is one of the most exciting festivals in the world. Held annually in the city of Pamplona in the northern part of Spain, the week-long festival features the iconic bull runs, bullfighting, parades, fireworks, sing in the streets, and sangria.  Lots and lots of sangria.  As the story goes, the festival is to commemorate Saint Fermin, who by some accounts met his demise by being dragged through the streets by bulls.  He was later considered a martyr by the Catholic Church and is now considered one of the patron saints for the region.

Traditionally, everyone is dressed in all white with red scarves around their necks and waist. The white is supposed to represent the saint and the red is to represent blood for his martyrdom.  Occasionally you will see blue or green scarves, but as far as I know, they don’t have a particular meaning.  And the outfit isn’t just for the runners.  As you walk the city you will see a sea of white and red.  While this attire isn’t mandatory, it helps make you feel a part of the festivities.  You can purchase everything you need once you arrive for pretty reasonable prices.

San Fermin
San Fermin

While the festival is a great time, don’t be fooled. Running with the bulls is dangerous and if you decide to do so, you are doing it at your own risk.  Several people have died over the years and countless more have been injured.  But if you still feel the need to scratch this one off the old bucket list, hopefully a few of the tips below might help you make it through.

The Opening Ceremony

The festival officially begins at 12:00 noon on 6 July. Everyone crowds around the City Hall and at noon a rocket is let off to mark the beginning of the festival.  This is usually when sangria goes flying through the air.  You may want to have more than one white outfit if you plan on attending this part of the festival, but you’ll notice a lot of people sport their sangria stains for the entire festival.  Some wear them like a badge of honor.

The Running of the Bulls

Spectators

The bulls are run down the .51 mile (825 meters) course 8 a.m. each day from the 7th until the 14th. The price for hotels with balcony access along the course is pretty steep, and getting access to the balconies may require having some connections.  There is the option of renting balconies, but keep in mind the run is over fairly quickly, and you will only get to see that portion of the course.  You can also try to find a spot along the fence line of the course, but you have to get and find your spot by no later than 6:30 a.m.  Keep in mind that the run doesn’t start until 8 a.m. The other option is to watch the run in the Plaza de Toros which is the bullfighting arena where the run ends.  This is usually your best option as you can watch the entire run on the screens in the arena, plus the events still left to follow.  After the run, several of the younger bulls are released into the arena one at a time with everyone that made it to the end of the run.  The bulls chase after the remaining runners and there is a pretty good chance that more than a couple of will get tossed around.

Bull
Bull

So You Still Want to Run?

Let me start by saying that this is not a good idea. This is a dangerous event where several people have been killed and hundreds are injured every year.  Still want to run?  Well, hopefully, the tips below can help you have a more enjoyable experience.  Did I mention that this is a bad idea?

Tip:  Don’t run on the first day.  While the bulls are a danger during the run, the biggest danger is all of the other runners and the first day typically has one of the highest number of runners.  Also, this is one of the heavier drinking days.

On the day you choose to run, you need to be at the starting point on Cuesta de Santo Domingo no later than 7:30. At this point, the local authorities will begin clearing the course of spectators.  With all of the runners gathered at the starting point, authorities will start removing anyone that may be a detriment to other runners.  This could be anyone that seems intoxicated, wearing a backpack, carrying objects, or wearing inappropriate footwear.  If you get pulled out of the run, don’t take it personally.  While this is a fun event, officials must look out for everyone’s safety (as safe as you can be with a pack of bulls rumbling down the street after you).  Once officials have cleared the course and removed the necessary runners, you can move down the course and choose your starting point.

Tip:  Scout out the course before you run it.  The bulls run at about 15 mph (24 km/h), so finishing the run from the start to finish can be difficult.  Picking the right starting point can also give you some space from the other runners, which is key because some would say that the other runners are more dangerous than the bulls.

There are two areas that runners need to be cautious of along the course.  The turn at Estafeta (“la curva”) is the first.  Sometimes the bulls and runners alike will slow down at this point and can cause some crowding.  Before there were issues with bulls and runners slipping at this point, but since then the surface has been changed and this is not as much of an issue.  However, this is still an area that runners need to be wary of.

The other area that runners need to be careful with is the entrance to the arena. Bottlenecks can form here as all of the runners attempt to funnel into the arena before the doors are closed.  At times there have been pileups where runners are injured from being trampled or caught at the bottom of the pile.  If there is a bottleneck here, it’s probably best to hang back a bit and hope that it clears.

Tip:  If you run into the arena way ahead of the bulls in an attempt to stay ahead of the bottleneck or because you don’t want to get that close to the bulls, there is a pretty good chance that you will be booed by the arena spectators.

So, you’ve finished the run, made it into the arena, and everyone is celebrating and cheering. But wait, the fun isn’t over yet.  After all of the bulls have been corralled, they will begin to let each bull out one at a time into the arena with the runners.  This is the very definition of a free for all.  With the number of people and the size of the arena, it’s not too terribly difficult to keep a safe distance from the bulls.  But if you’re more of the adventurous type, it’s still a bull and a fair amount of injuries happen during this portion as well.  Some people will crouch down and cover their heads in front of the coral doors before they let each bull out.  In theory, the bull should jump over these people when it comes out.  This is probably not a good theory to test.

Bull
Bull

Final Thoughts

San Fermin, a.k.a. The Running of the Bulls, is one of the most exciting festivals to attend around the world. Steeped in heritage and tradition, this event offers tons of fun and excitement even if you are not taking part in the actual run.  Travel to and from is fairly reasonable especially if you are already in Europe.  Flying directly into Pamplona can be rather expensive, but affordable train and bus tickets can be found from Bilboa, San Sebastián, or Madrid.  Food and lodging are also not outrageous if you plan accordingly.  If you do decide to pony up the money for a place in the heart of the city, keep in mind that you will have to do some walking as there isn’t much transportation due to the droves of people in the streets.  This probably isn’t the best event to take kids, but some people do and there are some kids friendly activities.  And while participating in the run can be quite dangerous, if you do your research and prepare properly, you can reduce some of the risk involved.  Just don’t literally take this as the opportunity to grab life by the horns.

Running of the Bulls
Running of the Bulls
San Fermin a.k.a. The Running of the Bulls

Place Name: San Fermin a.k.a. The Running of the Bulls

Place Description: It's all fun and games until they let the bulls go

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San Fermin a.k.a. The Running of the Bulls

It’s all fun and games until they let the bulls go

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Pros

Completely unique experience

Full of tradition

Parties all day and night

Cons

Crowded

 

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