The festival of San Fermin - and the infamous running of the bulls - makes Pamplona in northern Spain the centre of the world for one week in July
For 51 weeks of the year, Pamplona is a charming city that dates back to Roman times, nestling in the hills of the picturesque Basque region of northern Spain, with gothic architecture, pretty squares, and dollops of history. But for the remaining week, between July 6 and 14, the place turns into the high-octane party capital of the world, as the annual fiesta of San Fermin takes hold - and at its centre is the notorious running of the bulls.
Written down, in the cold light of day, it sounds like sheer madness: at 8am every morning, six fighting bulls are released from a corral at one end of the city centre and they run hell-for-leather along a route picked out along the barricaded cobbled streets, straight into Pamplona’s bull ring. And alongside them, in front of them, behind them - and sometimes under their hooves - run thousands of revellers.
These days the bull run is a major event, televised on the national networks in Spain, with pictures and footage beamed around the world. It has its roots in the 13th century, but the run was really given an international focus by Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel Fiesta, or The Sun Also Rises, which kicked off an annual pilgrimage to Pamplona for thrill-seekers, the literary-minded, and those who just enjoy a darn good party.
It was the Hemingway novel that first fired the imaginations of me and my friends. These days there are many organised tours that leave the UK - San Fermin is also a rite of passage for young Antipodeans spending time in Europe, so expect to see lots of Aussies and Kiwis on your trip - but we took a scheduled coach service from London Victoria to San Sebastian on the coast, where we took up residence in the sprawling Igueldo campsite, making regular forays by bus up into the hills for the party.
Pamplona does have a fine selection of hotels to suit all tastes and budgets, from the top-end Gran Hotel La Perla
to hostel/university accommodation. But the San Fermin fiesta is so insanely popular, the hotels tend to be booked up a year in advance for the July week. The bus services between San Sebastian and Pamplona are regular and efficient, and while it probably isn’t encouraged by the local authorities, many - us included, when we were there - do bed down in one of the local parks after a hard day’s partying.
While the bars are open all night and the carnival atmosphere never seems to end, the focus of the whole shebang is the bull run. It starts at eight in the morning, sharp, which makes for a lot of hungover people - perhaps not the best frame of mind to partake in such a strenuous and stressful activity, so be warned! The crowds gather in the square outside the Santo Domingo corral, and tensions and spirits are high into the clear blue sky. The traditional mode of dress is a white shirt, a red neckerchief and a red sash - the longer the ends of the sash, the more of a valiant runner you are deemed to be, as the bulls are drawn by the swinging motion!
At 8am a rocket is fired into the air, signifying that the gate to the corral has been opened. It is also traditional to pray to San Fermin at this moment, and anyone taking part embraces this as not just a nod to the activities of the day - you really do wonder what you’ve just let yourself in for and whether you might need divine intervention to survive. That’s not just an idle, melodramatic boast. Since records began in 1924, more than 200 people have been seriously injured on the bull run, and 15 have died.
A matter of minutes later and a second rocket explodes in the sky… the bulls have left the corral, and there’s no time to think any more, just to run! The crowd moves as one, bottlenecking into the first narrow street, and adrenaline starts pumping. All side streets are cordoned off by wooden barriers, and onlookers will cheer - and sometimes jeer as a terrified runner decides they want out and tries to climb the barrier - as the runners pelt past. And all the while there’s a sound, like thunder, which gathers pace and momentum until you realise what it is: the bulls.
These six fighting bulls are not like the docile creatures of the British countryside. They’re dark and sleek and move more like sharks than farming stock. The course is 825 metres long - it feels 10 times that. The average length of time to run from the corral to the bull ring is three minutes. It stretches to a lifetime.
We ran. It’s just a blur to me now, a speeded-up movie of white shirts and swinging red sashes, cheers and screams and glory. Then it all slowed down as we ran through the tiny tunnel into the bull ring… it was like running on to the pitch at Wembley. Crowds roar and cheer, and for one moment you feel like you are at the centre of the world.
Which, in a way, you are. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, a party animal or simply like to be where it’s at, then for one week in July there really is nowhere else on the planet that you should be other than Pamplona.
There are a number of organised tours specifically to take people to Pamplona for the San Fermin festival. Try: Pamplona Tours, PP Travel, Festival Adventures.
Where to stay
Accommodation is tough to find unless you book in advance.
Budget: Hotel Oasis (around €45 per night)
Hostel: Residencia de Estudiantes Los Abedules
Camping: Igueldo campsite, San Sebastian