Pamplona Spain, San Fermin Festival 2010In 2010, I traveled to Spain to run with the bulls, as it seems the thing that every gentleman adventurer engages in. A medieval yet modern town with its roots in the Roman Empire (named after General Pompey), located deep in current Basque country in the foothills of the Pyrenees, this city is lovely even when it's not festival time.
The ArrivalI had flown into Barcelona and then taken the train up to Pamplona. I took the train which was about 3 or 4 hours from Barcelona. It does 150mph on the high-speed line, but then down to a more reasonable 70-90mph when it heads north off the main line. It's a calm ride, and not really expensive at all. Tip: Do not get a seat over the wheels (ergo at the ends of the cars), the ride is a bit rough over those.
Walked with bags to the hotel (MISTAKE!!! Bus service is exceptional in Pamplona). Got there and proceeded to not be able to sleep until 3am for my 6am scheduled time to be downtown for the run next morning.
The FestivalThe city of 300,000 becomes a city of 600,000 with basically every backpacker across Europe showing up and sleeping in the parks. Hygiene facilities are limited, and I think that paints the picture you need about that.
In the early hours of the morning, probably around the time I finally fell asleep, preparations begin for the next morning's run. A double layer of fencing is put up along the route from the gateway next to City Hall to the Arena, and the streets are hosed down to remove the remnants of the street partying by the previous night's festival-goers. The run begins at 8am each day of the festival. They open up the gateway at 6am to allow potential runners the opportunity to secure a spot. The closer to the start point, the better your chance to get a spot to run. There's also less of a pervasive beer, urine and vomit smell around that area. You can't run the whole thing, it's 1/2 mile, the bulls run 20mph, and 2,000 people are in your way on a street about 10 feet wide.
The police do not screw around, and do not test them as they hold the line of revelers while the setup is completed. Your head will be cracked open faster than you can say "billyclub". Spain is not that far removed from its fascist past and the powers of the police are strong.
The RunSo they set off 4 rockets for the run. The first announces the opening of the gate - the Encierro has begun and the fighting bulls are released. A second rocket is released when all the bulls have left their pen. A bit later, a third indicates all six fighting bulls have entered the pen inside the arena at the end of the route. The fourth and final rocket lets the organizers know the fencing along the route can be removed, opening the streets once more.
Most runs last less than 7 minutes. First rocket goes off, and at my waiting spot, a quarter mile away, 90% started running...
Second rocket goes off, and a bit of adrenaline kicks in. Masses of people are rushing by, and I'm on the far side of a hard right hand turn in the course, so now I realize from my position on Calle de la Estafeta, I can't see them coming. Smart move Rob... Anyway, I see two older Spanish gentlemen at the apex of the turn, looking into the oncoming traffic, each one taking a turn jumping up, then down. They were looking over the crowd to see the bulls coming.
They stop, and turn in my direction. Yes! Time to run! (unlike those wimps who hugged the wall 'standing with the bulls'), I take off like crazy, sprinting absolutely as fast as I can, I will say about 18mph. I bounce off a drunk standing in the street, staring in disbelief at the bulls coming at him. I look next to me and see a bull. Ok, wow. In front of me too. Hmmm. (Video footage of the run seen later that day would show that I was absolutely in the middle of the herd and didn't realize it). I make it about 150 yards and peel off to the right, only to bounce off another drunk. My knee that I injured in London earlier that year says "Yeah, that's it for you today," and I limp down the course to the arena. There I meet the medics, who pull me aside and behind the barricade. Um... Ok? Then the crowd surges and screams, then surges back and I realize "Hey, I haven't heard the third rocket yet."
A bull had gotten separated from the herd and was angry, tired, and a bit hurt, attacking everything in sight. Several runners then lured the bull back down the path and into the arena. Then it was Bam, Bam, the next two rockets went off in quick succession, and everyone was then clambering into the streets, bars opening back up and bam, the drinking starts again.
The CityIt's a real city, and it's pretty big, sprawling out over the valley around the old part. The more tame areas of the carnival are down in the valley, but most of the party is in the old city. Hemingway's bar is here, from when he fought in the Spanish Civil war and then wrote about it too. So many 20 somethings from the rest of Europe milling about. Lots of old churches, and the old fortification from the 1500s that are now gardens. The old wall still surrounds the town, and gateway access is still needed for entrance.
SummaryA beautiful medieval city in the mountainous north of Spain. There is enough to do here even without the festival. Castles, museums, churches, food (did I mention food?). Driving in would not be recommended. The train is fine, easily accessible from Bilboa (bit of a long layover in the trip), or more difficultly from Madrid or Barcelona.
Tip: Get a room if you come to the festival. The bag storage at the train station fills up in about 3 seconds from Euro backpackers. Use the buses in town. Food markets are great. Crime was super low, but the revelers can get punchy late at night - be alert.