The festival of San Fermin, or the Running of the Bulls as it’s more commonly known outside Spain, officially begins at midday on 6th July every year with the ‘Chupinazo’ which takes place on the balcony of the Casa Consistorial in Pamplona. Thousands of people congregate in the square awaiting the mayor’s official announcement that the fiestas have begun, a rocket is launched and the partying begins.
History of the Running of the Bulls
The history of the bullrunning in Pamplona is not clear. There is evidence of the festival from as far back as the 13th century when it seems the events took place in October as this coincided with the festival of San Fermin on October 10th. It seems that the modern day celebration has evolved from this as well as individual commercial and bullfighting fiestas which can be traced back to the 14th century.
Over many years the mainly religious festival of San Fermin was diluted by music, dancing, bullfights and markets such that the Pamplona Council proposed that the whole event be moved to July 7th when the weather is far more conducive to such a celebration. To this day San Fermin remains a fixed date every year with the first bullrun at 8am on July 7th and the last at the same time on July 14th.
The joining together of the religious, commercial and bullfighting festivals and the move to July 7th led to the first official celebration of San Fermines in 1591. This inaugural fiesta was a low key affair in comparison to the modern day running of the bulls as it only lasted two days although there was much merriment involving music, a procession and a bullfight. Dancing and fireworks became features of the festival over the next few years and the event was extended to July 10th.
The first evidence of foreigners turning up in Pamplona for San Fermin are recorded in chronicles from the 17th and 18th centuries when reference is made to the local clergy being concerned about “the abuse of drink and the permisiveness of young men and women”. By now there was plenty music, dancing, drinking, street theatre and bull running as the religious focus of the occasion took a back seat. By the 19th century all kinds of fairground attractions were making their way to Pamplona including human cannonballs and circus animals. The actual route of the bull run didn’t have a double security wall as is the case today so the bulls were able to escape, creating chaos in the streets of Pamplona.
It was thanks to the writing of American writer Ernest Hemingway that San Fermin developed the notoriety of today. The publication of his novel “The Sun Also Rises” in 1926 told the world about the Pamplona bull running festival which attracted people from all over the world to this annual festival. Such is the popularity of the event that overcrowding is a serious problem and if you’re planning on staying there then you should book accommodation many months in advance.
The Bull Run – El Encierro
The Pamplona bull run takes place at 8am every morning from 7th to 14th July (eight runs in total). Runners must be in the running area by 7.30am. The actual run stretches from the corral at Santo Domingo where the bulls are kept to the bullring where they will fight that same afternoon. The length of the run is 825 metres and the average time of the run from start to finish is about three minutes. The streets through the old town which make up the bull run are walled off so the bulls can’t escape. Each day six fighting bulls run the route as well as two herds of bullocks.
The tension builds as the release of the bulls approaches and at 8am on the dot a rocket is fired to confirm that the gate has been opened at the Santo Domingo corral. Runners dressed in white with a red hankerchief around their necks pray to San Fermin then a second rocket announces that the bulls have left. The bulls and the runners then proceed along the route.
First of all they climb Santo Domingo and go across the Ayuntamiento Square continuing down c/ Mercaderes. The most dangerous part of the bullrun approaches as there’s a closed curve leading into c/ Estafeta which is the longest stretch of the run. Next comes a small section of c/ Duque de Ahumada which is known as the Telefónica stretch. The last stretch is also very risky as the route leads into a dead end street providing access to the Bull Ring.
2. Cuesta de Santa Domingo
3. Plaza del Ayuntamiento
4. Curva de Mercaderes hacia Estafeta
5. Calle Estafeta
8. Plaza de Toros
9. Plaza del Castillo
A third rocket is set off once all the bulls have entered the bullring and the fourth, and final, rocket means that the bulls are now in the bullpen and the bullrun has finished. The vast number of people taking part in the bullrun nowadays adds to the already considerable danger of running alongside wild bulls weighing in the region of 700kg each.
A word of warning … With the drinks flowing and the party in full swing you could be forgiven for forgetting that running the bulls is an extremely dangerous activity. Under no circumstances should you even consider running if you’re intoxicated. Not only are drunken people a risk to themselves they are also a risk to everyone else. There are plenty security guards and first aid personnel but there is little they can do during the running of the bulls such that 15 people have died and over 200 been seriously injured since 1924.
