The festival of San Fermín, or more commonly known as the running of the bulls, is one of the most popular international celebrations of the year. This annual fiesta brings the world to Pamplona, Spain for eight days between July 6th at 12pm to July 14th at 12am. I’ve been trying to get to it for years and finally, thanks to our now close proximity to Spain, it finally happened.
The highlight of course is the encierros (bull runs) that take place each morning of the festival. But the fun doesn’t stop (or start) there. From the opening ceremony to the nightly firework spectaculars, there is plenty to fill the days. Just remember – this is a marathon, not a sprint. That is unless you can consume mass quantities of fruity wine, never need to sleep, and relish the thought of having razor sharp horns at your back, in which case, get ready to run as fast as you can.
Thanks to Ernest Hemingway and his manly love of animal killing San Fermín is what it is today. We probably wouldn’t be trekking to the small out-of-the-way Basque town of Pamplona with grand allusions of running with bulls if it weren’t for him and his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. The Lost Generation characters of his book (most of whom are American expats like ourselves) travel from Paris to Pamplona to partake in the fiesta and find matadors, masculinity, impotence and endless barrels of wine along the way. Today Pamps could easily be mistaken as one huge enshrinement to Hemingway and a trip there, especially coming from Paris, is just as much a pilgrimage in search of Papa Hemingway as it is for the encierro.
Getting to Pamplona is relatively simple as planes, trains and buses up their schedules for the busiest time of the year, but because we procrastinate like it’s our job, by the time we got around to booking transportation all flights and trains cost roughly one million dollars. Well, when life throws you lemons you use them to make Sangria, right? Or at the very least go somewhere to get Sangria. And with that thought in mind, we were quickly able to tack on a little trip to Madrid before San Fermín that allowed us to take a six hour bus ride right into Pamplona.
Many tour companies sell packages that offer lodging at a campsite, breakfast, and rides to and from the city throughout the week. The closest camp ground to the center of Pamplona is Camp Ezcaba, which is about a 15 minute drive away. It plays host to 3 or 4 different tour companies so the place is always busy and there is no shortage of things to do. We booked through Festival Adventures and could not have been more pleased with the experience.
A nice perk of going through a tour group is that you can coordinate your arrival so they will be waiting at the Pamplona bus station to pick you up and bring you to the campsite. We of course did not do this and instead had to settle for a 15 euro cab ride. Luckily the frustration over unnecessarily having to pay for transportation was immediately squelched upon arriving at Camp Ezcaba.
After announcing our arrival we were told at the entrance to wait for our tour group’s rep to come meet us. A few minutes later a barefooted Van Wilder-esque figure with a beach towel slung over his shoulder popped out. With a welcoming Australian accent, he introduced himself as Harvey and apologized for taking so long because he had just come from the outdoor pool. It was one of those situations when you arrive somewhere new and immediately know you’ve come to the right place.
This was further confirmed as we were shown around Camp Ezcaba, which resembled more of a college spring break locale than a trailered camp ground. There’s a live music stage, pool tables, a hot tub, swimming pool, bar, restaurant, and a whole lot of people drinking, dancing and having a good time. We found out the majority (as in something like 90%) were from Australia. For some reason, probably because they love to party and will travel anywhere to do so, Australians flock to these tour groups by the droves, in particular Fanatics, whose numbers range over 1,000. (For comparison our group, Festival Adventures, was much smaller at around 100 members.) After a few days in Pamplona during San Fermín, you would not be amiss in thinking the entire world was populated by Australians.
We arrived the evening of July 5th – the day before San Fermín begins – and were just in time for a tour of Pamplona and the bull run course with Harvey and several other guides from Festival Adventures. This was the perfect way to be introduced to the festival. The walkthrough of the course and general introduction to the layout of the city would prove quite valuable over the next few days when we couldn’t see the pavement through the masses of red and white clad revelers taking to the streets.
Whether it was intentionally trying to be or not, our walkthrough was also a tour of all things Ernest. Over there was the La Perla hotel, where from room 217 he would watch the daily encierros. Nearby are some of his favorite drinking haunts, the now-touristy Bar Txoco and classically cool Café Iruña, which is said to have been his favorite spot and which has a back bar area dedicated to him, life-size bronze sculpture included. And all along Estafeta are restaurants and shops brandishing his profitable name, capped with a busted monument to him near the entrance of the arena.
