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Run with the Bulls at the San Fermin Festival

Published by Abby Agyarquah, Writer

Country: Spain

The Experience

For two weeks of each year, in the middle of July, one can find themselves amid the most popular festival in Pamplona, San Fermin: “Encierro” (or as it is called in English: “The Running of the Bulls”). Pamplona, Spain has become internationally known for its annual Running of the Bulls festival that draws crowds of hundreds of thousands of people to watch an event that perhaps may not even last longer than ten minutes.

Originally, festivities were solely in honour of the Patron Saint of Navarra: San Fermin. Every year on the 7th of July, the early morning sun greets the community of Navarra as they gather in the street to raise the statue of their beloved Patron Saint. This statue is a silver-plated wooden sculpture from the end of the 14th century displaying an open silver locket at its chest. Carried through the streets in a procession that passes nearby districts of medieval Pamplona-Navarrería—the borough of San Cernin and the village of San Nicolás—the statue of Patron Saint Fermin is worshipped by all those in its presence.

Before The Running of the Bulls, a set of runners assemble to perform a rite of protection to San Fermín. The Saint is asked for protection and a blessing from his cape, which is believed to have powers that protect those who fall during the Run. After the religious services are completed, the focus is then on the release of the bulls, and of course—the fiesta.

The Running of the Bulls festival holds such popularity that it accentuates the other celebrations such as: Las Dianas, El Apartado, the procession of mules and horses, and the fireworks. The Running of the Bulls takes place at the foot of Santo Domingo, and the bulls are lead to the ring by runners through the streets of the Old Quarter. Before the Running of the Bulls begins, the area is surveyed by local authorities to ensure that the area is spacious enough for both the bulls and the people.

At 8 a.m. a rocket is launched to announce the opening of the event and alert everyone that the gate has been opened to release the bulls. This is the only time for anyone who has become afraid to withdraw, as after the next rocket is launched there will be no turning back. The second rocket informs the runners that the bulls have left and are running up the slanted street of Cuesta de Santo Domingo to the front of the City Hall. From here, they will run down Mercaderes Street and onto Estafeta Street. At this point, one or two bulls have probably separated from the herd, and onlookers become especially aware that this is the time unexpected accidents occur. This section of streets ends crossing in front of the telephone exchange and down to a passageway into the bull ring. This area is protected by rows of fences so that if people fall during the Running of the Bulls they can find a place to take cover.

After the bulls run down the passageway, they are steered through the door of the corrals by capes held by the dobladores (bullfighters or former bullfighters). In this passageway, all the runners are waiting; some already running while others stay to agitate the bulls more. Once all the bulls have been gathered into the ring—a third rocket is launched, and the runners and the audience seek to gather themselves as everyone looks around for any injuries. The last rocket announces that the Running of the Bulls is over and local authorities begin to assess any fatalities.

It is often said that there are currently too many runners in the festival, and at the beginning of the Running of the Bulls many of the younger runners will enter onto the path of the bulls and not have enough space and distance to run clear. Crowded paths create havoc that cause unnecessary pushing and shoving among the runners, which almost guarantees that someone will get hurt. Although exciting to watch, the Running of the Bulls is dangerous. However, if you are brave enough to try it, you should make sure to be fast as well!

When to Go to Running Of The Bulls

The Running of the Bulls festival starts at 8 a.m. every morning from the 7th to 14th July, and runners must be in the running area by 7:30 a.m. If you don’t wish to run in the event (the option chosen by most sane people) you can observe the whole thing by arriving early (about 6:30 a.m.) and getting a good standing position behind the fences that mark the route. Another good spot to observe is in front of the museum on Santo Domingo, although you will need to come much earlier as this is one of the best places to view the event. Be mindful that overcrowding is a problem for spectators as well as the runners, so it's worth knowing that the Run is also broadcast live every morning on national Spanish TV.

Odds n' Ends

It was thanks to the American author and journalist Ernest Hemingway that San Fermin became the festival it is today. He popularized the San Fermin Bull Run in his novel "The Sun Also Rises," published in 1926. The Running of the Bulls festival is recorded in chronicles dating back to the 17th century, but it’s also known to have begun as far back as the 13th century. It originally had a religious attachment that was diluted by the 19th century due to frivolities of dancing, drinking and music later associated with the festival.

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