Europe, Off the beaten path, save money on travel, Spain, Travel, Weird Festivals

Surviving the Encierro of San Fermin (Running with the Bulls) in Pamplona, Spain

I had the opportunity to cover the Encierro with a press pass. Here is my tale of observing at the front lines.

Hitting the pavement of old, downtown Pamplona, Spain on a morning like this  is different. Amidst the smells of crisp, summer air, are the smells of anticipation, excitement, and perhaps a lack of showering from the beginning of what will be 204 hours of endless fiesta. At 6 a.m. on July the 7th, people donning all-white attire with red bandanas tied around their necks and waists are already lining up to see it: the opening day of the Encierro- the running of the bulls. For some, it is the first time, for others, it is a tradition that has been passed down for generations. Either way, people from all over the globe are gathered to witness an invigorating event that can be best appreciated in person.

Even before dawn breaks, faithful Encierro fans gather around the fences of the Bull Running path.

The path of the Bull Run was never made for the faint of heart. Around the corner of the Plaza de Consistorial, past the broken bottles and spilled liquor from the night before, a rustling of men and women can be heard, gathering courage and comradery for the dangerous trek ahead. Some have cameras strapped to their heads while others have emptied everything out of pockets in preparation for possible, and probable, falls.

It is in the Plaza Consistorial that the festival officially begins with a mayor-powered firework the day before the run. It is where red bandanas are tied around necks to signal the start of something only Hemmingway could describe when he wrote, “Each time he enters into the terrain of the bull he is in great danger.” in his book, The Sun Also Rises (Chapter 18). Great danger is no joke. Dozens of people have lost their lives in the Enceirro. The bulls have sharp horns, and stop for no one until they reach the final destination: the Bull Ring. It is where ultimately, they will meet matadors who will fight them to the death.

As the morning creeps on, medical teams meet and prepare their equipment and nerves for the plethora of injuries that will likely occur. A surgeon waits, on site, inside the Bull Ring. Today, there were several injuries, most minor, but two required hospitalization.

7:30- The Pastores, or bull herders, walk out of the bull ring making the backward journey along the route into the corrals where the bulls wait 800 meters away. Carrying sticks, they walk by with pride, proud to be a part of both tradition and mystery.

After waiting almost two hours the staggering crowd has now turned into hundreds of thousands of eager Encierro fans, waiting for that big moment when the bulls are released from their holding pen to run amongst thousands of brave men and women, risking their lives for a rush of adrenaline that some call life-changing.

The police form a line and begin walking towards the bull pen, followed by a street sweeper ridding the streets of dangerous “fiesta debris” to help the bulls and runners on their 800-meter journey.

7:55- the gargantuan crowd is almost silent as anticipation builds deeper for the big event. Something is coming around the corner at the “home stretch” near the entrance of the Bull Ring. It’s the mayor, and he is rightfully walking very quickly into the stadium, waving and smiling with his entourage of officials, policeman, and bodyguards. Runners prepare, near the holding pen, by chanting a traditional prayer, asking for help on their run from San Fermin, Pamplona’s own saint.

Then, it happens. 8:00 a.m., on the dot, a firework is heard, followed by a roar that sounds similar to a tidal wave, rising as it goes. A second firework is sounded to signify that all the bulls have left their holding pen. Suddenly, a flash of red and white runners come sprinting past as the crowd cheers violently. About one minute later, three black bulls slam a gaggle of runners into and over the safety fence. Some fall and hold their heads while others desperately cling to life while rolling with all their might towards safety under the fence. A few brave souls charge ahead of the bulls with determination on their faces. A few more bulls and runners speed by, entering the stadium. One man gets his shirt snagged by a horn and is dragged all the way into the Bull Ring. Thirty seconds later, three more bulls pour into the center of the route while runners either sprint or take cover. A flock of runners sprint behind them to ensure a spot in the sandy bottom of the Bull Ring so they can extend the feelings of glory. Then the gates are closed.

Inside, the Encierro Bulls are rounded up and concealed for the later fight. A few other “tamer” bulls are released and playfully head buck tired runners into the air. The stadium is so packed that cheers cannot be heard, but thunder as the runners “play” with the bulls in the ring.

After all is finished, runners walk away new men and women, having endured something that could have killed them. For right around two minutes, they ran amongst beasts and lived to tell the tale. Most had battle wounds for souvenirs and bragging rights back home. The first Encierro of San Fermin is done. Now let the rest of the 204-hour fiesta commence!

Click here to see the running of the bulls in action!

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