Front Row at Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls
Rick Steves: On watching the mad, red-and-white scramble at Spain's legendary Festival of San Fermín
07.27.10 | 2:09 PM ET
Like a cowboy at a rodeo, I sit atop my spot on the fence. A loudspeaker says—first in Spanish, then in English—“Do not touch the wounded. That’s the responsibility of health personnel.” A line of green-florescent-vested police sweep down the street, clearing away drunks and anyone not fit to run. Then the cleaning crew and their street-scrubbing truck make one last pass, gathering any garbage and clearing broken glass. The street—just an hour ago filled with throngs of all-night revelers—is now pristine, sanitized for a televised spectacle.
Sitting on the top timber of the inner of two fences (in the prime area reserved for press), I wait for the 8 a.m. rocket. I’m thinking this is early… but for the mob scene craning their necks for the view behind me, it’s late. They’ve been up all night.
Cameras are everywhere—on robotic arms with remote controls vice-gripped to windowsills, hovering overhead on cranes, and in the hands of nearly every spectator that make up the wall of bodies pressed against the thick timber fence behind me.
The street fills with runners. While you can wear anything, nearly everyone is wearing the standard white pants, white shirt, and red bandana. The scene evokes some kind of cultish clan and a ritual sacrifice. This is the Festival of San Fermín. Fermín was beheaded by the Romans 2,000 years ago, martyred for his faith. The red bandanas evoke his bloody end.
The energy surges as 8 o’clock approaches. The street is so full, if everyone suddenly ran, you’d think they’d simply trip over each other and all stack up, waiting to be minced by angry bulls. The energy continues to build. There are frat-boy runners—courage stoked by booze and by the girls they’re determined to impress. And there are serious mozos—famous locally for their runs, who’ve made this scene annually for as long as people can remember. They’ve surveyed the photos and stats (printed in yesterday’s paper) of the six bulls about to be turned loose. They know the quirks of the bulls and have chosen their favorite stretch of the half-mile run. While others are hung over at best, these mozos got a good, solid night’s sleep, and are now stretching and focusing.
For serious runners, this is like surfing… you hope to catch a good wave and ride it. A good run lasts only 15 or 20 seconds. You know you’re really running with the bull when you feel the breath of the bull on your pants. Mozos, like Spanish bullfighting aficionados, respect the bull. It represents power, life, the great wild. Hemingway, who first came to the festival in 1923, understood. He wrote that he enjoyed watching two wild animals run together—one on two legs, the other on four.
Then it’s 8, and the sound of the rocket indicates that the bulls are running. The entire scramble takes about two and a half minutes. The adrenaline surges in the crowded street. Everyone wants to run—but not too early. As if standing before hundreds of red-and-white human pogo sticks, the sea of people spontaneously begins jumping up and down—trying to see the rampaging bulls to time their flight.
We’re filming the event, and have chosen to be near the end of the run—200 meters from the arena, where, later today, these bulls will meet their matador. One advantage of a spot near the end is that the bulls should be more spread out, so we can see six go by individually rather than as a herd. But today, they stay together and make the fastest run of the nine-day festival: 2 minutes and 11 seconds.
Like a freak wave pummeling a marina, the bulls rush through. Panicky boys press against my fence. It’s a red-and-white cauldron of desperation. Big eyes, scrambling bodies, the ground quaking, someone oozing under the bottom rail. Then, suddenly, the bulls are gone, people pick themselves up, and it’s over. Boarded-up shops open up. The timber fences are taken down and stacked. The nine-day cycle of the festival, built around the 8 a.m. Running of the Bulls, is both smooth and relentless.
As is the ritual, I drop into a bar immediately after, have breakfast, and join the gang watching the entire run on TV…all 131 seconds of it. Many mozos felt the breath of the bulls on their pants. Then, with the routine mundane demeanor of a TV weatherman, a nurse with a clipboard reviews that day’s wounded before famous mozos are interviewed about this particular run.
Hours later, at about noon, I drop back into my hotel and notice the hallway is lined with “Do Not Disturb” signs hanging from door knobs.
It’s Pamplona, the incredible Festival of San Fermín, and the Running of the Bulls.