Welcome to the Pamplona Bull Run page!
My second book, Bulls, Bands, and London, takes place largely in London and Toronto, but Neil Jarvis is particularly tested and transformed in Pamplona, Spain during its equally glorious and grotesque San Fermin festival (commonly known around the world as the Running of the Bulls). So if you’re planning on visiting Pamplona, this page is for you! Now while the fortress-city is certainly worthy of your visit any time of the year, Pamplona’s passion for life reaches dizzying new heights during its annual, eight-day binge of bulls, beer, and reckless bravado.
Now let’s immediately address the elephant… sorry, the bull… in the room. Bullfights are a ghastly affair and I have no doubt that most people are squeamish about it, if not completely horrified that the practice still exists. Some Spaniards might even agree with you that it’s a savage ritual. Others will simply shake their heads and point out that as a non-Spaniard you could not begin to understand the artistry and majesty of a bullfighter staring down a sneering bull. To the bullfight supporters, it represents the epic battle of Man versus Beast or Mankind versus Nature.
“…Yes, it sounds completely savage. And it is. However, you’re wasting your time if you want to debate the rights and wrongs of bullfighting with a Spaniard (or someone from Navarre). You’re an outsider. You wouldn’t understand; you can’t understand. The pageantry and passion of bullfighting are completely entrenched in their culture. It’s who they are. It’s not animal slaughter; it’s an art form. And it’s all part of their bloodline with their heritage…”
Now Neil Jarvis (and I) didn’t attend the bullfights, but we did run with the bulls, an equally foolish practice that brings you face to face with the frightened animals who will later fight for their lives in the bullring. I conveniently call it the far lesser of two evils, if only because it was also of the most astonishing and exhilarating moments of my life! Nothing can quite prepare you for racing along the cobblestone streets of Pamplona with six bulls and six steers chasing after you, while thousands of crazed runners block your way and potentially trip you into the mad bulls’ path of pursuit.
So if you’re brave (and foolish) enough, let’s get you ready for the Running of the Bulls!
When to go:
The annual San Fermin Festival runs July 6 – 14. However, you only need about three days in Pamplona to thoroughly embrace the spectacle. Perhaps one day to acclimatize yourself and buy your party clothes: the white shirt, white pants, red sash, and red neck-scarf. Another day to get up early and watch the bull run (the encierro). And then another day to actually run the race yourself! Every day after that is on reckless repeat: run with the bulls, party, watch bullfights, party some more. And if you’re wondering, your dry, white clothes won’t stay dry or white very long; eventually you will be doused with sangria, or eggs, or flour, or drenched in cold water!
Just like Neil and his companions discovered, the opening ceremonies on July 6th just might be the highlight of the entire San Fermin festival. If you’re claustrophobic, you can watch them on the public screens from the safety of the Plaza del Castillo. But if you really want to party like a local, then enter the fray at the Plaza de Consistorial. Be there by 10:30am, even though the official declaration and the firing of the ceremonial rocket (the chupinazo) don’t start until 12 noon. Bring champagne and get ready to rumble, because the jumping and the singing and the swaying doesn’t stop until the mayor and the festival officials enter the balcony to start the party!
Here’s a taste of what you can expect to see inside the Plaza de Consistorial!
Where to stay:
…Wherever you can! Honestly, if you haven’t booked your hotel 6 months or more in advance, you can’t be too picky where you sleep. Not only do thousands of Pamplonese ex-pats return home every summer for the festival, but thousands of bullfighting aficionados from across Spain will make the journey as well. Not to mention, all the party people from the UK, France, Italy, and the rest of Europe will be there too. (In fact, you better book your transportation 6 months in advance too!)
I’ve always had good luck with Airbnb hosts. If you’re nervous about that option, check out their host profiles before you book. Believe me, people prefer to complain rather than praise; so if there are no negative complaints about your potential host, you can be assured that they’ll take good care of you. I’ve also stayed at the University of Navarre which rents out private rooms during the summer. There’s no kitchen, no TV, and only a simple bed and bathroom, but who cares! You’ll want to spend every waking moment in the Old Town party zone, not your bedroom. There’s even a bus that takes you right to the Plaza del Castillo (if you miss it, it’s a 45 minute walk up the hill)!
