If you come to Pamplona any time but during the running of the bulls (San Fermín festival), you will find yourself in a relatively small city of less than 200 000 inhabitants, and not that many things to do. You might enjoy its sleepy atmosphere and its old town architecture enclosed within the walls dating back to the middle ages, but it’s the Sanfermines that’s really worth coming here for.
We arrived in Pamplona by car, having been picked up by our kind and hospitable Couchsurfing host Eneko who decided to give us a lift all the way from our previous destination. That’s why when we first appeared in the city we didn’t witness its madness, coming from a motorway through back alleys straight to his house. Only later when we set off for a walk did we realise why this festival has gained so much fame over the years.
Imagine you walk into a busy house party, where the music is loud, alcohol abundant and you feel the party atmosphere flying in the air; where people are dancing, singing out loud and raising their glasses in toast every couple of minutes. There are way too many people for this small house and it’s hard to get from one end to the other, but nobody complains. The only thing everyone cares about is having a good time. Someone is swaying from one wall to another, someone else is being sick in the corner. Someone is deeply asleep on the carpet, while others are taking a video of him. Some girls seem to be stuck in a never-ending queue for the toilet, someone is smoking a spliff sitting on a window sill. There are some fireworks being let off in the garden. Someone calls you their brother and hugs you emotionally, and in the party commotion you get your drink spilt down your shirt. Now you stink of booze but you don’t care, everyone smells as well. You look down at your feet and all you can see are empty beer cans, plastic cups and cigarette butts. The place is filthy but everyone seems to be having one hell of a time. It’s one of the best parties you’ve been to, there’s no doubt about that. Drunk and tired, you eventually lay down in a corner and drop off to sleep in order to start anew in the morning.
Now imagine all this on a slightly bigger scale. You are not in a house party but in a town which is normally home to 200 000 people. During the 9 days of San Fermín the city will be visited by over a million people who have decided to throw the second biggest (right after the Rio de Janeiro Carnival) street party in the world.
However, there is more to Sanfermines than just a massive fiesta. Let’s not forget about the bulls. The festival takes 9 days, from 6th to 14th July every year. Each morning six bulls are let out to run the narrow streets of Pamplona. They start at Coraillos de Santo Domingo and pace within wooden barriers whose purpose is to fence off the hurtling bulls from the excited and cheering crowd. The bulls are accompanied by a group of mozos, people who wait all year just for this one fix of adrenalin. The encierro (running of the bulls) finishes at plaza de torros (bullring) where the runners and the bulls meet on a rather unfair ground. Unfortunately for the bulls, they are surrounded by hordes of young men who are desperate to show off their courage. It’s not a professional corrida (bull fight) and no bulls get killed but they are encircled by a loud crowd of people who try to jump over them and generally provoke them for the entertainment of the audience.
After you have seen the bulls, you can start partying again. Throughout the whole festival the streets of Pamplona are flooded with people from the neighbouring villages, other Spanish cities and places from all around the world as the festival has become massively popular over the last decades, described by Ernest Hemingway in his novel The Sun Also Rises. During Sanfermines the population of the city increases 5 or 6 times and it’s surprising how they all manage to fit into such a confined space.
If you don’t drink alcohol you will find it pleasant just to walk down the streets observing what’s happening as there are many things going on during the festival. You can meet different characters among which you will find the four meter high giants (los gigantes) accompanied by los txistus, a group of men playing Basque flutes who announce the approaching of the giants. You can also get hit on the head with a club made of sponge by barefoot kilikis or horse-riding zaldikos. You can shake hands with cabezudos who have massive heads and gladly say hello to the passing crowd.
San Fermín is the biggest “fancy dress” party in Europe. The costume, or I should rather say: the uniform, consists of a white shirt and trousers, a red scarf (used as a belt) and a red handkerchief tied around your neck. Your clothes will be destroyed after the festival though, due to the general filthiness of the event and the fact that you will probably get involved in some red wine fight.
The festival is total madness in which everyone in the city takes part. You will see old people, kids and respectable citizens all together letting themselves go, in this crazy festivity. All year long they had been waiting for these nine days. During San Fermín there is also nothing else on television, you can spend the entire day in your room knowing of nothing else but the festival.
The whole thing is indescribable by words therefore I took some short (1-2min) videos to show you the mayhem. Enjoy!
1. Look at the amount of people on the streets and get to know the giants.
2. Walking the streets. Look at the general festival vibe during the afternoon.
3.Say hello to the big-headed cabezudos.
