A man lies squealing on the floor in the fetal position while a 1,300-pound (590kg) bull prods him with huge terrifying horns. Another man stands behind, pulling at the bull’s tail in a vain attempt to attract its attention. Another bull has a third spectator pinned against a stockade wall while people clamber over the same wall frantic to escape. Hundreds of men in white pants and red neckerchiefs mill around in a commotion of fear and excitement as a line of dark, angry beasts hoof their way through the parting crowd. The famous Running of the Bulls in Pamplona is underway.
The brave, the insane, and the very drunk spill out into the narrow cobbled streets of this northern Spanish city every July for an 8-day orgy of singing, dancing, goring, and trampling. They are celebrating San Fermin, patron saint of wine merchants, which is fitting considering the amount of alcohol that is consumed during the course of the festival. Thousands converge here for a festival of fireworks, processions, music, and bullfighting. The actual bull running is takes places when the animals are moved in the morning from their corral in the outskirts of town, through the streets to the bullring for almost certain death in the afternoon. Barriers are erected and six steers (castrated males) join the six aggressive (in-tact) bulls as they run in a herd through the streets in the early morning, taking approximately 4 minutes to cover the half-mile. Generally the bulls ignore the crowds and make straight for the stadium. However, if one becomes separated from the rest, all hell breaks loose. It becomes disorientated and attacks anything that moves, often running the wrong way and tossing spectators in the air. Hundreds of people are injured every year and there are 15 recorded deaths since records began in 1924.
The festival has been running since 1591 and is not unusual in the sense that bull running (known as encierro to the locals) takes place all over Spain, parts of Southern France, and Latin America. Pamplona is, however, the most prestigious, made famous by Hemingway and beamed across the world for its dramatic photos and near-death experiences. It is no wonder that the casualty list every year has a strong international flavor. It’s nearly impossible to get a hotel room during the festival, so hundreds sleep in the park and streets during the day. They party all night and spill out onto the streets in the early morning for the daily run at 8am. Anybody can participate but you must register before 7:30am. Viewers arrive as early as 6am to get a good spot. Utter drunkenness is prohibited and indeed there is nothing more sobering than seeing a raging tank of meat and horn bearing down on top of you. Runners are also not allowed to provoke the animals, nor run the wrong way.
The cruel nature of bullfighting has meant the running of the bulls is controversial. The animal rights organization PETA conducts a Running of the Nudes through the streets the week preceding the festival in a light-hearted protest at the event. Yet there is no doubting Pamplona’s popularity and the fear factor that attracts thousands for this carnival of carnage.
When to Go: July 6–July 14.
Bilbao (169km/104 miles).
$$ AH San Fermin Suites, Avda. Villava 90 ( 34/948/136-000; www.ahsanfermin.com). $$ Hotel Europa, Espoz y Mina 11 ( 34/948/221-800; www.hreuropa.com).