In July every year, some one million eager festival-lovers descend on the Spanish city of Pamplona, capital of the community of Navarre, in the north of the country. They gather for nine days of celebration in honour of Saint Fermin, the co-patron of Navarre, who was unceremoniously beheaded in 303 AD and later considered a martyr. Although festival organisers still include effigies and invocations of the Catholic saint, the primary focus is on dancing, singing, eating and drinking. And, of course, the Encierro – the running of the bulls.
At midday on July 6, the beginning of Sanfermines, as it’s known to locals, is marked by an opening ceremony with a pyrotechnic display called chupinazo, where rockets are ignited from the City Hall balcony and explode in the sky over thousands of delighted punters in the square. The fiesta begins!
Despite the international focus on the bull-related events, July 7 marks the key day of the festival, when huge crowds gather for a procession in the old part of the city, accompanied by a mediaeval statue of Saint Fermin. Dancers and street artists entertain the crowds alongside local politicians and religious figureheads, and huge, 150-year old papier-mâché puppet heads called “gigantes” are worn by twirling performers.
El Struendo is without a doubt the noisiest event on the festival calendar, but its specific date is never published in an attempt to keep the crowds manageable. Also known as The Roar, this tradition started around 50 years ago, when people gathered at the Town Hall just before midnight, and proceed to make as much noise as humanly possible, often with the aid of drums, bells, whistles and any object that responds to percussion.
The early evening bullfights of the San Fermin festival are extremely popular, and tickets are difficult to obtain. The fights are thought to have originated in the 14th century, as cattle merchants entered the town with their stock, and from there a tradition was borne. Given that the whole point of the daily fights is to kill each of the six bulls who have earlier chased frantic runners down the narrow gauntlets of Pamplona for the encierro, the occasion is not without its detractors, and those who find the idea distasteful are advised to stay clear.
The encierro stems from this tradition, as the circuit used for the run was a necessary path to herd the bulls through the city to the bullring, and quickly became an attraction for travelling foreigners, whose rowdy behaviour and excessive drinking was noted even back then. These days, hundreds sign up to run the 825-metre course down the ancient alleyways in front of six bulls and six steers. The run kicks off with a firecracker at 8am on July 7, preceded by prayers and songs to Saint Fermin, and runs daily until the 14th July. Running with the bulls is free and open to anyone over the age of 18 who is fit, sober, and willing to respect the rules of the event.
Don’t be fooled by the careful planning and organisation that goes into the running of the bulls – the bulls are dangerous, unpredictable, and people still lose their lives, most recently in 2009. The animals weigh over half a tonne and are equipped with horns designed to lock together with other bulls. Faced up against a frightened human, the horns become a weapon with which to maul and gore. Though these sorts of injuries are less common, general wounds are more predictable, with a few hundred cuts, bruises and lacerations reported each year, although most of these are due to falls among the panicked crowds.
If running with the bulls induces more adrenaline than you can handle, then perhaps the nightly fireworks displays in the Citadel Park are more to your taste. The fireworks themselves are a long-held tradition, but since 2000 have included an international fireworks competition, drawing tens of thousands outdoors to enjoy the spectacular explosions in the sky. The fiesta wraps up at midnight on July 14 with a beautiful candlelight ceremony in Plaza del Castillo, where crowds use the last of their collective energy to sing and dance into the early hours of the morning, tired and happy until the following July rolls around once more.