It was 11:00 at night when I stepped off the shuttle bus from the train station into Pamplona and wandered over to the biggest crowd of people I could find. I wasn’t alone. Indeed, the fireworks display was over and the night had just begun. The Spanish city is famously known for its San Fermin festival, a week long, non-stop party honoring the town’s patron saint which fills the streets with people, wine, and of course, a herd of stampeding bulls.
With over eight hours until the race began, I stowed my luggage in a locker beneath the bus station and stepped outside into the party that was still going strong. I quickly found someone selling the traditional red bandanas worn around the neck and a long, red scarf to tie around my waist, and shortly after that I came across another guy selling cans of beer that he poured into a giant plastic cup until it was full for a few euros. I’d arrived.
Taking in the party and meandering through the streets, I followed my ears and soon found a fully lit concert stage and its accompanying audience. A Spanish band that must have been popular – the whole crowd was singing along to the lyrics – was rocking out. I joined in the dance and helped myself to another cerveza while the band finished up its set over the next few songs. Having worked up a sweat, I gave cheers to my new dancing friends and made my way out of the pit, deciding not to stick around for the next band. I had to figure out my plan for the morning.
Amidst a row of night clubs and bars, some of which I checked out just to be thorough in my research for this post, an informational booth was set up outside. The people there worked through my limited Spanish and, at this point, my beer-y disposition to help guide me to where the encierro would begin. It was now past three in the morning. Stuffing the map they gave me into my pocket, I plopped down on a bench. Cajoling passers-by tried to get me to join their parties as they stumbled on their way to the next club, but I resisted and closed my eyes. I wasn’t used to this kind of partying.
The Running of the Bulls
At five o’clock, I got up, stretched and wound my way in the general direction that I had been pointed to earlier. I followed the wooden barricades and settled beside a high fence right next to where the bulls would run past just a few feet below. There was only one couple in front of me; I had secured a very good spot to watch.
As the sun rose (insert your best Hemingway reference here) and lit the sky from a dark purple to a bright blue, hundreds of people filled in the narrow sidewalk. Soon, I was pressed tightly to the folks around me, and more than once had to fend off would-be encroaching spot stealers (see my list of pet peeves in Europe). I even witnessed a dramatic scene where a disturbingly drunk man attempted to hop over our shoulders and join the gathering runners in front of us, but he was nabbed and carted away by a nearby police officer before he could make it.
Just before eight, the street below, now packed with young men who were mentally preparing to dash ahead of a group of dangerous bulls, filled with the sound of the rhythmic chant of the runners asking Saint Fermin to guide them safely before the beasts. Suddenly, a rocket sounded, and the running of the bulls had begun!
It happens very fast. There is the sound of running and shouting a ways off. A group of men decked in white and red races by. Then another group of men REALLY races by. Right behind them, hooves stamp, horns whiz. A flash of fur and shouts of, “Toro, toro!” fly across your sensory field. And then it is quiet. A few runners jog after the action. The crowd murmurs as the injured are carted away, but soon, everyone is left standing and wondering, “What’s next? Is it over?”
The couple in front of me climbed over the fence and hopped into the street. Following their lead, several others climbed the barricade and leaped after them. I looked around and saw that there was no way I could push through the hundreds of people behind me, and so, like the others, I too climbed the fence and began to walk in the wake of the running of the bulls.
Strolling along that cobblestone road, I must have been wondering the best way to get to my hotel, or replaying the events of the night and the morning over in my mind. I can’t remember, because the next thing I heard was a sound that filled me with enough dread and panic to erase my memory: “Toro, toro!” The shouts were rising up around me. I turned around and, sure enough, down the road coming toward me, all I could see were snouts and horns and runners decked in white and red.
Holy cow! I’m in the running of the bulls!
Except, I didn’t run because, well… I didn’t want to be chased. Instead, paralyzed, I leapt into a doorway and pressed myself against the wall. How could this happen to me? I promised my loved ones back home I wouldn’t get myself into this mess! But, I knew it would be over fast and I just hoped that everything would pass by quickly and without incident. Boy, I thought, will this make a good story. It was taking forever. I thought at first that time was standing still in the exciting moment, but eventually, I realized, hey, what’s taking so long? I peeked down the street and there, slowly clip-clopping toward me was a herd of cows, guided by a single hombre, smacking their asses with a rolled up newspaper, trotting them all toward the bull ring. I laughed out loud. Not many people can say they’ve survived the running of the cows.