Pamplona traditions: Running of the Bulls

May 6, 2013

A sea of runners in red and white flood the narrow cobblestone streets as thousands of feet pound the uneven pathways. The July sun bears down, streaming in between the rooftops. As they round a sharp left-hand turn, known as dead man’s corner, a runner slips. Six bulls barrel the bend, and there’s only one thing to remember: if you fall down, stay down.

The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, an aspect of the annual nine-day San Fermín festival, is the city’s heartbeat. The festival honors Saint Fermin, a co-patron of Navarre. Legend says that Saint Fermin died a martyr in A.D. 303 and was dragged to death by bulls through the streets of Pamplona.

“There are people who like bulls, and people who don’t like bulls. If you don’t like bulls, you’re not going to like Pamplona,” said Raúl Cousuegra, a chef at the local Boca Pizza.

For nine days, the college town with a population of nearly 200,000 transforms into a nonstop party, attracting over a million tourists from across the globe. Manu Corerra, communications director for Kukuxumusu, said Pamplona is boring until it’s time for San Fermín. Kukuxumusu, a T-shirt company started at the festival, counts down the days to San Fermín with a scoreboard-sized digital clock at its store on Estafeta Street.

The festival begins at the town hall on July 6 with a midday ceremony. A rocket, known as the chupinazo, kicks off the fiesta. For the next eight days, six bulls are released for the running from their pen behind town hall. Beginning at 8 a.m., as many runners over the age of 18 that can fit on the street participate.

“I didn’t even know I was looking for anything, but I found it at San Fermín. I knew I’d learn Spanish, and I knew I’d come back every year,” said Tim Pinks, a longtime San Fermín fan and author of “Bullseye,” a novella telling the story of the running from a bull’s perspective. The Londoner he began participating in the fiesta in 1984 and hasn’t missed one since.

The bulls run along four streets in the Old Town: Santo Domingo, Town Hall Square, Mercaderes and Estafeta. They cross the Telefónica section, ending their run at the 19,529-seat bullring, Plaza de Toros, for the bullfight.

Regulars simply refer to San Fermin as fiesta. The event is a nine-day party filled with drinking and for some, like Pinks, sleeping in the street.

“They go mental in the nicest possible way,” Pinks said.

The locals are accepting and hospitable to foreigners, affectionately called guiri, Pinks said. When he visits Pamplona throughout the year, he always catches up with his fiesta friends.

“It’s about meeting people. It’s mostly friendship and camaraderie,” said John Hemingway, an author and Ernest Hemingway’s grandson.

Ernest Hemingway’s love for Pamplona began in 1923 when he attended San Fermín. The culture entranced him, giving him inspiration for “The Sun Also Rises.” Though Ernest Hemingway is known to have loved bullfighting, his grandson believes he appreciated the sense of brotherhood in Pamplona even more. “The Sun Also Rises” follows a group of American and British guiris visiting Pamplona for fiesta.

John Hemingway is also enchanted by the atmosphere of Pamplona. He’s attended San Fermín 15 times and always runs with the bulls. On the 50th anniversary of his grandfather’s death in 2011, he was named Guiri of the Year, an award presented by Kukuxumusu.

Pinks said one of the most authentic ways to party at San Fermín is by visiting a peña, or Spanish social club. Similar to a fraternity, members are voted in and a board of officers governs the club. Both men and women are eligible to join. Peñas operate as a restaurant, bar and club, providing music, drinks and food in their clubhouses. Only open to the public on weekends throughout the year, they remain open to everyone for the duration of San Fermín.

Though there is rarely any violence among people at San Fermín, man and beast don’t have as clean of a record. Fifteen people have died at the Running of the Bulls, with 13 deaths caused by goring. Around 200 to 300 people are injured every year, but most injuries are not serious. Pinks has never been injured, but he said if he was he probably wouldn’t run again.

The most high-profile death occurred in 1995 when Matthew Tassio, a 22-year-old American, was unprepared for the day’s events. As he ran through Town Hall Square, Tassio slipped. When he quickly popped up, a bull charged toward him, tearing his horn through Tassio’s stomach. Tassio didn’t know the cardinal rule of the running: if you fall down, stay down. Pinks said locals still feel terrible about Tassio’s death because it could have easily been avoided.

Not only people are harmed at fiesta. At the end of the day’s events, six bulls are scheduled to fight and die in the bullring.

“I love San Fermin, but I hate the bullfight,” Pinks said. “I sometimes wish that I could save a bull.”

Animals rights groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, speak out against the Running of the Bulls and bullfighting as a whole.

“Tradition shouldn’t make something right,” said Kenneth Montville, a PETA representative.

Montville said the key to ending bullfighting is education. He said many people don’t know that the bullfights are unfair. For example, bulls are usually given laxatives to slow them down, and vaseline is rubbed in their eyes to blind them.

“It’s not a sport to pick on an animal,” he said.

Spain’s anti-bullfighting petition, almost nonexistent 20 years ago, now has more than one million signatures, and the autonomous community of Catalonia outlawed the sport in July of 2010. Animal rights groups have worked to offer alternatives to the bull run, like the Running of the Nudes. Taking place two days before the bull run, animal rights activists strip down, usually wearing nothing but plastic horns, and run the same path as the bulls.

The festival also has events that don’t include bulls. The parade of giants and big heads takes place every morning. Participants play Basque sports in the Plaza de los Fuero in the mornings. Games include primitive feats of strength like stone lifting and wood cutting. After the bullfight, fireworks light up the sky above the Citadel, a fort built in the 1500s.

As the bulls stampede down the street, runners and bystanders hope that the creatures will run along the man-made path of barricades and cobblestone. In a split second, the 1,500-pound animal can plow through a barricade, goring people with their four-foot-long horns. The festival is as unpredictable as the animals. Both John Hemingway and Pinks agree that the spirit of Pamplona is spontaneity.

“Just come to Pamplona and see what the hell happens,” Pinks said.