Pamplona – the running (and revenge) of the bulls

Every year, around July 7th, my thoughts turn to 1988 in Pamplona and the running of the bulls, the Festival of San Fermin.

Even back then we had the moral debate as to whether we should go because it was a great party, or not go because it was cruelty to animals. As new backpackers, the arguments of “its too good a party to miss” and “at least the bulls get to maim and injure the humans too, so its not all one way traffic” won out easily. Even the cheap smelly 30+ hours bus ride from London didn’t dent our excitement. Arriving in time to pitch our pup tents, we threw on any clothes that gave a token nod to the “red & white” brief and headed into town to the main square for the (6th July) midday festival kick off.

There was a small parade of giant papier-mache historical and religious figures, and then, as far as I remember, the kickoff involved thousands of locals and tourists sculling down as much cheap sangria as possible while also throwing it over each other. Then as all the locals disappeared for siesta, we tourists started desperately scouting for (a) open bottle shops, and (b) public toilets.

Pamplona Statue diving.

Eventually realising that (b) did not exist, and (a) were extremely rare, all the tent tourists gathered in what is now called the Muscle Bar area, which did have a small kiosk selling sangria. It also has a 3 metre high statue.

This is where I first got to observe the second thrill seeker sport in Pamplona, statue diving. This involves getting drunk, climbing to the top of the statue, throwing yourself off and hoping to be caught in the web of outstretched arms of your equally drunk friends and/or total strangers.  There is a related activity, running bets on how many jumpers there would be before the catchers got bored and someone would hit the ground breaking a bone or two. It was suggested that more people sustained injuries jumping off the statue than people did running with the bulls during the week, and in terms of sheer stupidity it was definitely coming first.

Pamplona, Running of the Bulls.

The daily routine was to get up at sunrise to watch the morning running of the bulls, back to the campsite for an afternoon siesta, sunbathe, and swim in the campsite pool (while drinking more sangria) and then to head back into town for a night of immersing ourselves into street parties, cheap sangria and street stall tapas.

Early morning the bulls run, as do those who want to run with them.  A number of large and testy bulls are revved up and let go into a course around the narrow old streets which eventually leads into the stadium about four minutes later, with safety fences erected in every gap so that the bulls cannot leave the route.

To watch the run, we could either find a spot on the barriers and hoist ourselves up somehow to see over them, or go and sit in the stadium and wait for the bulls to come running in. There were two bells, the first one starts the people running, and then a very short time after that, the second bell signalled the release of the bulls. The locals to run the entire course, while some visitors will position themselves to jump in partway along the course, and then jog along hoping that the bulls only catch up with them right before the stadium, so that they can run in looking brave. Anyone who runs in before the bulls arrive is booed for having no bravery, so its all in the timing.

As the big bulls run in, the professional handlers step in and race them straight through and into pens on the other side, as a large bull in a crowded ring with lots of amateurs can do a lot of damage indeed. As the ring then fills up with runners, they release some younger smaller bulls in for the crowd of runners to practice their hand to horn bull fighting skills on. As a spectator I have to admit that it is hilarious watching the runners peering over their shoulders and the pandemonium that breaks out as a bull catches up and everyone tries to get out of the way and let it through in those narrow alleys, there are some very panicked expressions on faces.

Pamplona, revenge of the bulls.

There were no serious gorings that year, but there was an incident in the ring that showed just how dangerous playing with bulls could be. There were already a couple of bulls in the ring, so all the runners were watching where those bulls were going. The organisers opened a gate and sent a third young bull in, all revved up and tearing along at full speed. The new bull ran straight into the back of a young tourist who was looking the other way, appearing to break his spine on impact and sending him hurtling through the air. In an instance the crowd went from partying to a sober hush, the professionals raced in and had the bulls out of the ring and the injured tourist on a stretcher, and the show was over for that morning.  Rumours swept the campsite that he had died but we never did find out what happened to him, no internet back then to track down the info. It certainly seemed to back up the theory that it was an event where the bulls and the humans shared the risk.

Pamplona, the bullfight.

Each afternoon there was a bullfighting contest. After another short moral debate, we decided it was patrolling of us to judge a local custom without ever seeing it, so we coughed up for some overpriced, scalped tickets and went along.

Pamplona, bullfight
Pamplona, bullfight

It was an extremely unpleasant experience. There were six bullfights on the bill for the afternoon, and we left after the first. We saw the picador horsemen repeatedly lance the bull in its spine, particularly near the rear, as did the banderillos who stabbed it with their barbed spikes, until it was crippled in its rear legs and was dragging itself around slowly from its forelegs. Only when it was this crippled did the matador appear on the field. The helpers actually had to continue to stab and beat the bull to stop it collapsing to the ground while the matador waved his cape in its face, before finally  delivering the the fatal blow. Cruel and revolting? Yes. A noble sport? No way.

So would I go to the Running of the Bulls again? Definitely. The festival atmosphere is fantastic, a week long sangria driven street party. The running of the bulls is exciting, including watching way of the locals would show off fancy footwork and bull baiting moves. The running is like a disney version of bull fighting, (mainly) removing the cruelty, brutality and death while retaining an artistic representation of the battle between man and bull. But go to a bull fight again? – that is never going to happen.

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