The seven-day festival in Pamplona during the Festival of San Fermin has become, since Ernest Hemingway made it famous in 1925 in The Sun Also Rises, all about the Running of the Bulls. It is a testament to the power of the written word that its current popularity still has so much to do with a book written almost one hundred years ago.
I went to Pamplona on my second day in Spain, after a rather long night out, jet lagged, with Sherry Ott and Russ Brooks, which meant that the train ride over and most of that Friday were spent working off a slight wine hangover. How so very Hemingway of us.
Russ had found us a nice place a little outside the main part of town, which was quite a feat given the number of people in town. The prices for everything in town during this week, especially the room rates, are massively inflated and every place is booked. There are kids camping all over the place, including sleeping in various parks and even right outside our hotel, on blow-up mattresses. Are they here for the running with the bulls… or the party? Perhaps both, but they do bring a certain energy to the whole thing.
In fact, one of the negative themes to the weekend was on that front: kids partying all over the place. I’m all for a good drink or three, but the level of partying in the downtown area each night (and morning) was at a level I just simply can’t, or won’t do anymore. There is something about seeing a bunch of people still wasted at 6 a.m., as we came into town for the running, and still drinking who’s appeal, if it ever existed before for me, has long past its way.
On the other hand, one of the amazingly cool, and completely unexpected things, about the entire time is that everyone dresses up.
Pamplona’s normal population is about 300,000 people or so. During the Running of the Bulls, reports are that approximately a million people show up during the week.
I’d bet well over 80% of all those people (including the locals just walking around town) are wearing white pants, a white shirt, a red scarf around their neck and a red sash tied to their waste. You can find the outfits all around town and it will cost you about $20 to buy the whole thing. Do it. Not only because you just should, just to do it, but because literally everyone is wearing it and you should make an effort to fit in.
Russ and I ran with the Bulls on Saturday morning.
Here’s the short version of what you need for the running of the bulls in Pamplona:
You need to get to the street where the running takes by about 7 a.m. at the latest. You can mill around on the street for a while, but the police will start pushing everyone back from the middle portion of the route, pushing them to closer to the beginning or end, around 7:15 or so. It gets pretty crowded in the area where they push you back to, but the spirit is good in the crowd and that is usually when the chats, songs, and clapping amongst those of you about to run begins.
At about 7:45 or so, the police step back and let the runners on the street go to wherever they want to start their run. Russ had done some research, unlike me, and had decided that we should set up just the other side of Dead Man’s Corner. The bulls come running down the street into that 90 degree turn and usually bounce off the barrier there, before starting down the main street to the bull ring.
We positioned ourselves on the side away from where the bulls bounce off the barrier and prepared for the excitement.
At 8 a.m. you hear a rocket go off in the distance. That is the signal that the gates of the corral holding the bulls has been opened. A couple minutes later, you hear a second rocket go off. That means that all the bulls are on the streets and running.
It is at that point that the crowd starts getting a little restless and jittery. You know the whole Running with the Bulls only takes about three or four minutes and that they aren’t far off from whereever you are waiting for them, but because of the size of the crowd, you really can’t see where the bulls are coming from.
A short minute after the second rocket, the crowd started surging forward. The bulls must be just on the other side of the people coming towards us. Then we heard the telltale sounds of the bulls running into the barrier about 100 meters from where we were standing.
The Running of the Bulls…. It was on.
And as quickly as that, it’s over. The first group of eight or so smaller (and faster and more dangerous) bulls raced right pass where we were. We perhaps ran next to them for 20-30 meters, maximum.
The second group of larger bulls came by about thirty seconds later, with the same rush of people before they got to us, and we were slightly more ready that time. We ended up running with them for maybe 40-50 meters or so and then attempted to keep running, in order to get into the bull ring before they shut the gates (the bulls run into the bull ring and out the other side, but they release some young bulls with taped horns to run amok with the runners that get into the ring before they shut the gates).
We didn’t make it down there before they shut the gates off.
