Four or five years ago, I made a promise to a friend. It was a promise to attend Festival San Fermin, an event more commonly known to most Americans as “the running of the bulls,” when he wrapped up law school. Knowing my friend, it seemed like a long shot and I didn’t hesitate to nod my head in agreement. This past week he cashed in on that promise, and I couldn’t be happier that he did (thanks Alan).
Festival San Fermin takes place over 9 days each July in Pamplona, Spain – a small city in the northern Basque region of the country. Every morning 12 bulls run through the streets of the city en route to the bullfighting ring, where they’ll fightlater that evening. Runners and onlookers alike typically stay up all night, run or watch the encierro (the actual running of the bulls) at 8:00am each morning, then take a siesta until the bullfights that evening. Then lather, rinse, and repeat.
What you’ve seen on TV is largely true. Everybody, without exception, donnes white clothes with a red pampuela (scarf) around their neck. The city’s narrow, cobblestoned streets are overlooked by countless balconies over which buckets of water, sangria, and champagne are dumped on the masses in the streets below. There’s no escaping, and everyone is soaking wet, chanting, dancing, and smiling ear to ear.
As for the run itself, yes, it’s absolutely terrifying. The streets are very narrow and very crowded, and contrary to popular belief there are very few places where you can actually jump over or under a barricade to safety. Bulls will get very close to you, and I promise you they are both very big and very fast. But the fact of the matter is thousands of people run every year and there are very, very few incidents of goring and or death. The bulls don’t want to hurt you – they just want to run into the bull ring – so as long as you run with the bulls and don’t do anything stupid you should be all set. And when you yourself enter the bull ring, realize you’re still alive, and hear the crowds chanting for you, you absolutely have a Gladiator moment that’s hard to replicate.
There are many big parties on this planet, let alone “festivals.” But I don’t think that Saint Patrick’s Day, or Mardi Gras, or Burning Man, or any other event that I know of can compete with the intensity of San Fermin. It’s a wave. But more than that, it’s the traditions of the event that make it unique.
I haven’t yet gotten an answer to just how long Festival San Fermin has been taking place each July in Pamplona. The running of the bulls through the streets, the bullfights, and the drinking have long been happening. Just when they came together and officially morphed into Festival San Fermin is the question, but you can safely classify the event as old as dirt (1591 is the best answer I could find).
First and foremost, there’s an incredible amount of people who this event means a lot to. The people of Pamplona are fiercely protective of it, and if you act like a “stupid American,” they will in fact form a mob and beat the crap out of you (as witnessed on numerous occasions). But the number of international travelers who return year after year is frightening. Within two minutes of stepping onto the streets of Pamplona, two Americans, Leone and his son Zack, took us under their wing. Leone’s been attending San Fermin for 22 years now, and has brought his son Zack along for the past 15. These guys showed my friends and I the ropes (and a great time) and we’re forever grateful to them for it. But that’s just the spirit of the event – show some new friends what it’s all about, and they’ll pass it on when they return.
Now 26 years sober, it’s not the spectacle of the event or the partying in the streets that draws Leone back year after year – running with the bulls each morning and the spirit of the event are the closest thing to a spiritual happening that he has. He doesn’t need Mecca; he just needs 9 days in Pamplona each and every July. He talks about hearing the rhythm of the bells you hear throughout the event each winter, a subtle reminder beckoning him to book his plane ticket and lodging for the upcoming San Fermin. He loves the festival and its traditions, and it’s contagious. So does his son.
But what most makes San Fermin an amazing experience in my eyes is the people that you meet. Zack (a barber from California) quickly became our tour guide, our sensei, but before I knew it, I was moving through the streets with a Ghanaian product manager from London (Ken), a real estate broker from California (Ben), a savage on his bachelor’s party from the south of Spain (Carlos), a girl who sells floppy Kentucky Derby style hats in New York (Emily), a Spanish teacher from Vermont (Pat), and countless locals from Pamplona. Not to mention some Bostonians. Drinking sangria in the streets at 10:00am. For 5 days straight. When was the last time that happened?
It’s easy to write off San Fermin for any number of reasons: running around with bulls sounds like a bad idea, the time and cost associated with getting to Pamplona is significant, seemingly outdated traditions, you name it. Ultimately it was the people that made the experience for me. When you mix up enough interesting, outgoing people with a passion for life from all corners of the globe, San Fermin will make sure your Festival is seasoned to taste. San Fermin, mon amigo, is a blast.
Other notes from my trip
Accommodations: Hotel Maisonnave. Nice (by European standards), simple accomdations right where you want to be.
Food: Pamplona has three food groups: cured meat, cheese, and white bread. Get into it. Bull stew tastes, not surprisingly, much like beef stew.
Bars: Make you first stop Bar Txoko (right in the main plaza), find your sensei, then go from there.
Also, the video above is the actual running that I partook in. If you can’t find me, I’m the guy in white wearing a red scarf…