We left Madrid on the morning of July 9th and used our Eurail passes for the first time in three weeks. The train was a comfortable high speed line where we were served wine and snacks during the three hour trip to into northern Spain. We arrived around 12:30 and walked for 15 minutes or so until we found the apartment we rented. Pamplona is normally a fairly small town, but it explodes during the eight days of the festival every July. The room we rented for three nights in a shared apartment was one of the most expensive of our trip, and it was at least a mile outside of the main part of town.
We were supposed to stay with a lady and her son, but the lady decided to take a last minute trip to Seville, much like how people in New Orleans leave town during Mardi Gras. The son was also away, leaving her 38 year old daughter to greet us and watch the place. This wouldn’t normally be an issue, but with the normal residents gone, there was some miscommunication about who got to take which keys, and they didn’t have an extra set for us when we got in. So basically – the daughter had to stay there the entire time to open the door when we got in. She grew up in the U.S. so spoke perfect English and was good to talk to, but I’m sure having to sit around to open the door for us sucked.
We didn’t waste much time before heading out to check out the town. We were getting in on the third day of the festival, so we had some catching up to do. First things to do – get into town, replenish our cash supply, get appropriate festival clothing, and find some sangria. The route from our apartment into town took us back past the train station, across a small river, and alongside a park filled with improvised campsites and passed out festival goers, before finally arriving at the base of the cliff that separates the old and new parts of town. Here there was a small carnival with rides and games set up on one side, just opposite of the holding pen where the bulls awaited their turn for the next day’s events. Heading toward the cliff there’s a split in the road, the left taking you up the steep hill that the bulls would take at the start of the run, the right taking you up a different (but still steep) hill that led into town. We climbed up and into the historic part of Pamplona.
The city was much like many other old towns that existed before modern urban planning – with the streets built to fit the terrain rather the terrain changed to accommodate a sensible map.
We found our way to the main town square, a large area filled with people and bordered by shops, restaurants, and overpriced hotels named after Hemingway. Not having the traditional white shirts and pants, and red bandanas and sashes, we found a little store that was more than happy to outfit us, and soon we blended in with the other festival goers.
On the original list of main things we wanted to see on the trip was a bullfight, so we found our way to the arena ticket window to get seats for the following morning’s fights. I should say we found our way to the line – because a very long line it was. We waited and waited within the crowds and under the hot Spanish sun. Other people in line were getting impatient and eventually a scuffle broke out between a couple of men a little ways in front of us. Too much drink, too much sun, too much waiting, and these things happen…
After getting the tickets we kept wandering the town on foot. During this festival, the normally quite town was a writhing mass of people – drinking, dancing, playing music, sleeping (or passed out) on benches, buying knockoff goods from Africans, throwing coins into the hats of traveling street performers. The end of each day is celebrated with a fireworks show along the river. We sat in the grass while screaming kids jumped around us and colorful explosions lit up the sky.
July 10th – We were up “early,” got our festival clothes on, and raced out the door so we could see the day’s running of the bulls. We vastly underestimated just how early we would need to get to the fences along the route to actually see anything. The bulls themselves get released at 8am, and getting there at 7:30 meant this was our view…
So much for seeing the bulls. But we had the morning to walk the town and see it in a different way than during the night. Families were out and crews were busy scrubbing the evidence of last night’s partying from the streets. Traditional parades featuring giant costumes roamed the roads. We took in some of this before going back to the apartment area for lunch. We sat down at a table at one restaurant and waited for the waiter to come by. He saw us. He was serving other tables. He never came over. Weird. So we went to another place down the street and splurged on good food and wine.
In the evening it was time for the bull fight. The tradition is controversial, and after seeing it in person we can understand why. Yet, it’s a famous piece of the culture, and we had to see it while we were there. The stadium itself is a big circle, and tickets are bought for either la sombra or el sol – the shade or the sun. The shade side of the stadium is where the old people and anybody actually wanting to see the fights go. The sun is cheaper, hot and sweaty. It’s full of brass bands erupting into song while crews of people shower themselves and everybody else in sangria.
We sat in the shade.
