Sunday, July 7, 2013

Running with the Bulls in Pamplona

"All festivals, of course, are acts of collective myth-making, chances for a nation to advertise its idealized image of itself.  
 "Pico Iyer, The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto (2011)

"You're not a moron. You're only a case of arrested development."  
 Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)

Pamplona, Spain (July 6-14) A million drunks in red kerchiefs. White t-shirts soaked through with beer. Another lost generation doing Ernest Hemingway. Just before 8 AM,  even the atheists start praying to San Fermin, Pamplona's premier patron saint.  An explosion from the corral. Twelve half-ton running machines thunder through the gates of the corral. Six steers, cowbells clanging, herd six fighting bulls on a four minute dash to the Corrida de Torros.  A double line of wooden barricades lines narrow medieval streets, enclosing beasts and runners; squeezing haunches and hooves against the shoulders and spines of ten experienced maestros and way too many first-timers who haven’t got a clue.  Day three of the 2013 "Encierro".  No one gored yet.

Don't get all excited.  Tejano and I did NOT watch the bulls run in Pamplona (Iruña in Basque).  I’d no more join Pamplona’s testosterone-fueled spring break scene than parachute into Times Square for the New Years Eve ball drop. 

But, this past Sunday when my Facebook friend George announced the 2013 Running of the Bulls, he posted such a perfect Hemingway quote, I had to have another look at Pamplona.

Quite frankly, Pamplona didn't make either of our favorites lists when Tejano and I stopped there in May.  It certainly didn't look like this:   

Revelers are chased by bulls on the Estafeta corner Sunday, July 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

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In Spanish, they call Running the Bulls "El Encierro," the enclosing, because before they square off against matadors at six afternoon bullfights, these magnificent animals must  be "fenced in," safely transported through city streets to the Plaza de Torros.  You'd think for this preliminary stage, they'd want to avoid chaos, saving bloodshed for the final show. But, Pamplona has a long, proud tradition of allowing daredevils to run amok. The first written account of the bull runs dates from 1386; complaints about tourists with loose morals from the 1800's. With help from Pamplona's other patron saint (Ernest Hemingway), his 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises" and the manly man school of bullfighter blood and gore, Pamplona has turned this romp through town into a big-time tourist attraction.  Bull runs happen all over Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe.  Only Pamplona's draws over a million people, enough to fill an entire tent city.

 56 Days 23 hours 14 minutes and 59 seconds until El Chupinazo
The Friday we arrived, Pamplona's was the sleepiest center city I'd seen in Spain.  It could've been downtown Buffalo on a Sunday, great architecture and churches but all the action long gone to the suburbs. It felt like everything was on hold.  Outside the San Fermin T-shirt and souvenir Kukuxumusu (Basque for "flea kiss"), the countdown clicked.  Otherwise, Pamplona was very quiet.

Bull whimsy

Pamplona's Plaza del Castelo, lunchtime Friday.  A block away, the brave bulls run.

A protest against budget cuts, colorful, but subdued, greeted us at La Diputacion - El Palacio de Navarre (seat of the Presidency of the Regional Government).  We'd seen rallies and marches all over Spain where "El Crisis" has hit hard.

Hard to get the issue when the banners are in Basque.  Flags work in every language.

Favorite protest signs: "Less Sausage. More Work" 

The deserted Medieval Quarter of the Bull run 

The tapas bars along Calle Estafeta were plenty inviting, but nothing to compare with the gastronomic wizardry of San Sebastian or Barcelona.  A disappointing lack of regulars.  Maybe they get more lively after work, but this was lunchtime.  

The place with the long line out the door was a bakery called Ultramarinos Beatriz where the specialty is  apple, milk chocolate and sweet pumpkin  mini-croissants by weight.  We loaded up.  Worth the trip to Pamplona.
Chocolate and mini-croissants sold by weight at Beatriz

Photo Op for pilgrims at Pamplona's City Hall

This is Pamplona's City Hall/ Ayuntamiento, where at noon on July 6, Pamplona's mayor, with the help of a rocket called "el chupinazo", launches each year's Festival of San Fermin.

(The unfurling of an enormous Basque flag from the front of the building delayed 2013's kick-off for about 20 minutes.)

In May, City Hall is a good stop for pilgrims en route to Santiago de Campostelo. The women you see in the foreground have just completed their first 45 miles. Just 455 more miles and a month of walking to go. 