Watching the Bullrunning
You can stand behind the fences that mark the route of the bullrun but you need to arrive by around 6.30am to get the best spots on the top of the fence directly overlooking the run. Another good spot is in front of the museum on c/ Santo Domingo where there isn’t a fence but the best spots here are usually taken before 6am leaving you with a cold two hour wait before the run starts. A great alternative is to get yourself onto a balcony overlooking the bullrun. You might be lucky enough to meet someone who invites you onto their terrace, alternatively, ask in the tourist information office (c/ Esclava, 1). Your only other options are to go to the bullring and watch the end as the bulls arrive in the arena or to head for a bar and watch the bull run which is shown live every morning on national TV.
Take a look at this incredible video produced by Spanish TV (RTVE) on 13th July 2013. It portrays all the tension and excitement of the bullrun culminating in horrific scenes at the entrance to the bullring where some runners had fallen which led to a major crush that blocked the entrance of the bulls. More injuries resulted that day than for many years.
Watching the Bullfights
On every evening of the fiesta beginning at 6.30pm on 7th July there is a bullfight in the Pamplona bullring. Tickets for the bullfights are sold out well in advance as the arena only holds 12,500 people. Every evening after the day’s bullfight some tickets go on sale for the next evening’s event at the ‘taquillas’ at the bull ring. You’ll usually find ticket touts operating around the Plaza de Toros during the day and before the bullfight selling at elevated prices.
Getting to Pamplona
By Plane - Pamplona does have its own airport which lies 6km from the city centre, however, there are no international flight arrivals so you’ll need to fly to Madrid first then take a domestic connection. Domestic flights on this route tend tobe pricey. Alternatively you could fly to Bilbao or Barcelona then make overland arrangements.
By Train - If you’re in the UK you can take the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord, take the metro to Paris Montparnasse then get the train to Hendaye/Irun on the French/Spanish border. There are infrequent buses from Irun to Pamplona but after a long journey through France you’d be better off taking the Metro Donostialdea from Hendaye (operated by Euskotren Trena) to San Sebastian for the night then continuing on to Pamplona a day or two later. Look for Donastia on the timetable as this is the Basque name for San Sebastian. Get off at Amara station as this is the main one of three in the city.
Alternatively, if travelling from the UK, take a ferry to Santander or Bilbao from Portsmouth or Plymouth from where you can use buses or trains to get to Pamplona. From within Spain there are trains to Pamplona from Madrid Atocha (4½ hours), Barcelona Sants (6 hours) and San Sebastian (2 hours). There is no train from Bilbao. Check the RENFE website for up to date timetables.
By Bus - There are frequent bus services from Bilbao (1¾ hours), San Sebastian (1 hour), Barcelona (5 hours) and Madrid (5 hours). There’s no problem travelling by bus but personally I’d recommend trains in Spain when the option is available.
Where to Stay in Pamplona
The city of Pamplona simply isn’t big enough to accommodate the vast number of people who flock there during Sanfermines. It’s more or less impossible to book Pamplona Hotels at short notice so if you want the comfort of a hotel bed you should consider booking many months in advance. Similary budget accommodation in hostels gets fully booked a long time before the event so planning your visit some time ahead is crucial.
My personal preference is to book a place on the campsite in Pamplona which lies about 7km from the city centre. Whilst it is also packed throughout the week of the fiestas they do take security seriously and offer bus transport in and out of town. The free campsite that appears near the Ezcaba campsite during the fiestas is another option but isn’t recommended for security reasons as petty crime is rife during San Fermin. Similarly sleeping in parks along with many others should be avoided for the same reason
An alternative to staying in Pamplona is to book a hotel in San Sebastian, Vitoria-Gasteiz or Estella and make the early morning trip to the bull run from there. The trouble is that getting public transport early enough in the morning to see the bullrun can prove impossible so this option is only really viable if you have your own vehicle.
There’s a company called Stoke Travel who offer a campsite party experience to celebrate San Fermin based on the coast at Zarautz. They provide transport to the bullruns. Be sure to mention quote “Spanish-Fiestas.com” on their booking form and they’ll include FREE beer or sangria at their campsite.
The Navarra Tourist Board website is a handy resource for tourism information in this part of Spain.