It is 7.30 in the morning and the cobbles are wet and slippery. Not from rain, but from the hosing down the streets get every morning during the Feria de San Fermín.
Even though it is the middle of July, there is a chill in the air, but this is Pamplona and it will warm up quickly and by midday will be stifling. (The Feria de San Fermín runs from 7 to 14 July each year).
The street is crowded and there are many young people showing clear signs of having been drinking all night. Police officers move among the crowd and politely ask those who are the worse for wear to leave the area via the stout wooden barriers at each street intersection. There are no arguments or fights. Many people are dressed in white, with red sashes at their waists and red neckpieces. Most wear running shoes, and have their trousers rolled up to just below the knee. Several are leafing through the morning’s newspaper looking for photographs of yesterday’s run.
Time passes with leaden feet, and there is no-one in the street who does not look at his watch every ten seconds.
The regular runners begin to take up their positions. They know they will not be able to cover more than about 50 or 60 metres before they drop out, and each runner has his favourite starting point. They may have run a hundred times before, but the tension is always the same and does not become less with practice. It is 7.50 am.
A vast mass begins to move up the street, some walking, some at a trot, some running headlong. They are for the most part dressed in an assortment of guises, variously wearing shorts and sandals; strange headgear, and a few are bare-chested. As they sweep up the street, they see a line of police fifty metres ahead, blocking their way, and many of them are becoming agitated. There is no way out of the narrow medieval street and no doorways to hide in.
Although the police line is not supposed to break until 8 o’clock, it has already gone, and the people in the throng start running as fast as their legs can carry them!
After them comes a steady stream moving up the street, more casually and in lesser numbers than the previous wave, but not inclined to hang about either. The small groups standing at the side of the street reflect pools of relative tranquillity in a sea of constant movement. The only policemen in sight now are safely behind the barricades, smoking cigarettes and chatting with the pretty Red Cross girls waiting by the parked ambulances. Its is one minute before 8 o’clock.
Bruce Sinclair arrived from Glasgow three days ago. This will be his second run this year, taking his total up to 77 since he started running in 1992. Bruce is easy to pick out on the television film of each day’s run, as he always wears a Celtic FC shirt, slightly incongruous with the red sash and neckpiece. He invariably starts at the same point, the Mercaderes curve. This morning he is feeling more nervous than usual, as one of his friends, a Spanish veteran runner from the nearby town of Estafeta, was badly wounded yesterday, and will be in hospital for at least another week with a deep wound in his left thigh.
Bruce is facing backwards down the street, pressed hard into the wall to let others pass, and as he looks at his watch for the thousandth time he hears the rocket go up. Its is 8 o’clock exactly.
No-one can say with certainty when Spanish people first started running with the bulls. What is certain is that it began as a by-product of the necessary operation to move the bulls for the afternoon’s corrida (bullfight) from the holding pens to the bullring. The bulls were usually herded by men on horseback, but gradually young boys started running along the route, probably to show off to the girls, and year by year ‘the run’ began to take on the mantle of a tradition. Old sepia photographs show young, and not so young, men dressed in suits and wearing hats, running alongside the bulls.
Pamplona is the most famous town where there is an annual bull run, and Nobel prize-winning writer Ernest Hemingway is credited with making it famous. He first visited in 1923, the year in which he wrote a piece for the Toronto Star, and he followed this up with many subsequent visits, land-marked by the publication in 1927 of The Sun also Rises/Fiesta, a book that is obligatory reading for anyone interested in the Sanfermines, as the Pamplona feria is known. It is also a fascinating insight into the life of the lost generation of Americans who came to Europe to work and play between the world wars.
Quite why Hemingway went to Pamplona in the first place has never been established. The idea apparently came from fellow American writer Gertrude Stein, but how did she know about the Sanfermines? What is of course certain is that if it had not been Hemingway it would have been someone else. This fascinating small town fair was just waiting to be discovered by any foreign writer passing through, and although there are bull runs in many neighbouring towns and villages in Navarra, it is Pamplona which has caught the imagination of the world.
As 8 o’clock approaches the bulls in the corral become restless They seem to know the gates to the street are about to be opened. Or maybe it is the cabestros, the massive castrated steers which accompany the bulls on their run, that give the game away.
On the chime of the town hall clock a rocket is ignited and the huge doors swing open. By the time the rocket explodes high above the corrals, the bulls are half way up Santo Domingo, the only seriously uphill section of the run. Fifty metres from the corral the runners are held back by another police line, not to stop them from going towards the ring, but to stop them running down towards the corrals. Exactly at 8 the police line breaks, and the regulars run down the hill towards the oncoming bulls. Their run is very short; in seconds they are pressed against the wooden barriers as the bulls speed on up the hill.
At the top of Santo Domingo (‘La Cuesta de Santo Domingo’) is the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the town hall square. Exploding from the narrow alley the bulls are suddenly in an open space, but still running fast and guided by wooden barricades on both sides. No-one is allowed to sit on the first barricade, as this provides an escape route for runners in trouble, but the second row is packed and its occupants will have got there hours before in order to secure a place.
The most recent fatality of the bull run was in this square. In 1995 American tourist Matthew Tassio committed the deadliest of sins – which cost him his life. Arriving the previous evening with three friends on the bus from Madrid, there was time to spend the night partying before heading to join the crowd in the town hall square. Matthew had never seen the run before, and had no idea what to expect. Nor would he have read the information leaflet which is available to everyone throughout the feria and which gives sensible advice about how to behave. If Matthew had read that he would be alive today.