There's only so many cathedrals and churches you can take in.  After five weeks crossing Spain, we stayed out of Pamplona's, also giving a wide berth to  its Opus Dei university and hospitals, legacy of the Franco era when other Basque universities were shuttered.

Pamplona makes the most of their Hemingway connections offering, not only souvenirs (dark glasses, photos), but Hemingway pizza and kebabs. 

Slow season souvenirs

If you're inspired, you can do an entire circuit of Hemingway sites: his bust outside the Plaza de Torros,  his favorite suite at the Hotel La Perla, his life-sized statue by the Bar at Cafe Iruña.  You'll have to wait for El Encierro to witness the white beards Papa Hemingway runners. (Find some of these images on my Pamplona Pinterest Board. )

Mostly, Tejano and I took a pass on Hemingway.

During his college days in the early 1970's, Tejano and a girlfriend hitchhiked Europe and came to see the bulls run. 

He said once was more than enough, but heading down a deserted Avenida Roncesvalles, there was Basque artist Rafael Huerta Celaya's irresistible Monument to the Encierro...

Some guys just can't help themselves

Even Tejano came to the rescue.

BOTTOM LINE:  Pamplona is a sleepy mid-sized city that once a year explodes with tourists.  (Though, the Fall Festival of San Fermin sounds much more manageable and local than July's, I'll have to rely on other readers with direct experience for their comments. )

Our experience: a bit of a ghost town;  a center city devoid of both tourists and locals. We couldn't help but compare its tapas scene to San Sebastian's, it's sites and street life to almost anywhere else in Spain. 

My advice: Visit for a few hours en route to somewhere else or as part of a day trip.  For us, it was the southernmost destination on a larger driving loop through Basque country, Grab a bite to eat.  Take your picture by the Encierro Monument or next to Hemingway. Soak up some history, poke your head into a few churches and museums (we were maxed out!), and meander the quiet medieval streets as the City braces itself for another Running of the Bulls.  If you're looking for an overnight and a couple of days in a medium-size, low-keyed but interesting destination, there are better places to go.

Pamplona's Running of the Bulls/El Encierro by the Numbers

When:  Every July 7-14th during the Feast of San Fermin, patron Saint of Pamplona
Duration:  About 4 minutes, starting at 8 AM
Where:  Four narrow medieval streets that connect the corral and the bullring, about a block off the main square of Pamplona, Spain - or as the Basques whose country it is say: Iruña.
Distance:  903 yards (just over .5 of a mile, for those of us who are spatially challenged)

The 903 yard route (about half a mile) from the corral to the corrida/bull ring

Casualties:  15 since 1910 -- 13 Spaniards, 1 Mexican, 1 United States ( a 22 year old from Illinois) 
Injuries:  200-300 a year, though mostly not serious.
Who can participate:  Anyone over 18 who isn't drunk and who doesn't incite the bulls.
How many bulls:  Six headed for the afternoon bullfights guided by six steers in their midst and another three from behind.

Cast bronze bull butts (1994)

More Information:

  • Rick Steve's "Spain 2013" offers a quick walking tour and orientation to Pamplona, part of his chapter on The Camino.
  • Pamplona as part of a Basque Country driving tour, mostly doable in one day as a loop from San Sebastian.  We followed DRIVE 5 from "Back Roads Spain".
  • Fascinating History of the greater region:  "The Basque History of the World" by Mark Kurlansky
  • Wikipedia on PamplonaSaint Fermin and the Running of the Bulls, where you'll also get to read about wacky kindred events:  The Big Easy Rollergirls in New Orleans, The Rangoria, New Zealand Sheep Run, The BallyJamesduff, Ireland Running of the Wild Boars.
  • On Netflix:  The Sun Also Rises (1957 Classic) and Bull Runners of Pamplona (2012 Documentary)
  • Special points for reading this far: Peta's Running of the Nudes  annual protest.


  1. Thanks for the rundown~ Perhaps it's a pass for this one~ Unless we decide to walk the Camino.

    1. The Camino is a great way to see Pamplona. Are you planning a trip to Spain? If you're renting a car, I'd recommend the leisurely circuit from San Sebastian down N121A through Parque Natural de Senorio de Bertiz, back on the expressway to Pamplona then return through Elizondo and the witches cave Las Cuevas de Zuaggaramurdi.