4. Get to know zaldikos hitting people on the heads.
5. Visit a bar during Sanfermines.
6. People dancing in the street
7. Late in the evening. People dancing to some drum rhythms.
8. Late night atmosphere on the streets
9. Late night concerts
10. In the bullring. The first runners who run before the bulls are being insulted by the watching crowd.
11. In the bullring – people teasing the bulls.
Running of the bulls (encierros):
- The first encierro takes place on 7th July
- The route: Santo Domingo – Town Hall Square – Mercaderes – Estafeta – Telefónica – Plaza de Torros (bullring)
- It starts at 8am, but if you want to see it, you should be there between 6 and 7 in the morning.
- The best place to watch the event is in Plaza de Torros where you can watch the encierro on a big screen and once the bulls enter the bullring you can watch what happens live.
You can find a seat there for free around 6 am, but if you get up a little later you can still get in for 6,50 Euros.
Alternatively you can try to find a place on route, behind the barricades, but according to our local CS host, you won’t be able to see much due to the abundance of people, police and medical services blocking your view.
You can also pay to stand on one of the balconies on route but this pleasure won’t cost you less than 50 Euros.
- If you want to run, you should know that the run is 826 metres long, but nobody runs the whole distance. Before you decide to take part in this dangerous activity, you should know the route well and you should take your position no later than 7.30am (you don’t need to register anywhere). You mustn’t be under the influence of alcohol or drugs and you should have a good sleep beforehand. It’s also forbidden to touch the bulls.
Accommodation: In general it’s very difficult to find accommodation during the festival and it tends to be quite pricey. If you can’t find anything, don’t worry, many people sleep on the streets and in parks, and whatever doesn’t normally go, goes during Sanfermines. You can leave your stuff in a locker room (consigna de equipajes) so that you can carelessly sleep wherever you want. It’s located in Colegio Público San Francisco and it’s open from 08:00 am on 4th July until 2pm on 16th of July. It costs 4,40 Euros per piece and the locker room is open 24h.
Clothes: The San Fermín costume consists of white shirt and trousers, a red scarf (used as a belt) and a red handkerchief tied around your neck. If you don’t have anything like that, you can buy it during the festival from many shops and stalls.
Shops: Many shops and supermarkets will be closed during the festival as the whole city is basically off, everyone wants to take part in this crazy fiesta. So buy whatever you need in advance.
Food and Drinks: The most popular drinks during the festival are katxis which are 0,5l beer plastic cups sold everywhere. The cheapest you can find should be around 5-6Euros, but be careful as you might easily get ripped off. Being a tourist makes you an easy target. In some shops you can also find 1,5l bottles of beer sold during the festival for no less than 2,50 Euros.
Finding food shouldn’t be a problem either. At many street corners you will see people with barbecues waiting to make quick and easy money of hungry revellers.
Facts and history
- It’s believed that the city of Pamplona was first founded in 75-74BC by the Roman general Pompey who set up a military camp on the grounds of the present day city.
- Fermin was the son of a Roman senator in Pamplona in the 3rd century who converted to Christianity. He later became a priest in Toulouse and returned to Pamplona as its first bishop. He was beheaded (hence the use of red scarves around the neck during the festival) in France and is now considered a martyr by the Catholic Church.
Saint Fermin, as well as Saint Francis Xavier, are the two patrons of Navarre.
- It’s believed that three independent celebrations were the origins of the modern day San Fermín festival: religious celebrations dedicated to saint Fermín, secular commercial fairs first celebrated in XIII century and traditional Spanish bull corridas.
- El chupinazo is the official beginning of San Fermín festival which is marked by launching a rocket from the town hall’s balcony at 12pm on 6th July. This event gathers hordes of people, who excitedly wave their red handkerchiefs, present and correct to start the nine day fiesta.
- “Riau-Riau” is another tradition related to the festival. It takes place on the first day of the festival at Plaza del Ayuntamiento when thousands of people gather on the square in order to prevent the authorities from holding a procession between the town hall and Sant Lorenzo’s church. It’s a symbolic act which shows that the festival comes from the people rather than from the city authorities. This tradition was started in 1914 by Ignacio Baleztena and was politically influenced.
- At 11pm every evening you can watch a free fireworks show for which the town hall pays around 24,000 Euros every year.
- The festival ends at 12am on 14th July with the song “Pobre de mí” (Poor Me) sang by thousands of people every year on Plaza del Ayuntamiento.
written by: Ania