Rule Number One is, if you fall down, play dead. Matthew slipped and fell as the bulls started to come through the square. Immediately he got up again, and a cantering bull chose that moment to drive its right horn into Matthew’s torso. His companions waited for hours at the agreed rendezvous before they found out what had happened. This is the only American fatality in the history of the Sanfermines.
What is truly surprising is that more people do not get seriously injured or killed running the bulls of Pamplona. There have been ‘only’ 13 fatalities in the history of the run. Tradition has it that San Fermín, the patron saint of the town, wields a heavenly cape which deflects the bull from any runner in danger. In fact, horn wounds are rare, probably 4 or 5 in the entire 7 days’ runs, while fractures and grazes run into the dozens each day. Having said that, one infamous day a couple of years ago 62 people were injured.
The pack come out of the town hall square and into Mercaderes, a short stretch at the end of which there is a sharp right-hand turn before the long Estafeta street. Traditionally some of the bulls slide on the curve and skid into the barricade on the left. They get up quickly, but at this moment the pack is often broken up and ceases to run as a compact group. Bruce waits for them on the curve, taking advantage of the chaos to introduce himself into the mêlée and to keep ‘on the horns’ for as long as he can. His ambition is to run the whole length of the street, a distance of about 450 metres, but he admits few runners have ever achieved this.
The trick is not to run with the bulls. Nor behind them nor alongside them, but just in front, or ‘on the horns’. A good runner, and there are many (known by name to everyone) who can, in theory, keep just ahead of the horns almost indefinitely, since the pack by now has slowed down to a canter.
Were life that simple!
Other runners (and non-runners regrettably) are all around, weaving in and out of the bulls, and you need eyes in the back of your head to see the following bulls and eyes at knee level to avoid fallen and falling runners. If you can get in between two bulls you stand a good chance, as providing the first bull keeps a steady pace you need only keep an eye on the bull behind you. Until someone falls in front of the lead bull…….
Bruce recounts the morning he was looking forward to a good run, when suddenly there erupted into the street a coach-load of Australian tourists wearing ‘I ran with the bulls in Pamplona’ T-shirts. That day the run was a complete waste of time.
There are strict rules for running with the bulls – and fines for breaking them. You are not allowed to touch the bulls (running alongside with an arm over the bull’s back is a cardinal sin, but still happens), nor cite them nor distract them in any way. The traditional rolled-up newspaper is for emergencies, and many is the time Bruce and other runners have used it for getting a stalled bull to move towards the bullring again.
The unsung heroes of each day’s run are the pastores, or herders, recognisable by their green armbands and long sticks. They will face down a bull in a dangerous situation merely by placing their stick between its horns. They never get injured. You will also feel their stick should you be foolish enough to do anything which is not permitted.
One of the bulls has fallen half-way up Estafeta street, and it is taking its time getting up. By the time it is on its feet the rest of the herd is long gone, and the bull is left alone in a street full of people. This is one of the most dangerous moments of any run, only surpassed by the very rare occasion when a bull or bulls turn around and go back the way they came.
Disorientated and unsure, the bull is soon charging at anyone it can see. The herders keep the runners from getting too near though, and a group of experienced youths use their newspapers as mini-capes to gradually get the animal moving up the street to join its companions.
At the top of Estafeta in Pamplona there is another square (Telefónica), before the entrance to the ring. The chute leading to the big main doors is a hot spot, and the sheer lack of space makes for the occasional pile-up. Indeed, the worst year ever for fatalities was when a pile-up occurred in the entrance to the bullring. A runner fell, and in seconds there were 20 or 30 other runners forming a human mountain when the bulls arrived. The confused animals fought to get through the mass, and in their efforts killed and severely injured many people. Every runner who specialises in this section dreads another pile up.
Once in the ring the bulls are herded into their stalls, and a series of small cows with padded horns are let out. These have a great time dashing around tossing everyone in sight, until they tire and are taken out. Then its all over until tomorrow.
The running of the bulls itself has probably taken no more than 4 minutes, but the entire day revolves it. People will be talking about it for the next 24 hours, watching re-runs on television, and peering through the windows of photographers’ shops to see that morning’s photographs. By comparison with the encierro, the afternoon’s bullfight is hardly important – even though it is seen live by thousands more spectators.
Bruce makes for the Bar Txoco. Here he will meet up with other runners and they will exchange anecdotes and experiences of the morning’s encierro. Certainly, there are some seriously good foreign runners, respected by their Spanish counterparts.
The days pass quickly during the Sanfermines. The town authorities make sure there is always something happening, from musical events to the typically Basque sports of log chopping and weight lifting. Lunch for most people usually consists of aperitivos in one of the many bars in the old town, and an excellent dinner in one of the superb small restaurants which are to be found in the streets around the Plaza de Castilla. All the streets in the old town are closed to traffic for the duration, making it agreeable to wander around day and night.
Is Pamplona worth a visit?
Very definitely, whether during the fair or another time, as the old town is a treasure. However the Sanfermines are a rowdy, noisy, 24-hour party, and although you have only to walk a few blocks to get away from the worst of the celebrating, you may not want to. It somehow draws you in and draws you back. In the same way that people live all the year to take part in the annual pilgrimage to El Rocio, so do others live all year for the crazy seven days in July which are the Sanfermines and the time for the running of the bulls in Pamplona.