Where to eat:
Now like every great square in every other great city in Europe, the Plaza del Castillo has a lot of restaurant and bar options, but the best in terms of opulence and history is Ernest Hemingway’s favorite haunt, the Café Iruña. You will soon forget about the food and dance the day (and night) away on its checkerboard floor. It’s even covered in sawdust, so suddenly, everyone can do the moonwalk!
However, for an authentic Pamplona food experience, fight the crowds inside the tapas cafés on Calle de la Estafeta (the city’s most famous street, where the following morning you’ll be chased by raging bulls). Never mind finding a seat; you’ll be standing. But the real challenge is in ordering the food. Because I don’t speak Spanish, all I could do was point to desirable items in the display case and yell out, “Cerveza!” Whatever they served me, I ate and drank. There was no sense in arguing. Life’s too short… and delicious!
Running Tips – The Rules:
Yes, despite all the perceived chaos of the morning encierro, there are some rules, both official and unofficial. And breaking any of them could get you roughly escorted off the course by the police. For instance, you must be at least 18 years old. You can’t be too drunk or too high. You must be dressed appropriately (preferably in your San Fermin uniform) with appropriate footwear (so leave your flip-flops at the beach). You can’t bring your camera. In fact, you can’t carry anything except maybe a rolled-up newspaper (which you can throw towards a charging bull who may be distracted enough to follow the path of the newspaper… rather than you). Women are no longer banned, but if a police officer believes that you might not be up for the challenge, he may pull you off the course. Therefore, many women tuck their long hair underneath a cap to avoid any hassle. And the most important rule of all: you can’t mistreat or harass the animals! So, don’t grab their horns or tug on their tails…
Running Tips – The Start Time:
The bull run begins precisely at 8am every morning. You can set your watch to it. So the key is to arrive on time. You have to be standing on Calle de Santo Domingo before 7:30. That’s when the police close off all the streets and form an impenetrable line. If an official sees you jump down from a barricade after that, they will arrest you. Now if you somehow find yourself ahead of that police line, you’ll have to clear the course and re-enter through one of the remaining entry points behind it. Then you patiently wait… while the cleaners sweep the garbage off the street and hose down the course to clear away all the late-night piss and vomit. This will now make the running surface rather wet and slick for the bulls—and the runners. So be careful. And then… at precisely 8’clock, you will hear a loud rocket blast. That means the gate of the corral is open. Wait for the second rocket; that means the bulls are in the street!
Running Tips – The Goal:
So the entire encierro is about moving the bulls from the corral at the edge of town to the bullring in the center. And the “course” is only eight hundred meters long and only lasts about three minutes. But if a bull goes rogue, it could take as long as ten minutes or more. Now the goal is to run with the bulls and get inside that bullring. So it’s important where you are standing at the start of the race. If you are standing too close to the corral, the bulls will quickly catch up to you and pass you by—and you won’t be able to run into the ring (because they close the bullring doors the second the last bull enters). However, if you are standing too far from the corral and too close to the bullring, you won’t even see a bull and the fans watching inside the ring will boo you and pelt you with beer cans. Therefore, my advice is to stand on Calle Estafeta near the curve of the street and jog very slowly up the hill. Don’t worry about the other panicked runners. Just jog. Then, as the screams from the balcony spectators grow louder and the thick crowd suddenly parts behind you, start sprinting—because the bulls and the steers are fast approaching! Also, try counting them as they pass (6 bulls and 6 steers = 12) so you know if there are any rogue bulls or steers on the course. And if you fall, stay down and cover up until the bulls and steers pass. It’s obviously better to be safe than sorry with a horn in your backside.
“…So I started to jog—which wasn’t that easy due to the incredible build-up of bodies plugging the middle of the street. Immediately, I was indirectly pushed to the eastern edge of Calle Estafeta, inches from scraping my shoulder against the brick buildings, requiring me to lunge and leap over other runners falling and tripping in all directions in front of me. There was mass confusion moving forward as everyone ran at different speeds and different levels of coordination. My head was on a permanent swivel, looking forward for any human obstacles and looking back over my shoulder for any signs of the bulls…”
And to read more about Pamplona, along with Neil’s adventure in London and Toronto, just click on the links below to pick up your own copy of Bulls, Bands, and London!