Forget jumping out of a plane – if you need an adrenaline rush, test your mettle at the Running of the Bulls. Damien Gabet reports from Pamplona.
We’re on Deadman’s Corner. It’s close-body hot, but I can’t shake the shivers. Kneeling, I smoke to distract myself from what’s about to happen. Restive feet move, pigeon-like, in all directions about me. A friend and I take a moment to consider the tactics a local offered us the night before: ‘If he [the bull] catches you, act dead.’
Nervously we wait. Any moment now, six mettlesome man bashers will tear past this slippery right angle of cobbles. People will try to get out of the way. Some will fail. Today is a big day: it’s the closest I’ll ever come to meeting my maker.
For over 400 years, the Basque city of Pamplona has held a festival to celebrate the piety and grace of its favourite Christian patron, the eponymous San Fermín. It wasn’t until the 18th century, though, that the Encierro – or Running of the Bulls – was introduced as a daily event. Today, it’s the festival’s main attraction and draws thousands of revellers from around the globe, keen for their moment of bovine glory.
It’s not all about the bulls, though. The nine-day jamboree (6-14 July) hosts parades, parties, firework displays, dances and other traditional sports. I particularly enjoyed the unofficial Struendo (literally, ‘the roar’), where partygoers gather outside the town hall to make as much noise as possible for a few hours – an excellent premise for a party.
Many attribute San Fermín’s global popularity to Hemmingway and, specifically, his description of the festival in The Sun Also Rises. For the uninitiated, it’s perfect reading for the flight over.
Bulls to the lot of you
My experience of the festival came immediately after an 800-mile, 10-day bike ride from London. Our final destination was Barcelona, but we dismounted for the bulls en route. On day one, we weren’t allowed to run. We had the wrong shoes. Running for your life, after pedalling up the Pyrenees, should never be done in flip-flops. Health and safety was top of the agenda.
The next day, properly shod, we took to the course. At 8am precisely, as every day, the bang of a firecracker bounced off the walls of the Old Town. Before the bang, I’d been gabbing nervy nonsense to Dennis, a young Dutch guy dressed, daringly, in patriotic orange. Now, at a whisper, he was praying. Loudly, I was swearing. At once, my cycling fatigue was extinguished, the moisture in my mouth evaporated and I started jumping up and down.
The crowd surged, but I wanted to see horns before running. Then I’d know what to do. When at last they came, our group was immediately split. From still, I was quickly at full gallop, hurdling fallen runners, body checking those in my way. All gentlemanly conduct disappears when 700kgs of Iberian beef is breathing down your neck.
And then, through sheer luck, they passed. I was alive, all limbs correct and well. The priority had changed: get to the finish line before the gates closed and denied me access to a packed-out bullring (the second largest in Spain). I made it, but only just.
There’s something about this kind of collective tension and the animals’ volatility that knocks sky diving off the top of my adrenaline chart. At least with that there’s logic: jump, pull cord, live. With the run, it’s far less predictable – which is precisely why it’s incredible. The next day, over breakfast, I saw a picture of Dennis in the newspaper. A horn had skewered his arm, blood on orange. Best croissant I’ve ever tasted.
Six of the best festivals in Spain
When San Fermín is finished the fiesta continues at these annual jamborees, which are widely considered to be amongst the craziest festivals in the world:
La Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme – July
Have you had a near-death experience recently? If so, then this might be the group therapy session you’ve been looking for. Described as one of the most outrageous pilgrimages around, the annual gathering invites those who’ve come close to popping it to lie in coffins while a procession carries them to church. The lucky sods then thank a statue for letting them life.
La Tomatina – August
You must have heard of this one? The tomato-throwing mayhem in Buñol – near Valencia – takes place on the last Wednesday of August and attracts up to 50,000 visitors. Proceedings commence when one intrepid soul scales a greased pole and throws down the ham at the top. Then come 140 tonnes of tomatoes to throw around. Goggles advised.
Sant Pere Festival – January
Perhaps the most unusual of all Spain’s festivals is El Puig’s Batalla de Ratas. Every year, on the last Sunday of January, people in the Valencian town gather to throw frozen dead rats at one another. Although now officially banned – as of 2012 – the tradition remains as popular as ever, albeit not amongst animal rights groups.
L’Aplec del Caragol – May
The madness continues with Lleida’s snail-eating festival, held in late May. The Catalan eatathon attracts up to 250,000 every year, with around 12 tonnes of gastropods consumed over three days. Besides the main attraction, the festival includes live music, dancing and other rather jolly endeavours.
Haro Wine Festival – June
Painting the town purple every June are the participants of La Rioja’s Battle of Wine, part of the Haro Wine Festival. The friendly battle sees two teams hurl red wine over one another until every receptacle is empty. Our degustator readers will be pleased to hear a wine-drinking competition also plays part of the proceedings.
El Colacho – June
Right up there with the most dangerous festivals around is El Colacho in the village of Castrillo de Murcia, in northern Spain. The festival’s climax comes with ‘the devil’s jump’, where men, dressed as him downstairs, jump over babies – lying on mattresses – less than 12 months old. The Catholic tradition is said to cleanse the babies of original sin.
San Fermín: The details
How to get there: The nearest airports are Bilbao and Zaragoza, which have direct trains and buses to Pamplona.
Where to stay: Apartments and hotels in the town centre will be reserved months in advance, so book as early as possible. Be prepared for all-night noise, too. You’re more likely to find accommodation on the town’s periphery – along with a better night’s sleep. If all else fails get in a tent. Camping Escobar, 6km from town, is one of the best.
Where to buy tickets: It’s free to run and join in with the festivities. Tickets to watch the run at its conclusion in the bullring (Plaza de Toros) are €5 and can be bought on the day. Tickets for the evening bullfights are much harder to get hold of – and cost around €30 – as the locals get first dibs. Most visitors buy their tickets on the streets from touts. Get your haggle on.
Other need-to-know information: Participants must arrive at the course no later than 7.30am and they must start between the Plaza del Ayuntamiento and the Cuesta of Santo Domingo – anywhere else is forbidden.
Taking photographs on the course is not allowed at any point and you will be kicked off the course if you are under the influence. Finally, respect the bulls. Anyone caught inciting or touching them will be severely reprimanded – even whacked – by officials and locals.