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The Running of the Bulls

23rd July 2012
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The festival of La San Fermin, held annually in the Spanish city of Pamplona from the 6th to the 14th of July, is the continuation of a centuries old tradition deeply rooted in the cultural history of the Basque region. It’s a fiesta of extravagant and epic proportions, famous the world over for ‘The Running of the Bulls’, for its wild, sangria fuelled street parties and for La Corrida - The Bullfight.

In the early hours of the morning, as the sun rises and festival goers stagger through the streets drinking the last of the night’s sangria, Pamplona prepares for ‘El Encierro’ - The Running of the Bulls - the daily ritual which sees six fighting bulls and a number of guiding steer released onto the streets to be run into the ‘La Plaza de Toros’- The Bull Ring. Waiting in the streets for this stampede are hundreds of runners, who will sprint alongside the charging pack, desperately avoiding horns and flailing hoofs along the 850 metre stretch of narrow, cobblestoned streets and sharp corners that form the run.

I’m waiting at the start of the run, nervously holding the day’s newspaper, rolled up in one hand and used by runners to draw the bull’s attention. People are jumping around apprehensively as the balconies, ledges and barriers all along the route fill with rowdy onlookers and a worryingly disproportionate number of police and medical personnel begin to line the streets.

With five minutes to go until the bulls are released runners begin to chant for guidance from the patron Saint of Pamplona and the fiesta’s namesake, San Fermin. Bashing fists in the air they scream ‘Viva San Fermin! Gora San Fermin!’, long live San Fermin in Spanish and Basque.

With 3 minutes to go, cries of ‘Viva San Fermin! Gora San Fermin!’ are repeated, and the noise of the crowd begins to rise in anticipation. With one minute left there’s a final shout- ‘Viva San Fermin! Gora San Fermin!’- and the tense atmosphere is all too apparent as the crowd whistle and cheer and runners bounce around on the spot.

The crack of a single firework signals the release of the bulls and as they hurtle towards the packed crowd of runners, people begin sprinting off up the street. I’m bouncing around on the spot still, waiting for a glimpse of the pack and ahead of me people begin running, or throwing themselves to the sides of the street as the bulls career through the crowd, knocking people flat and sending people stumbling and flying across the cobblestones.

The thunderous sound of hooves on stone is dauntingly harrowing, yet with a surge of adrenaline I’m running ahead of them, jumping over fallen runners and dodging the melee of people all trying to stay out of reach of the bulls, but within seconds I’m forced to the side as the pack charge past and up the street in a flurry of hooves and falling people.

I look back down the road as more people run past me. The noise of the crowd rises again and I see yet more steer thundering their way through the streets. I start running again and desperately sprint full out into the entrance of the bull ring as the cows close behind, not wanting to get stuck in the confined and deadly space. I run into the arena ahead of the animals and am greeted by blinding rays of sunlight and a staggeringly huge crowd who are already cheering the replays of the run which are being shown on huge screens while bottle after bottle of sangria is downed in the early morning sun. 

Making it into the arena isn’t the end though. I’m catching my breath when from the far end there’s a sudden roar of noise and people start scattering. Then a bull comes charging towards me and I’m forced to jump out of its path. As is tradition at the running, all the bulls, once in the ring, are released individually into the waiting crowd in what is supposed to be an amateur display of bull fighting, but is in fact a scene of carnage, as the bulls rampage around the ring knocking people down and goring at will while the raucous crowd scream at every hit.

Running is obviously inherently dangerous and 15 people have been killed since 1924, while hundreds are injured each year. The day before I ran, two British tourists were gored when a bull became separated from the pack and charged them outside the arena, but both recovered swiftly. Less injuries are a direct result of the bulls than result from the press of runners or, indeed, alcohol abuse throughout the festival, and runners are pulled out if obviously under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The running is the most famous part of the festival but is not all that it has to offer. Each day La Corrida - the bullfight - takes place at the bull ring. The bulls which were run in the morning are pitted against some of Spain’s greatest Matadors and the occasion is the pinnacle of each afternoon. The arena is full and the crowds are drinking sangria while the Matadors proudly perform their art for the fiesta.

The evening sees Pamplona’s streets and bars full of festival goers, mostly dressed in the traditional white and red colours of La San Fermin, filling the city to drink and dance through the night, until the next bull run the following morning. The fiesta sees huge firework displays, street performers, dancing and free concerts throughout the nine days of festivities. It is truly a party of epic proportions and an incredible display of Basque and Spanish culture you are unlikely to find anywhere else.  

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