Hemingway hunting aside, also on our to do list that night – buy appropriate attire. Everyone who’s anyone at the festival wears a white shirt, white pants/shorts, red neck tie (pañuelo) and red sash (faja) around their waist. These items can be found about every two feet at pop-up stores throughout the streets of the city for relatively reasonable prices. On a piece of great advice from our tour guides we bought two sets of white clothes. Those pristine whites you wear during the next day will be covered head to toe in pink by the time you leave for the evening. Day old, sun soaked Sangria, 24 hours later? Yuck.
If there were any doubts we needed two sets of clothes, we soon found out why. After a fun first night back at Camp Ezcaba following our tour, we arrived early to Pamplona’s city center the following morning clad in our new whites for the first day of the San Fermín festival. The first order of business was to decide on our weapon of choice – Sangria or champagne (hint: there is a right choice and that right choice is Sangria).
Don Simon Sangria (if you don’t know Don yet, you will by the end of the fiesta) is the unofficial mascot of San Fermín and ran us about 3 euros a bottle. The best deals we found were at an Asian market directly across from the bus station.
Hundreds of thousands of party goers, including ourselves (note the “before” picture above – hello Don!), descend on Pamps for the Chupinazo, or opening day ceremony, on July 6th. Those not prone to claustrophobia gather in the small town square for an epic Sangria fight. Most others crowd in the much bigger nearby Plaza del Castillo, also for an epic Sangria fight. (The entirety of San Fermín is basically one epic citywide Sangria fight.) From the balcony of City Hall, the mayor gives a short speech that everyone pretends to understand. The crowd falls silent and everyone holds up their traditional red neckties, until which time, have been worn on wrists only.
“Viva San Fermin!” is shouted across the city and the dinky Chupinazo rocket is launched, signifying the beginning of the festival. At this point, the wrist ties become neck ties and to put it mildly, all inferno breaks lose. Sangria flies. Onlookers dump buckets of water from the safety of their balconies. Everyone starts singing, dancing, and nonstop Sangria drinking. Good tiempos are had by all.
After this, the rest of the day was ours to celebrate as we saw fit. Bars and clubs overflow onto the streets. Boogie Alley hosts an all day, all night, outdoor dance party. Professional buskers (street performers) seranade the cobblestone walkways. Various concerts are held at Plaza del Castillo and beyond. And then there’s this:
Each year several crazy tourists decide to dive from the top of a tall statue of St. Cecilia into the crowd, which basically means they belly-flop into the interlocked arms of several people, hoping to be caught before smacking into the pavement below. This event, referred to as Mussel Bar (which gets its name from the English translation for the nearby La Mejillonera tapas bar), has become an infamous tradition. Watching several overzealous festival goers free fall to the concrete pavement below is kind of hard to witness – though there is an unavoidable attraction to it, like watching a car crash, or bull gorging. We only needed to look around and see the overabundance of tourists drenched in Sangria and the obvious absence of pristine white and red clad locals to realize what this event means to San Fermín.
One thing to be aware of during the festival are pickpockets, especially at the opening Chupinazo and Mussel Bar, where overpacked drunk foreigners make for easy prey. Luckily it didn’t happen to us, but we came across several people who had lost everything from phones, wallets and passports. It didn’t matter if they had their pockets wide open or zipped shut, they still got robbed. There is no sure fire way to avoid them other then carrying as little valuables as necessary during the festival and always being mindful of who’s hands are in your pocket.
Far from Mussel Bar, we found a far more authentic San Fermín experience at a park along the walls of the city at the Miardor del Caballo Blanco where large groups of people had gathered to picnic and celebrate the day. Of course no place is safe in Pamplona for long, and before we could finish our glasses of Sangria and jamon con tomato bocadillos (sandwiches), the area was was overrun with Australians. The once welcoming green grass quickly was covered in a sea of pinkish Sangria drenched (mostly Fanatics) tour group t-shirts.
The remainder of the day and into the night was spent partying throughout the city, getting in to Sangria fights, and having an all around awesome time. Encouraged by a sudden downpour of freezing rain (which actually brought a mini-twister with it), we opted not to watch the first of the festivals many firework shows and ended our night catching the bus back to camp.
After a festive opening day of San Fermín, we were properly baptized into the festival and ready for what was to follow. Bright and early tomorrow was when the real fun would start and those brave enough would run in the first of the encierros.
Next… The Opening Day Encierro
Disclaimer: While some of the above images were taken by us, some were not. Several are from previous years of San Fermín and were used to help best tell the story of the festival visually. A special thanks to Jonan Basterra and all our friends for contributing to this post.