All in all, Russ and I both decided it was one of those events that was worth doing once in life, but that it was incredibly anti-climatic. Now, if you want to run down the middle of the road, right in front of the bulls like some do, you are going to get your full fill of excitement, but it is also a great way to get trampled.
(Side note, if you do fall down in the running, stay down. Let the bulls trample over you, until someone picks you up and moves you to the side. Getting trampled is far less dangerous than trying to get up, getting your body right at horn level, and getting gored, which is how the last person that died during the running died.)
So after Saturday, Russ and I were a little bummed, though we didn’t drown our sorrows with the partying kids that night on the main square.
Luckily, the next day made the entire weekend worthwhile.
We knew we wanted to watch the Running of the Bulls from one of the balconies for rent over the route. Russ called a couple people from numbers that were posted up on the balconies and fliers on the street (helpful hint: a good bit of Spanish is necessary for these calls). We took at a look at one place and thought it would be OK, but then we went to the second place and it was close to perfect.
It was right on Dead Man’s Corner, with a view up the main street after the bulls turn that corner. The sight lines were great. The price was high (75 Euros), but totally worth it. I love my shots from up there and Russ is going to post a video he edited off his camera and my smaller point and shoot — both of which were running the entire time.
It was a true spectacle to behold from above, where you can really see the action. It made the entire weekend not only worthwhile, but one of the better sporting events I have seen in my life. Fast, furious, dangerous and likely to be outlawed in the near future (the Catalonia region of Spain has already prohibited it), this is one of the events in the world that you should get to see as soon as possible.
And to finish this post off, for those of you that want to know why it might be a bad idea to run right in front of the bulls and risk their wrath, enjoy this photo sequence.
So, only a couple dozen bulls in total? I had no idea it was over that fast. That last picture is really cool!
Thanks, Dalene. The last one was a little tweeked out, but I liked it. And yes, not that many bulls, but still tons of excitement!
Wow, what an adrenaline rush just reading this! I admire you for doing this man but think I would like the position on top of the balcony much better! I can see the excitement of doing this but you have to be smart about it. It seems that both of you were (i.e. not running down the middle of the street). However, I am not sure this is the best thing to do for a bunch of drunk people hungover from the night before. The last thing you want when running with bulls is to be a little impaired while lacking some coordination! Fun to read and watch though!
The only thing that Brooks and I kept saying to each other over and over was… no running down the middle of the street. Then you get up above it all and see guys that do just that and realize… we were totally right!
Very cool. I’d like to go and shoot this someday. I’ve discovered so many bizarre festivals in Spain I think you could spend a whole year just visiting them.
I just discovered one in a small village on the island of La Gomera where they jump over bonfires.
Thanks, Gary. I agree about the Spanish festivals. I heard about a good dozen when I was there and when my wallet can handle a longer stay in Europe, I’ll be headed back over for a more extended stay for just that reason alone.
Do they have an Iberico ham festival? If so, I am going.
We had no idea that the ‘running with the bulls’ is only 4 to 5 minutes long! Still, a truly unique experience. And looking at your photos, the 75 Euros for the balcony spot were totally worth it!!
We sort of choked on the price for the balcony until we got up there. It was very pricey, but totally worth it.
Very cool story about your experience. I think I would have enjoyed the photo-taking more than the running as well.
The running was OK. Glad I did it, but don’t need to do it again. Now on the other hand, I’d go back and shoot that event again, to be sure.
Amazing shots and you definitely look like you fit right in =) I think taking the photos and viewing the whole thing is just a good (but different) experience as running it yourself!
Initially, I felt a little stupid in that outfit. Then after wandering around for a few days, we realized we’d look a LOT more stupid if we weren’t wearing it!
Great pictures! I’m curious – do any women ever run? Not that I really want to, but I didn’t see any women in any of the photos.
There were some women down there running, to be sure. Not too many, but some. The running part wouldn’t be too bad as a woman, but the half hour or so where everyone is jammed up together in one part of the street might not be the best for ya’ll. Do it with a half-dozen guy friends.
Wow, great shots. Looks like quite a celebration.
