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excerpt from Wasted Away: The Worldwide Party Guide, Pride-Frost Press, 1997

by Scott Stavrou  

Running With The Bulls in Pamplona, Spain
La Fiesta de San Fermin


For over six centuries now, the Spanish have held gala festivals involving bulls, dancing and voluminous consumption of cheap red wine. Pamplona, a small town in the northern part of Spain hosts the wildest and most famous of all these festivals -- La Fiesta De San Fermin (Spanish for "let's all get really wasted and let the bulls chase us through the streets.") -- which undoubtedly ranks as one of the most exciting and fun-filled weeks anywhere on earth. Today getting chased around the streets of Pamplona by large, angry, tourist-hating bulls is one of Spain's most glorious traditions.

The second week of July is dedicated to the Running of the Bulls, which first gained world attention with Hemingway's classic that you were supposed to read freshmen year, The Sun Also Rises. The celebration is dedicated to Pamplona's Saint Fermin who was martyred when bulls dragged him through the streets. Rumor has it that St. Fermin was kind of a booze hound. Nonetheless, he was a real trend-setter because now tens of thousands of people flock to Pamplona each year to be chased through the same streets by bulls, and very few of them (at most recent count: zero) are even granted sainthood for their troubles. The point here is, that if you aspire to sainthood, go hang out with Mother Theresa in Calcutta. If you want to have a great time, go to Pamplona.

Though the centerpiece of the festival is the running of the bulls, it is in truth quite dangerous and many have been killed since Hemingway first attended the festivities in 1924. If you run be well-aware that you are taking on a senseless risk just to have a great time. There are thousands of people who go just for the partying and the electric feeling that permeates the very being of Pamplona. Though if you're not a real wimp, or not too bright (at least not any brighter than the author) you'll drink too much red wine, meet some girls you want to show off for or some guys that are going to run and end up running as well. You only live once, right? Of course, you only die once too. Except for Shirley MacLaine. Girls, keep in mind that this is a Spanish rite of manhood which they take very seriously and do not allow women to participate in the running. We know, sexist pigs, right? Write a letter or something. We don't make the rules, we just report them. Nonetheless, many women there do not want to be denied the chance to needlessly risk their lives and manage to covertly work their way into the crowd and run with the males. Everyone loves a rebellious conformist. Is that an oxymoron?

On the Saturday beginning the non-stop nine-day party, the Mayor of Pamplona lights off a rocket that signals the opening of the festivities. The red wine and merry-making start strongly and do not ebb until the last bullfight the following Sunday.

Unless you make reservations up to 2-3 months in advance you have little or no chance of arranging accommodations in Pamplona, so you will probably do what most of the masses do. You lemming. Either make the beautiful seaside resort of San Sebastian your home base and take the 4-hour bus ride down for a few days or better yet, throw caution to the wind (if you're attending this fiesta you'll be throwing lots of caution to the wind) and take the train or bus down and store everything but your toothbrush at the train station and just sleep wherever you pass out, or pass out wherever you sleep. However you prefer to think of it. There will be thousands of others joining you, so you can say you've slept with thousands of drunk people, though this might not make you too popular in singles' bars.

The party rages until the morning hours every night so what little sleeping that is done is usually in the large and accommodating local park (the "Park Hotel") in the afternoons. You don't go to Pamplona to catch up on your sleep anyway. You will find that complete strangers will be constantly pouring red wine all over your clothes anyway so you get used to being a little filthy and smelly and you probably belong outdoors. And if you decide to stay more than just a few days, well, after three days you really just can't get any dirtier or smellier, so you get used to it.

THE ENCIERRO: (Spanish for...something)

The real excitement happens at 8 a.m. every morning -- the Encierro -- the running of the bulls. The bulls for the bullfights are let loose from the corral at one end of the town and herded through the streets to the stadium -- the Plaza de Toros -- just over a mile down the road. While for many this is the highlight of the festival, it is by no means the only action that goes on...

