Midday, July 6 may be the official starting time for the world’s most insane party, but semantics like time matter little to the locals or throngs of tourists in Pamplona for two weeks of fiesta known as San Fermin.
It’s about 11.30am on July 6, and my girlfriend Tamzin and I are wedged into a side street not far from the town hall square, side-by-side with the cheerful, exuberant, and mostly inebriated crowd. With 30 minutes remaining till a fired rocket signals the commencement of festivities, I’m already soaked in sangria and champagne. My brother Luke, joining us in Spain for the next few weeks, is already lost somewhere in the crowd.
The first of many alcoholic contributions to my uniform — white pants and shirt, red panelo and sash — is provided not long after Tam and I arrived in Pamplona. A bearded man passing us on the street looks contemptuously at my pristine shirt, lifts his shoulder bladder and fires. I’m just happy the stream of sangria hits my chest. Sangria in the eye really, really stings.
As the clock counts down, I enter a local mercado and purchase a bottle of champagne. The warm stuff costs half price, and no one is buying champagne for drinking. With about 10 minutes remaining I remove the wrapping from the bottle, prematurely releasing its contents. No one seems to care, so I make like Michael Schumacher (pre-retirement) and douse the crowd.
With seconds remaining till midday, the crowd now takes out their pañuelos and lifts them to the sky. From our position at ground level, the sea of red scarfs looks brilliant and I envy those with balcony views. Softly at first, now slowly increasing to a roar, the chant of “San Fermin, San Fermin” reverberates through the masses. Finally, the swoosh of the rocket firing is heard from above, accompanied by a barely traceable jet stream. The crowd roars; champagne is popped, sangria is unleashed and a shower of sweat, alcohol and emotion rains over us.
A Spanish tour guide named Edu, one of my old Busabout chums, summed it up best while taking a group of passengers into Pamplona. “This,” he tells the coach, “I hate to tell you, is not the best party in the world”.
“This, San Fermin, is the best party in the f%^king universe!”
So begins two weeks of planned anarchy dedicating San Fermin, a former pagan who converted to Christianity, became the first bishop of Pamplona and was later beheaded in Amiens in southern France. The festival may be in dedication of a saint, but the partying is decidedly pagan, as Tam and I discovered during our night shift at a campsite in nearby Mediagorria. In the space of six hours we dealt with a deflated air mattress caused by cigarette burn, an attempted spear tackle, two revellers from another tour proudly displaying their tackle, a couple having sex less than a few metres from the tent site and a host of other trials that didn’t relent until 5am.
We arrived in Pamplona for the opening day sleep deprived and in no mood for celebration, but the consumption of copious amounts of sangria has a wonderfully mood altering affect. Of course too much, and you find yourself passed out and naked in your tent by 4pm.
While San Fermin begins and ends with almighty booze ups, it’s the encierros, or bull runs, that most have come for. From July 7 to 14, at 8am every morning, thousands run the 830-odd metre course through the streets of Pamplona, arriving in the Plaza del Torros in about three minutes later. Five, three and one minute before each run, the locals utter a short prayer to San Fermin, asking for his protection.
Each encierro is excitedly reportedly by Spanish newspapers the following day. Pages upon pages are dedicated to each run, accompanied by a statistical breakdown that would impress most football pundits. Time of run, number, type and location of injuries (most occur at Telefonica, the final turn where the telephone company is, just before runners enter the ring), injuries requiring hospitalisation and even a star rating out of five for danger, speed and the overall run.
With Tam and I unable to run due to our work commitments, we took our seats in the bullring for the first and second encierros as it’s the best place to watch the action. Two large televisions inside the ring broadcast the entire run, while at its conclusion, once the bulls are led out the back and the gates to the bull ring are shut, you can watch the runners duck, dive and fly Matrix-style through the air as the baby bulls are unleashed.
Unlike their 600kg big brothers, these younger bulls have wrapped horns but are quicker and smarter. However, the spectacle of watching the baby bulls provoked and teased is at times painful to watch. While we’ve been told the locals will not tolerate taunting of the bulls, there seems to be an acceptable amount before fists are thrown to the chant of “Hijo de puta” or “Son of a bitch”.
The bull run itself is the end of a long night for most Spaniards who have been partying since the previous night’s bull fight. After the 9.30am parade, most will grab some food before a midday siesta to awake in time for the 6.30pm bull fight — where the bulls from the morning’s run are put to the sword — and the magnificent fireworks display at 11pm.
To simplify, the order goes: bull run, drink, parade, drink, siesta, drink, bull fight, drink, fireworks, drink, repeat.
As for the runners, most emerged unscathed, although we did witness a young guy gored through the thigh on the second day. My sympathy for him is slightly tempered by his goading of a bull moments before impact.
While the bull run collects its share of injuries, it’s the fountain jumpers who really need their sanity checked. It’s the latest and greatest craze in Pamplona; far from the bull ring, people hurl themselves off the empty St. Cecilia fountain in the hopes they will be caught by the designated catchers below. Many are not. At least one girl broke her leg and people have died in the past. And the creators of this insane sport? Who else but a couple of Australians.
San Fermin; I can truly say I have never seen anything like it, nor will I see it again. Unless I come back next year…
Ben Oliver is freelance journalist and former tour guide taking an extended holiday, or mini retirement if you will, across Europe until the money runs out or his girlfriend gets sick of him. Whichever comes first. He blogs at Five Travel Rules, where this post first appeared.