Although I’d probably be the dumb one running in the middle of the street taking my chances. Gotta keep the adrenaline pumping…
The odds don’t look too bad, 1 out of 100 chance you get gored? 🙂
Awwww, the odds of getting gored are a lot less than 100 to 1…. if you stay out of the center 😉 Actually, getting trampled or falling down and getting run over by the other runners is the main risk I could see.
True, but I wouldn’t judge the future risk by this year’s runs. For some reason all 8 days were very quick and clean with virtually no loose bulls. It isn’t usually this way. When a bull goes suelto, even those running along the sides or standing in doorways can be in serious danger.
Love your blog and glad you had a good time at Sanfermines. I even found a few shots of me running (Cdn hockey jersey #77) in your pics! That was the Muira bulls on Sunday – the crowd opened up right in front of me and I missed a golden opportunity to get right on the horns. Still kicking myself for that. There is always next year.
I’m not a huge fan of Pamplona as a destination, but this could be fun to experience once.
Pretty much how I see it — should be on the list of things to do once.
I love the photos, very nicely done! It’s good to know there are balconies for hire to safely watch the running. I would really like to see it but I think I would prefer to be up there! 🙂
Just make sure you do extensive shopping for the balconies beforehand. There are highly variable prices and sight lines from different spots. Too high up, for instance, isn’t very good for your photos.
FWIW, the six “big bulls” are really tame oxen who run with the bulls to keep them calmer and more herded together. It’s only (relatively) dangerous when a bull gets separated from the pack and frantic.
As one of the “park dwellers” in the late-60’s, I can attest to the curative powers of cheap sangria in the central plaza, as well as a much-needed hot shower from the publico banos on occasion.
And no, sorry Katie, being the Spanish chauvinists they are, women and children are not permitted to run. Only we silly mouth-breathers…
Yea, I didn’t spend enough words to explain it more fully, but the big oxen are certainly a LOT more tame than the smaller ones. And women might have been prevented years ago, but certainly not now. There were a good number of women out there running with us this time.
Really interesting to get a first hand account. Loved the photos. Will share your story with my students. Something I will have to view when I return to Spain some day in the future.
Better get to it soon – I bet they outlaw it before then end of this decade.
Wow, that is intense. I was wondering the same thing as Katie, speculating about how foolhardy-brave I would be if I got the chance to participate, but then I read your comment about no women allowed. Boo.
Amazing photos, though.
You can certainly get out there and do it… just stay to the sides and it will all be OK. Well, unless one of the smaller bulls breaks from the pack….
Wow, great photos, Michael! I don’t know that I’d ever want to run with the bulls… but I WOULD love to do what you did, and watch from a balcony!
The views up there can be pretty spectacular for sure. And the city does a video every day of the whole run that you can see in various bars around town. Pretty interesting.
I can’t believe you actually ran! I’m glad you made it out alive. I was there in 2000 & watched, which was incredible. I was one of those people out drinking until the running took place but we napped at night & probably started drinking at 2 or 3 in the morning. Some of the guys in our group hung out near the end of the route where everyone runs into the ring, & as soon as they saw runners they jumped in to go into the ring. They thought they were studs but us girls thought they were idiots. Anyway, fun times, great weekend 🙂
LOL, glad I wasn’t hanging with you guys. I can’t roll all through the night like that anymore!
Great photos – looks like an amazing experience! Interesting that you found the actual running a let down, but enjoyed watching the spectacle from the sidelines so much more. And notice how there are no women crazy enough to be temping fate like that…
They were out there. Not too many, but there are crazy woman as well 😉
Going to have to get to this one day – not for a run, just for a look. We once got off the train from Madrid to San Sebastian many years ago to spend a couple of days in Pamplona. It was late summer, however, there wasn’t a single tourist in town, and most of the locals had gone to the beach, so the place was very low-key and laidback. We loved it.
Yea, the downtown area would be nice to hang out in…. absent the mass of humanity. It seemed like a nice enough town, but hard to tell with all the craziness.
