In Pamplona, Spain, one of the most unique events in the world takes place each July. The Running of the Bulls which has made Pamplona famous worldwide, is known as encierro in Spanish and means to lock up or to pen. There have been many videos and many documentaries done on this tradition, usually showing the most brutal parts of the festival. Travelling to Pamplona to either watch or participate in this festival is something that really is magical – just remember to take out some travel insurance!
The traditions of Spain state that the Running of the Bulls originated way back in the 14th century when men who were taking their cattle to market would attempt to make the process faster by scaring their bulls. This practice continued until somebody had the bright idea of making it into a competition. Instead of just sending cattle to market, adults and children turned it into a competition where they would attempt to avoid being overtaken, or gored, while the charging bulls. Although it started in the north-east of Spain, the news of this event steadily spread to growing Spanish cities, and today it’s practiced in a variety of locations.
The Running of the Bulls is mimicked in other locations, but the main event is in Pamplona to celebrate the festival of Sanfermines in honour of San Fermin. Similar events take place throughout the year in Southern France. Mexico. Portugal, and other Spanish cities and villages.
Travelling to Pamplona
Since the festival of Sanfermines is one of the major highlights of the year for locals, accommodation can be quite expensive. Expect to pay quite a lot of money to travel to Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls if the intention is to stay in a hotel. There are ways in which the costs of travelling here can be reduced, however.
- Stay in a hostel. Hostels are always affordable places to stay for the festival.
- Camping. There are designated camp sites where people can set up shop in and around Pamplona. It’s wise to pack up early to avoid the massive crowds that inevitably come to enjoy the festival, though.
- Avoid eating heavily if participating in the run itself. There’s nothing worse than preparing to run only to feel as if sickness is about to become overpowering. And it increases the risk of injury as it’s going to cause slower running. Bringing foods such as rice can make great meals whilst saving on the amount being spent.
- Consider staying in accommodation outside of Pamplona where transport can easily be taken to the festival and back again.
The Event Itself
The Running of the Bulls is steeped in Spanish culture. Tourists are welcome to join in, but the customs must be observed. Protocol is at the centre of everything and anyone seen not honouring this protocol can be withdrawn from this event immediately.
The event starts with fences being erected all along the route. These are the salvation of many of the participants since they act as escape tunnels if the bulls begin to get too close. Only the fastest and the strongest runners make it to the end of the route without backing out, so these exits are important. There are gaps in the fences that will allow humans to get through without allowing bulls through. Utilize gaps between buildings as safety points as well. The bulls won’t turn into them, they will just keep going until the end whilst knocking over anybody in their way.
Just prior to the running, runners are kept behind a police barrier to stop anybody from running early. Runners will sing a benediction just before the encierro begins. It’s technically a prayer and is sung in tribute to the patron saint of the festival, Saint Fermin. The idea behind it is that the runners will ask for the Saint’s blessing and protection during the running. Both versions of the song are given below.
“A San Fermin pedimos, por ser nuestro patron, nos guie en el encierro dandonos su benediction”
“We ask Saint Fermin, as our Patron, to guide us through the encierro and give us his blessing”
Once the benediction is finished the runners will shout “Viva San Fermin!, Gora San Fermin! These are translated to “Long live San Fermin” in both Basque and Spanish. Tourists who want to run should make sure that they are dressed in traditional clothing for the running. This consists of a white shirt complete with white trousers. A waistband and a neckerchief in red are also worn. An optional addition, but strongly recommended nonetheless, is a rolled-up copy of the day’s newspaper. This is used by runners who are caught by the bulls and who need to draw the bulls attention away. It acts as such a distraction that it can even save lives. It works in a similar way to the red cape that bullfighter’s use. Here’s a fun fact: the movement of the cape is what distracts and enrages the bulls, not the colour because bulls are actually colour-blind.
Begin the Running
The beginning of the running is when chaos ensues. Be careful here because a lot of runners are normally involved. It takes a few hundred metres for the field to thin out, so don’t be afraid to slip through the gaps in the fence if it becomes too chaotic.
A rocket will be set off at 8am to signal to the runners that the corral gate has opened up. A second rocket will go off to indicate that the six bulls have been released, and this is where everybody is running. There will be a third rocket to signal that the herd of bulls have entered the bullring, and a fourth rocket goes off once they have entered the corral. The encierro should last for about four minutes, but don’t feel obliged to compete for this long.
These bulls will be seen again soon after the encierro as they will be fought that afternoon in the bullring by a professional bullfighter. Six steers are in the herd and are released three at a time. Three are set out to run from the beginning with another three coming out of the corral two minutes afterwards. This is designed to act as a guide and to make sure that nothing cataclysmic happens. Expect to experience average speeds of 15 mph, so if this speed seems too fast, avoid participating.
Tourists who decide to participate in the 826 metre running will get to see the old city of Pamplona in a way that they will have never experienced before. The run goes through the four main streets that make up the old part of the city. These are the Town Hall Square, Estafeta, Santo Domingo, and Mercaderes. There’s also a section called the Telefonica that runners pass through before making into the bullring.
Runners are advised to make sure that they can cope with the speed of the Santo Domingo and the Town Hall Square because this is where the herd begins to gather speed. Once these areas have been passed its clear sailing from there as the herd slows down again when it reaches Estafeta.
If anybody has made it this far then they can be congratulated because they have completed one of the most dangerous and exhilarating events in the world. Once again, if anybody wants to attempt to run this event, make sure to have medical travel insurance first.
If anybody has ever attempted to complete the Running of the Bulls, share your experiences below!
About The Author: This post is written by Miles Schmidt in behalf of Richardson’s Holiday Parks (previously known as New Horizon Holidays) in Norfolk UK.
Photo Credits -Flickr cc: #1 Petronas, #2 nathancolquhoun, #3 John Yavuz Can