Most Americans are still appalled by the inhumane killing of the bulls at the afternoon bullfights held every day during the festival, but it is an aspect of the Spanish culture you will either understand and appreciate or you will continue to hate. We don't care actually, and neither do they. And it's okay to dislike aspects of their culture because there are plenty of things about our culture that they dislike. Just keep in mind that any single McDonald's franchise probably goes through more murdered cattle flesh in an afternoon than the Spanish kill in hundreds of bullfights. And where do you think your leather jacket came from? At least this way the bulls get a fighting chance. Besides, it's a great excuse to drink sangria.

And if you have ever lamented the fact that the poor bull doesn't have a chance then plant your sympathetic self in the street one morning at 8 a.m. and give the bulls the chance they are given to prove their gameness -- you will find that they take every advantage of their opportunity to try and take some humans with them. Gotta love those bulls, Ferdinand...Jordan, Pippen. Because of the compact cobblestone streets of Pamplona, the entire route is wall-to-wall with people participating in the run. Misery loves company.

If you want to experience the exhilaration of the run without too much danger, arrive about 7 a.m. and find a spot on the street closest to the stadium where you will have to worry more about being trampled by the thousands of people behind you than the bulls. It's sort of like the beginning of the Boston Marathon, though the bulls add a hearty bit of inspiration. And it's 25 miles shorter. And you won't get your picture in Sports Illustrated if you finish first. Maybe that's not such a good comparison. It's really not like anything else that happens anywhere. That's the beauty of Pamplona.

The path the bulls take through the town is barricaded by six-foot high wooden fences and seething throngs of sadistic spectators. Many of these spectators will join the thousands already in the arena to watch the festivities in the bull ring which culminate the mornings' activities. However these people all have to buy a ticket for 1500 pesetas (about $15 depending on whether or not Clinton makes the greenback stronger). If you are a budget traveler, there is one way to get in the stadium free and to have a better vantage point than any paying spectator -- you must run the path and arrive ahead of the bulls. As the last bull enters the arena the police assertively barricade the entrance and if you don't make it in ahead of the bulls you have to buy what the runners refer to as a wussy-panty-waste ticket. Maybe not in those exact words.

Participating in the running of the bulls is a very grueling physical endeavor and you will find that most of the runners adhere to a rigorous training regimen. This regimen usually consists of imbibing copious amounts of cheap red wine or sangria all afternoon followed by imbibing copious amounts of cheap red wine or sangria all night. There are some rebels who train with beer. Virtually 24-hours a day the streets resonate with drinking and dancing to traditional Spanish songs, native Basque music as well as R.E.M. and the like. Though the bars stay open continuously this week, around midnight most people stagger to the town square, the Plaza de la Constitucion. Here you will find the Cafe Iruna that Hemingway hung out at. Given Hemingway's legendary drinking prowess and extensive time spent throughout Europe, it might be more of a feat to find a bar that Hemingway did not drink at. The plaza is solid with drunk tourists and there are even some drunk Spanish around to lend some authenticity. The plaza is alive every night with street performers, live bands, and local folk dance exhibitions.

Around 5 a.m. as the festivities lessen to a dull roar, you will decide that you are going to run with the bulls in 3 hours, and really, wouldn't it be senseless to try and sleep for such a small period of time. No, you will want to stay up all night to ensure you are at your fittest.

About 7 a.m. the crowds will begin milling to the bulls route, everyone asking, "Are you running?" You will be amazed at how many people obviously are as stupid as you are and have stayed up the entire night and how many of them are still drinking. You will note the authorities getting the bulls ready. You will hope that you are ready. Probably you will still feel drunk and decide that you better have some coffee. Order it thus: "Cafe con leche con tequila." It may not taste good but you'll need the jump-start and you'll have other more important things to worry about than a minor injury to your palate. You're now worrying about a major injury to your body.