The year I ran I had a woman friend who tried to sneak in. She screwed her hair up under a cap (Chicago Bulls, as I remember, she had *that* kind of humor), borrowed several tight T-shirts as binding, and a loose white shirt and pants. She made it to mid-course with us when the Guardia Civil caught her. She raised 6 kinds of womens’ lib hell but they were adamant.
Not as heart-stopping, but as much fun, is what happens inside the corrida after the run. The bulls and oxen enter one side and are herded out the other, the gates are closed, and a young (feisty — very feisty) heifer with leather-padded horns is let loose among the exhausted runners. The object is to whack the young (did I mention very feisty?!) bull with a rolled-up newspaper while avoiding getting slammed its padded horns or tromped in its zeal.
They offer three or four of these lightweights over the course of the morning, after which everyone retires to the plaza for sangria and paella. And sangria. That afternoon, anyone unlucky enough to get trampled by the big guys in the streets (or, god-forbid, gored!) can exact their revenge by going to the bullfight. The morning’s runners are up at bat again, only this time against guys with pointy things. Ignoring the pros & cons of bullfighting as a sport, the meat is all donated to missions and the homeless. I had no complaints with that. But first, the region that offered up the bulls puts on a cultural display of local dancing. Each region/day tries to out-do the others and it’s all quite impressive.
After the fights everyone retires to the plaza for sangria and paella. And sangria. And that night the region du jour puts on a spectacular fireworks display.
This goes on for 7 days: One for each region of Spain. From 7-7-7 (July 7th @ 7am) to closing, it’s an awful lot of fun; an event that, 400 years ago, honored the bull by insisting the town’s butchers all run in barricaded streets, chased by 1500 pounds of angry pot roast…
Thanks for all the good details and stories! We didn’t make into the bullring on any of the days we were there for the post-run fun. I saw all three days on video and they weren’t that exciting, at least for the few days we were there, but you can never tell in advance obviously. And I’m not sure when you ran, but there were women out running with us when we were down there and they didn’t hide the fact they were women at all. Maybe that has been loosened up recently, but it didn’t seem to be a problem at all.
I loved Pampalona! It was one of the best festivals I went to. I had so much fun dancing in the streets and partying with the locals. The start of the festival in the village square was so much fun. The bell rings and then everyone throws flour eggs and champagne over everyone else. It was great fun!
You are very brave for running, I’m sure it was a major thrill. I found it quite humourous watching all the crazies run especially in the ring after!
Nice to hear they’re letting women run now. In my mind San Fermin was always one of the last bastions of male bon hommie, but c’est la vie. That was then … this is now. For me, the running was exhilarating, but sitting at the same cafe — possibly the same table — drinking sangria with the ghosts of Hemingway and Steinbeck was equally as much fun.
How is the current mood re the bullfights themselves? I’m not a big proponent, personally, but as a documentarian I fall on the side of “you can’t save all the antelope all the time.”
When I was there, lo these many years ago, instead of running into the corrida and out the other side, the bulls and oxen inside got distracted and began circling. The people inside were trying to get out and the people in the street, not knowing what was going on, were jammed up at the portico trying to get in. Somewhere I have a newspaper photo of a bull actually climbing over a crush of people at the entrance, trying to reach his teammates. It was quite a sight.
A Spaniard next to me got gored. A group of us had just rounded the last dogleg and came upon the pileup. The bull we were behind said ‘screw it,’ turned around and began charging back up the street, going at anything that moved. The guy next to me zigged and I zagged and who-knows-why but the bull liked him better.
I saw him in the plaza that afternoon; he was still proudly wearing his blood-stained shirt. It called for much sangria.
Wait, I don’t get it. You were running alongside the bulls!? As in, next to them??? Do they not have peripheral vision or what?
Your view was SO much better than mine! I’m really jealous. It makes me want to go back again… but then I think about all the drunken fools… We’ll see!
Great pictures! Poor bulls though…
I love seeing everybody hanging from the balconies watching the action. You really have some awesome pix here! Ever since I saw Billy Crystal running in ‘City Slickers’ I have wanted to don the red bandana and RUN!!
