Photo by wili_hybrid
What’s better than a great steak? A great steak that chases you. Pamplona’s famous encierro, or “running of the bulls”, provides a rite of passage, a badge of bravery to those pilgrims willing to make the trek to northeastern Spain.
Popularized in the English-speaking world by Ernest Hemingway, the festival of San Fermin—the backdrop of the encierro—starts each year on July 6.
When/Where to Go
The bulls run daily from July 7 to 14, at 8:00am. During the weekend, you’ll find the most runners on the course, so plan accordingly. More runners = a more dangerous run.
Wherever you happen to arrive, head to the heart of Pamplona—the old town. Follow the people dressed in white. If you’re lost, ask, “Donde esta Casco Antiguo?” (Loosely, “Where is Old Town?”)
Where to Stay
Pamplona is one of the most welcoming cities you’ll find. You can eat, drink, and sleep almost anywhere you’d like.
If you didn’t book a hotel room or apartment a year in advance, forget about it; you’re on your own. If you decide to try one of the parks, bring something warm: the nights can get cold.
Need a place to store your stuff? Head to Plaza San Francisco. You can store your gear in an official, secure area.
A great option if you have a little extra cash is to rent a car and drive to Pamplona. You get a movable shelter, protection for you and your stuff, and the ability to explore the gorgeous Spanish countryside. If you can, check out highway N-240. It’s the scenic route, and it’s worth it.
What to Wear
The standard dress for the entire festival is white pants, white t-shirt, and a red scarf. You can bring them with you or buy them there. Of course, days spent with wine, beer, and calimocho (made from equal parts red wine and Coca-Cola), will ensure you leave looking like Jackson Pollock’s undershirt and smelling about as bad.
Before the Run
Plan to arrive the afternoon before the morning you intend to run. You’ll want to spend some time walking the actual 800+ meter course. This will give you a chance to scope out the area that you’d like to start from and plan possible escape routes.
Before 7:30am on the day of your run, you MUST be in Plaza Consistorial. You know you’re the right place if you’re smashed next to thousands of strangers listening to the p.a. system read off some guidelines in various languages.
Don’t worry. You won’t have to wait long before the barricades are removed and you’re released onto the course.
During the Run
Before they release the bulls, you have complete freedom to move about the course. Technically, you can start your run from just outside of the corral (where the bulls are running from) or just outside the bull ring (where they are running to). Keep in mind, though, that those points reflect either an extreme form of bravery that borders on lunacy or pathetic cowardice.
A rocket lets you know the door to the corral is open. The next rocket lets you know that more than 6,000 pounds of angry bulls are headed toward you. Big, ugly, and fast, they cannot be outrun, so timing is everything. When you see a wave of people heading toward you, it’s time to run. Hard.
Your goal should be the bullring, as a very special event awaits the lucky few who make it in before or immediately after the bulls. Thousands of ticketholders cheer from the stands as several cows are released—one at a time—into the ring, charging.
Grabbing a horn will draw cheers from the crowd. Getting hit will draw laughs.
During most of the day, say between 10:00am and 7:00pm, most of the town is recovering from a hangover. If you brought a car, you’ve got plenty of time to explore northern Spain.
You can head to the beautiful coastal town of San Sebastian (1+ hour drive) or visit the Guggenheim in Bilbao (2 hour drive). No car? There’s plenty to explore in and around the town. The tourist office in Plaza San Francisco provides free itineraries for the day’s events.
If you run with the bulls in Pamplona, we sure hope you blog about the experience on Matador. If you’re headed to Spain, be sure to get in touch with some Matador members like Teresa, a journalist from Madrid, or El Lobo , who leads cultural walking tours in southern Spain.
If the running of the bulls isn’t enough of a party for you, check out Matador’s round-up of the best festivals in Spain.