You will find a spot in the street and there will be lots of pushing and shoving. You will smell the adrenalin in the air. Or maybe that is the smell of fear or vomit. No matter. You will also feel a kindred bond with all those near you, who for no other reason than they too are in search of adventure and are also engaging in this ludicrous ritual. As 8 a.m. approaches, you actually feel quite close with these people. Friends or strangers, you are all in this together. At 8 sharp the cannon goes off -- the bulls are released -- and you forget about your neighbor and your primo amigo. It's every man for himself. Keep in mind that you don't actually have to outrun the bulls you just have to outrun the guy next to you.

You will run as fast as the crowd permits and constantly steal frantic backwards glances hoping not to see a bull. A good gauge is to keep your eyes on the expression of the guy in front of you as he looks backward. When you see his face light up with alarm you can pretty well guess that the bulls are closer than you would rather have them. If you are in the front of the throngs you need only deal with a scared seething mass of humanity pressing in on you. If you are near the releasing pen you will be cavorting with those brave and foolhardy souls who actually wait for the bulls and want to draw the moment out as long as possible. The bulls that are set to fight that afternoon, in a group of six or eight, will lumber towards you. It's important to note that a bull weighs several thousand pounds, stands about six-feet high and lumbers at something like 30 m.p.h. Don't worry too much as they're only at their most dangerous when they see red or hear loud noises. About now everyone will begin screaming and waving red scarves and bandannas. The traditional garb is all white clothing (which lends a nice contrast to red wine and blood stains) with red hats, sashes or scarves. Unless you are faster than Carl Lewis, you will have trouble outrunning the bulls. You will either hope that they see someone they dislike more than you or that you can find a convenient alcove or doorway to hide in. Many also jump up and grab at balconies, fire escapes and street signs to dodge the bulls. If confronted you could try screaming "Big ears! Big Ears!" as bulls are very sensitive about the size of their ears.

The most dangerous part is the bottleneck of traffic just at the entry to the stadium. Try to be well ahead of the bulls at this point or risk being trampled by the bulls or the scared-drunk-hungover runners you were feeling that special bond with just moments before.

As the first runners enter the stadium the crowd erupts into cheers that put the Super Bowl to shame. Only you won't get very excited by this because you're being chased by thousands of scared men and several severely aggravated bulls. There really is no word to describe being on the packed dirt of the stadium at this moment other than pandemonium. Actually, pandemonium comes from the Latin meaning "thousands of stupid drunk people in a small coliseum being chased around by many huge angry bulls."

The stadium is even more dangerous than the streets because you are so confined. After everyone has entered, the police barricade the gate and the pros come out and herd the bulls into a holding pen. You will breathe a sigh of relief for a minute or so until they let a bull back out. And he seems to know that this stadium is the last place he will ever see because now he is really pissed.

Suddenly the arena seems very small, the bulls horns very big. For long portions of time you will not be able to actually see the bull through the throngs of people but you can tell by the swaying of the crowd which way he is heading. If one bull is not giving the crowd enough excitement they may let another one out simultaneously to toy with you. It's all quite reminiscent of the Romans feeding the Christians to the lions. And at this point you will feel very little sympathy for the bull.

Many of the more daring (in the sense of very stupid) men will actually try and get the bull's attention and pretend to be matadors. Of course they fell especially brave because most of them are carrying rolled-up newspapers to protect themselves from the sharp and sinister horns. Many will also be chased to the edge of the ring and bodily throw themselves into the audience to escape. Many will do this without even being chased by the bull. As one bull tires he is led away and the men prepare for a new more energetic, more angry bull to be released. The way that they prepare is as follows. One man will look to his neighbor and say, "I believe they are about to release about one-ton of angry bull flesh from behind that gate over there. I think we should go and sit directly in front of it." The machismo (Spanish for crazy) level is such that about 75-100 people think this seems like an excellent idea. So they do it. We are not making this up. While the rest of us are doing are best to respect the bulls space, these yahoos actually sit down in front of the gate waiting to be trampled. And the bull does not disappoint them or the audience. As he is released he runs right over, on top of and through the lunatics sitting in front of the gate.

