Summer In Spain Part 3: The Festival of San Fermin

It was 10:00 PM when myself and most of the staff from Martin Berasategui rolled into Pamplona on the bus from San Sebastián on a cool July evening. We hit the streets of the famed Basque city ready for anything. The town was busy with locals and tourists from all over the globe looking to stake their claim on Pamplona fame. White and red were the standard garb for those brave souls intending on running the next morning.

Every evening before the run is a celebration. There is a carnival with rides, games, food and a fireworks show.  Disc jockeys and bars pop up right in the street. Dancing and drinking go throughout the night in anticipation of the morning’s’ suicidal run through Pamplona.  The crew from Martin spent the evening drifting from bar to street party most of the night. One of our group got into a brief fistfight but nothing major. Eventually we ended up at a bar near the town center. After quite a bit of drinking everyone formed a large circle in the bar, and with arms locked around each other’s shoulders, we started dancing. Round and round we danced and laughed like a giant dizzying ring. No one dared approach, lest they be knocked down.

You Americans are like homeless people, Max said to me, as he made me a sandwich with food he had gleaned from the restaurant. I hadn’t brought any food, water or even a jacket with me on this trip. He was right. For the most part, Americans aren’t great when they’re away from the comfort of home. I sat huddled together in a park with the other stagiaires, eating my sandwich and freezing my butt off. At one point I actually had to put my head down in my arms and visualize the warm sun in order to distract me from being so miserably cold.

La fiesta de San Fermin, a.k.a. the running of the bulls, runs through the Parte Viejo of Pamplona. Metal plates are removed from the ground, large wooden posts are inserted and horizontal beams are secured to make the pathway that separate the bulls and their spectators. In certain sections there is a second fence that runs parallel to the other, creating an aisle designated for police and paramedics stationed along the route with stretchers to pull away the unlucky runners that couldn’t beat the bulls. Large metal panels are attached to the sides of  buildings to cover windows, preventing the bulls from crashing through. On the morning of the run the streets and balconies are awash in a sea of color designed to attract a most unforgiving animal.

The running of the bulls

The chaos started mid-morning. The beefy fences are crammed with excited spectators cheering on the runners that are packed at one end like the beginning of a marathon.  The cobblestone streets of Pamplona’s Parte Viejo can be extremely narrow in some places, If you go down in those cramped sections you’ll be trampled by humans first, then the bulls.

So it begins, the runners snake their way through the streets. Some stop to wait, looking for an opportunity to engage.  Others trot slowly, glancing warily behind them in nervous anticipation of being gored by two thousands pounds of angry animal.  Danny and I station ourselves near the entrance to the stadium, a spot well known for its bottleneck.

The first wave of bulls passes through and deposit themselves in the bullring. Runners afraid to enter the arena with the bulls hover at the entrance. Little do they know that the bulls come in two waves. The second wave approaches the runners below us at the mouth of the stadium entrance. Trapped between two groups of angry bulls the runners start to panic. You could feel the fear in your stomach. People started shouting, some tried in vain to scramble up the tall stone walls that surrounded them.  People shout “por aqui!” Signaling them to run into the stadium, joining the first wave of and those brave and foolish enough to taunt the bulls. They dart in to escape their fate and scatter, climbing fences in the arena to join the safety of the cheering crowd. 

Danny and I make our way into the stadium to watch people dance with the bulls inside the arena. Spectators jump into the arena floor to tempt the bulls into chasing them. We settle into our seats in the packed stadium and the crowd roars as one unlucky runner gets thrown into the air on the head of a bull but lands on his feet and dives over a fence to safety. Eventually the bulls are led out of the stadium and the crowd begins to exit. The next part was the scariest for me.

Thousands of people begin to exit at once through small corridors. People are cramped so tightly that I could barely move my upper body and it actually became slightly difficult to breathe. Danny and I are pulled apart by the surging crowd. As we slowly move towards the exit I lose my footing but didn’t fall because there is basically no where to go. I grab onto strangers and am dragged along in this compressed mass of humanity with my feet barely scraping along the ground. It was like being suffocated in the open air. Thankfully we made it to one of the large corridors on the perimeter of the stadium and everybody started to separate.

I found Danny outside waiting for me and we made our way through town along the fences. We came across several unfortunate people that had been trampled and were being tended to by paramedics. Finally we made it to the bus stop and bought our tickets home. Exhausted, we plopped down on the sidewalk outside of the bus station to take a nap and wait for our bus to take us home, to San Sebastián.

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