San Fermines Part 1: Bull Run

July 16, 2011

There are days and there are days. The birth of a child, the death of a loved one, and the day I watched a Pamplona bull run. By the end of this day, I would have witnessed a unique culture and have met a man that sat with and smoked a pipe with Ernest Hemingway.

The running of the bulls was not what I had envisioned, which is not to say it wasn’t exciting. We arose at 4:45 a.m. and traveled from Gexto to Pamplona. It was necessary to arrive by 7:00 a.m. because the police begin to clear the streets for the run and we would not have been able to get to our balcony.

I had seen the run before on television. The first surprise was that everyone, and I mean everyone in town, not just the runners, wear white shirts and pants, a red belt and red bandana. Despite the early hour, hundreds of people hovered around the streets, many of them drunk. What you don’t experience on the television is the smell and the trash. So many clear, disposable cups, beer and wine bottles, that at times, it was difficult not to step in the narrow streets without the crunch of plastic. Also, the cobbled roads were wet. Not from rain, but from spilled fluids. The stench of spilled alcohol, vomit, and public urination filled the air in some areas. The bottoms of our shoes threatened to stick to the crusty ground as we meandered through the town. Our host, Carlos, had warned us that because we were attending on a Saturday, the crowd and their leavings would be particularly bad.

Carlos had been gored by a bull during the run back in 1986 and had spent three months recuperating. He said, even today, the hair on his arms stands at attention prior to the bull run. I could feel a mix of anticipation and fear crackling in the air as we drew closer to the route of the bull run.

We were fortunate that Carlos had arranged for a balcony view along the main street of the bull run. The street was at an intersection where doctors would eventually be stationed. Carlos shuttled us to the second floor of an apartment building. As we settled into our viewing area, the preparations below were already in progress.

First, the regional police wearing red caps began herding the crowd of men and women, reluctant to abandon their partying, toward a central cross street. Gates closed behind the group as a mass of white-cloaked people adorned with red belts moved in our direction. Once this section of the street was cleared, the local police, clad in green vests, collected the party-goers at the opposite end of the narrow street.

Meanwhile, a street sweeper with large brushes proceeded up and down the area, cleaning up cans and plastic cups. Manual collection of the larger beer and wine bottles soon commenced. Despite the volume of trash and extent of the spilled liquids, the cleaning process took only about 30 minutes.

Next, the town mayor walked the established route of the bulls and runners to determine whether the street was satisfactorily clean. A line of police then formed to allow the runners stuck at the far end of the route to have access to the area in front of the bull pen. When all was ready, the runners chanted to the statue of Saint Fermines three times, a fireworks crackled and a minute or so later the first runners appeared on our street.

I craned my neck looking for the bulls in the distance because I had expected a gap between the six bulls and the runners, but the animals were centrally-located, surrounded by a sea of white-clothed humans. In a matter of seconds, the animals had passed underneath us. Then, further up the street one of the bulls slipped and fell scattering the human participants like a flock of startled chickens. It regained its footing and the bulls disappeared from sight, where the would enter a ring for the bull fight.

I had thought the show was over, but San Fermines is much more than matadors and bulls. Part 2 of my will cover the post-run festivities.