As the bulls are released to wreak havoc on the runners, the crowd shouts words of encouragement. Whether they're encouraging the runners or the bulls is hard to say. The bulls chase many of the runners to the outer edge of the ring (bulls have a strong inherent disregard for boundaries) where they (the runners, not the bulls) end up throwing themselves over the wall into the crowds. Sometimes the bulls take care of this task for them. Several times you will see the crowds reject the runner like a bad kidney transplant and toss him back into the ring. Once you have committed the crowd expects you to stay committed, it's a "till death do you part" kind of thing. You married people understand. After the last bull has flirted with the runners the morning running of the bulls is pronounced finished. If you have not been trampled by the hordes or tossed around by a bull, consider yourself a successful runner. The crowd begins rushing out. As you exit you will undoubtedly notice many blood-stained areas on the arena dirt. The bulls' horns are covered by leather caps that are to prevent severe gorings, though in the course of each days' run many are grazed and many are tossed around on the tips of the leather-covered horns the way you would toss around a crouton. Do keep in mind that this is a dangerous activity and you accept a serious risk if you elect to run. If we told you that jumping off a bridge was fun, would you do it? If so, that might be our next book.

Having said that, you should also know that the adrenalin rush you feel as a part of this spectacle is overwhelming. You can literally feel the electricity in the air. Everyone gathers in front of the stadium to compare their war stories. As if this is not enough excitement by 9:00 a.m., now it's time for the parade. San Fermin is kind of like the army -- they do more before 9:00 a.m. than most people do all day. The parade winds through the same city streets you have just run through and it is nearly as lively as the bulls. It consists of loud bands and people dancing and twirling around in 15-foot tall costumed outfits and authentic Spanish music performed by authentic Spaniards. The parade is a throbbing display of bright colors and loud music, probably not very soothing to the hangover that you will be starting to feel as the intense adrenalin and fright wears off. The streets are solid with people dancing and joining in the merriment. Do so.

By the end of the parade it is time for a filling Spanish lunch. Try some local cuisine -- Basque food is the regional specialty and often consists of scrumptiously prepared lamb chops (it would seem somehow inappropriate to eat beef after having just bonded with the bulls). Paella, another Spanish favorite, is a saffron flavored rice dish with bits of seafood and chicken mixed in it. Most of the restaurants will have special tourist menus which offer bread, an appetizer or soup, wine or beer, a main course and often dessert for around $15. After a filling Spanish meal you will understand why the Spanish invented the siesta.

The midafternoon is the calmest time of the festival and finds most people in their rooms (if they have them), or more likely lounging in the park, singing to some impromptu guitar music or comparing stories from the morning. The bullfights are each day at 5:00 during the festival but tickets are often hard to come by and you may have to buy them from one of the many scalpers in front of the arena for prices up to $50. Bargaining is respectable -- team up with some others for a group rate. Be aware that they do kill the bull at the end of the fight. Also, if you have one of the cheaper seats in the sun be prepared to have sangria poured on you from the balcony seats above. Sangria rain! Ha! Those zany, madcap Spanish.

By the end of the bullfight the town square will have livened up again and every evening the plaza pulsates with activity and displays of local rituals that don't involve bulls, such as Spanish folk dances and live bands and the drinking of more red wine. You will also find discotheques playing all the latest music if you are in search of more contemporary dancing. The Spanish nurtured these festivals for centuries and it was Hemingway who helped immortalize La Fiesta de San Fermin. However, it is the exhilaration of the festivities that has continued to attract thousands of veterans and newcomers to Pamplona each year. The Running of the Bulls is an adventure not to be missed.