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.

Holy Toledo Batman!

Holy Toledo alright – all I can see around me are rows of steel knife blades, glinting in the light – am I going to need Batman to save me? Happily no, I am in a shop, a shop proudly displaying the centuries old tradition of superb steel blade-work, originating centuries ago with swords and now supplying quality knives to the world.

I am in the medieval city of Toledo, Spain, about an hour outside Madrid. And its a stunning place, an old walled city perched on a hilltop, circled on three sides by a river. This town has been here since the bronze age, and has seen off the Romans, the Visigoth and the Moors. For centuries it has been a melting pot of Muslims, Jews and Christians living side by side, and this has created a feast of beautiful old castles, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques and monasteries around every corner, most built between the 10th and the 16th centuries


Toledo, the Zocodover, the Alcazar and the Gothic Cathedral

The central square, the Zocodover, is as beautiful as any old european city square, and is a great ( but not cheap) place to nurse a coffee and take in the sights. I can’t help but think about how this square has seen everything from markets to executions over the centuries, and wonder what the previous inhabitants would think of the expresso takeover now?

The Alcazar is a must visit, a massive fortified palace-castle dominating the skyline, but inside it’s all pretty columns, courtyards and staircases. Its been rebuilt quite a few times since its first iteration in the 3rd century. And you can’t help seeing the large gothic Cathedral soaring over the rooftops, it started life in the 5th century as a church, then a mosque, then a cathedral from the 13th century.

I also really like the walk around the remaining ramparts of the old wall, seeing the old stone bridges over the river – only parts of it still exist and are accessible but the views are brilliant.

Toledo – Arts, Crafts and Food

Toledo has always been an artistic centre, and there’s lots of art museums to explore, including El Greco’s house, and his paintings also hang in many of the other public buildings. El Greco was so named as he was a Greek, who travelled to Spain in the 16th century to see if he could win the patronage of the King of Spain, and ended up in Toledo for the rest of his life.

While the city is most well know for its steel (a specialist knife makes a great souvenir but don’t put it in your hand luggage), but has a long history of ceramics. I have never been a Lladro fan (and Lladro started in another part of Spain anyway) but when I spotted one small piece in the big flash Lladro shop in Toledo, with a soft matt finish instead of the usual high gloss glaze, I had found my souvenir – and I still have it 22 years later (although my mother did “borrow” it for a long time).

My other favorite memory of Toledo was their Manchego cheese – as a backpacker, the delicious cheese and a big slab of bread made a fantastic meal or two. I was much less impressed with their local marzipan, why have that when you can have cheese?

Franco’s Fascist Monument

A very different but intriguing place to visit, also just outside Madrid, is the Valle de los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen. It is a grandiose and controversial monument to the fallen from the Spanish Civil War, built by the victor and Marxist dictator General Franco.

Valley of the fallen, near Toledo
Valley of the fallen, near Toledo

I start to realise just how grand a scale it was built on as we approach it through huge carved statues at the gates, the road sweeping a further 5 km through more countryside to the esplanade, a large paved terrace the size of several football fields. There is a gigantic basilica carved out of the mountainside, and it is topped by the tallest memorial cross in the world. The scale is overwhelming – the esplanade is 30,000 sqm, the nave in the basilica is 262m in length, and the grounds total 3,300 acres.

Apparently a bit of the structure had to be sectioned off before it could be designated as a basilica, otherwise it would’ve been larger than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, not something the Pope was going to be happy about. It now also contains the tomb of Franco, as he was interred here after his death, and many believe that it was always his intention for this to be his lasting memorial. The scale and design of the whole place does suggest a certain size of ego. Today the majority of Spaniards are not comfortable with the idea of such a grand memorial to fascism, and there is a lot of controversy about what to do with the monument to make it more politically neutral.

In recent years the government has banned any fascist political rallies from the site.  The valley in front of the esplanade contain tens of thousands of buried bodies from both sides in the war, with a debate still raging about the how many of the losing side were used as prisoners and forced labour for the construction and died during the build. Its one place where I would recommend hiring a guide, as I found the history and ongoing debate much more interesting than the architecture is, once I got over the sheer size of the place, and the debate has increased dramatically since I was there.