I also didn’t realize the run was that short. I guess they have to try to limit injuries. In the picture of the guy who got trampled (4th from last pic), it looks like the guy in front of him against the building is about to get gored.
Really cool- Bob has always wanted to do this… but fearing that he would be the idiot running right in front of the bulls, I haven’t really wanted him to do this!! Great photos- love the tweaked out one.
It’s such a weird tradition! I love your shots and your story, but I must say I would have been quite frightened for the people below. Just looking at some of the photos with the giant horns of bulls just at someone’s backside makes me cringe!
That must be such a rush – John did it once but I would never be so brave. Would be so exciting to watch, though. Your post is really good – made me feel like I was there! Thanks =)
Michael, you must be mad, I’m afraid I wouldn’t do that if you paid me. Would love the chance to get a few photos though, so it’s definitely the balcony for me
This post makes me nostalgic for when I did it in 2005. I ended up being kicked by a bull in the head and still have a scar from it!
Are girls allowed to run? I never seem to see girls running in the photos…. I don’t care if its smart or not and if I can run fast or not but I definitely want to do this sometime! Hopefully before it is cancelled 🙂
Now you need to go to La Tomatina Michael! August 31st!!
Witnessing the Running of the Bulls has been on my “Bucket List” for a long time. I’d only want to be a spectator though…. I’m too chicken to risk being gored! Excellent, informative article and I love your photos!
You got some great pictures, sounds like a lot if fun and it’s awesome how everyone gets involved with the dressing up. The atmosphere must be electric!
If you enjoyed running with the bulls in Pamplona, may be next year you can try the Encierro del Pilon (at Falces, near Pamplona). Runners and animals run down the montain at high speed (i.e., https://youtu.be/AFcuInnuTao).
really great post. i was born in spain but never got to experience any of the cultural traditions. i’d love to go back and do it. great pictures, especially that tweeked out one at the end. people’s flesh looks cool and so do the lights. if i ever go, i’ll def take your advice and stay out of the way. bulls don’t play, man.
how long is the whole ceremony
This is one of my bucket list items. I know it’s cliché and stupid, but I think I’m up for the challenge. Well, I don’t know if I’d run but I wouldn’t mind being on a balcony pointing and laughing. @(^_^)@
Really great article! You were able to get some awesome pictures. I would never ever participate in the running of the bulls.
A very interesting piece – cheers. Girls can run these days – a friend of mine did a couple of years ago. I was set to go with her but ended up having foot surgery beforehand so couldn’t run for a while, only limp. I was still all set to go and only as the day grew nearer did I realise what an idiotic idea that would be…Having seen her pictures – and yours – at least now I know I made the right call 😉 Southwest France has quite a lot of bullfighting festivals (though without the bulls in the streets) but everyone still dresses up in white with red bandanas. That part’s quite cool – I’m no fan of the fights, though.
Holly Crap, this gets my heart pumping. I’m ready! Awesome pictures.
What an awesome experience! And great photos to boot!
Bulls are so mistreated in that country, its ridiculous. People are so ignorant to animals’ feelings, its all about “tradition” and entertainment…
I am not sure I agree that people are ignorant about it. Bullfighting is getting banned in many places in the world, including Spain (as I detailed in the post). I’d imagine it is just a matter of time before it is banned everywhere.
I´m from Pamplona.
I live in the numbre 3 of Estafeta.
And I have seen my balconies in your photos!
Between them there is a coat of arms.
The balconies appears in the first and fifth photos. They are on the left of the street and they have green flags hanging from them.
Great post and pictures! I’m heading there this summer so reading this got me pretty psyched.
Ran this year. Absolutely the best and worst time of my life. So scary but good times. We made it into the arena behind the bulls. That was crazier I think.
Hi Mike, love youre article & the photos too(especially the last one). I live on Estafeta 57 & yes I aggree the balcony spots are well worth while as you will see nothing from the street level.
Viva San Fermin!