The fights themselves are well orchestrated events – or that’s the goal anyway. The six bulls that ran up the hill in the morning get to face off against different matadors. It sounds romantic – a man facing off against a giant, ferocious beast, and triumphing with style. In truth, by the time the matador goes on foot against the animal, it has already been worn down and speared by men on armored horses and by others aiming javelins at it’s massive neck to weaken the muscles. The matador’s job is to get the bull, by this point already bleeding significantly, to run after him, making him bleed faster and weaken to the point that he can go in for a kill. Ideally, the final blow is delivered by a well placed thrust of the sword over the head and through the heart. That’s easier said than done. We stayed for four of the fights, and three of them involved the matador missing the spot repeatedly, prolonging the bull’s suffering, getting booed, and having another team come in with daggers to finish the job. The clean strike we saw killed the bull instantly. It’s not a sport for the faint of heart or the hardcore animal lover. It’s not something I’d care to see again. But it was worth witnessing in person.
July 11th – I think Jenny knew it was coming. I hadn’t actually talked about running with the bulls myself for the first couple days, but after seeing it in person, and knowing I’d probably never be there again, I had to do it. And I think she knew she wouldn’t be able to talk me out of it. So that morning we got up early, for real early this time. We got to the course by 6:30am and found a nice spot with a fence to sit on, and made camp. We sat together for a while as the workers put the rest of the fencing up that keeps the bulls on the path. The crowds started filling in. I assured her I’d be fine and headed off to find a good spot to wait until the run began.
The course for the run is something like 835 meters long, and you can start anywhere you want – at the very beginning where the bulls come out, at the end right before they enter the stadium, or anywhere in between. I picked a spot in a small square and huddled with some other American and Australian guys and waited for the rockets to go off that announce the release of the bulls. For how stupid of an activity it is (Yes, I fully admit that putting yourself in the path of frightened/angry bulls isn’t a smart thing to do) the course was heavily monitored by police and emergency workers doing their best to make things “safe.” The police controlled the gates into the course, checking for alcohol, cameras, and overly intoxicated daredevils. The emergency workers jumped to action to help with the inevitable trips, falls, tramples, and worst case, gorings.
I heard the rockets go off and started moving with the crowd. Adrenaline starts pumping pretty heavily at that point as now there’s no turning back. You wouldn’t want to turn back because there are a bunch of pointy-horned bulls behind you. We rounded a corner into a long straightaway. The street was wide enough that I could stay to the side and keep a person or two between me and the animals as they passed. There’s a buildup of anticipation as more time passes between the rockets and the present, as you know the bulls are closer and closer but even looking back you can’t see through the crowd to exactly where they are. Halfway up the street, the runners behind us start sprinting and shouting and pushing us forward. I could hear the cowbells clanging and then the bulls start going by. The truth is that you don’t really run “with” the bulls, so much as you run away from them, and they’re so much faster than you that you’re only near them for about 15 seconds. I was alongside them for a few seconds before a half dozen people fell down in a pile in front of me and I stopped short before going down myself. And just like that, the bulls were out of sight. A dozen steer follow the bulls down the course, so they came soon after, chased by wild men swatting at them with rolled up magazines.
The run itself goes straight into the bullfight arena. Going through the gates and emerging into a stadium full of people as the morning sun poured over cheering runners was a surreal experience. I stood and soaked it all in for a few minutes before strolling back out to find Jenny.
She had been perched on the fence taking pictures of the craziness, and had no idea where I was. With everybody in the same clothing, it’s hard to pick out individuals as they’re running, but I knew where she was, so I had raised my arms trying to get her attention. She didn’t actually notice me as I passed, but looking through the pictures, she managed to get one with me in it! Cameras weren’t allowed on the run itself, so luckily she was there to get proof of me doing stupid things.
We had the rest of the day to explore and relax and did nothing of note in comparison to what we’d already done. The next morning we watched the bull run on TV with our host. It had been a fairly injury-free festival through the day I ran. The day after was a different story. Gorings happened, and did happen that day. But we also watched live on TV as a freak mishap with the arena gates took place. The large wooden gates themselves make up a wall of the arena when closed, and open outward into the tunnel that makes up the entrance for the bulls and runners. Somehow, with the mass of runners flooding in, they started getting behind one of the open gates, slowly pushing it closed as more people filled in. With only one gate open, it wasn’t nearly enough room for everybody to get through, so a wall of people got stuck together, getting clogged and slowly forced through. To make matter worse, the dozen steer that follow the bulls down the course arrived at the gate and started pushing the mass from behind. Luckily the bulls had already gone through, because if they had gotten stuck in that mess, it could have been terrible. People were getting crushed and dragged from the pile passed out. Jenny and I were both glad I picked the day I did to run and not the day after!
Run with the bulls in Pamplona – checked off my list of crazy things in this world that I just had to do.