Pamplona: bull running

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Friday, July 7, 2006

I was thinking of a leisurely wander up western Portugal and into the Galician region of Spain to check out the most remote area on the Iberian peninsula, but remembering a promise and doing some quick calendrical calculations I soon realised that wasn't to be. With a day to spare before the huge San Fermine (Running of the Bulls) opening party, I hopped the overnight Lisbon-Paris rattler train near Porto and headed toward an unknown fate.

After a few beers to lament Portugal's defeat in the World Cup and as many broken hours of sleep I arrived in San Sebastian around 6.30am. Mechanical 'left-luggage' lockers were a blessing, meaning I could leave most of my gear there. I missed tickets for the train south but the buses were running non-stop that morning so with a daypack and a sleeping bag I was in Pamplona by noon.

A festive air and a sea of red and white clad Spaniards was on hand to greet me. No offers of accommodation were forthcoming, even at the exhorbitant rates I was expecting, but the exuberance of the growing crowds was infectious and I was swept along into the centre of town. Beverages and bulls the only talking points and the herds got thicker the deeper you went.

In centro it was pandemonium as the people increased the tempo of their drinking. A group of young Spaniards adopted me into their posse and doused me with liberal doses of their favourite drinks - beer, whiskey, vino, sangria and noxious concoction called kalimoto which is a mix of cheap ($E0.20 per 1 litre Tetra brik) red wine and cola. Sounds hideous but isn't actually that bad and the more you drank, the better it was...

Eventually my small pack and sleeping bag got the better of me so we threaded our way through the crowds to the central left luggage office. With that monkey off the back we could get down to some serious drinking games and general fraternisation with the inebriated around us. At one point we ended up at a plaza with a central fountain to watch mainly foreign revellers dive off the fountain's top - very much hoping that the crowd below would catch them - which is apparently a particularly foolhardy tradition of the festival. Whilst this was going on drinks were flying through the air, bottles smashing on the ground and buckets of cheap whiskey poured on the mass from balconies overhead. No wonder we saw a few injuries.

By mid afternoon we'd gravitated to the nightclub strip where thousands of people were jammed in the alleyway and many more in the dens lining it. More drinks accompanied the dancing but most of the posse dissolved before I had to leave at 6pm to meet Chris from New Orleans, with Japanese girlfriend Megumi in tow, somewhere near the Cathedral. Drunk, disoriented and nowhere to stay I became a little morose in my vigil but eventually we found each other, grabbed some chow and the spirits livened again.

The rest of the night was spent wandering the streets watching the action and scoping out a place to camp rough. The crowds had thinned somewhat but it was still difficult to get around and most parks which might have made good camp sites were filled with rowdy revellers and covered in debris and pee. Music and merryment filled the air but after midnight we found a neat little place tucked away from main thoroughfares that made a safe and mercifully sweet-smelling bivouac. Fortunately a few hours of broken sleep ensued.

Hungover and chilly we awoke at dawn and already people were making tracks to the Encierro, where the bulls would run at 8am. A donut later and we headed that way too, myself feeling very much worse for wear. Recently I had wondered whether I would run if I made it to this day and although I've been first amongst the skydiving and bungee jumping in times gone by, instinct told me that I wouldn't. Half a dozen Spaniards had warned me forcefully not to either. Now my pounding head, queasy stomach and rumbling bowels thirded the motion. Chris though would, so he disappeared off to the bull-runner meeting point while Megumi and I joined the spectators in the bleachers.

The Running of the Bulls started when a junior at the Pamplona town planning office situated the bull pens hundreds of metres away from the bull ring. They had to get the bulls to the ring so in a rash move some locals goaded them up there by running ahead and the tradition was born. Now hundreds of people run per year, giving the bulls a good chance at retribution before facing the overwhelming odds of the stadium event.

Unless you rent space on a balcony (advertised at $E60 per head some places) you don't actually get to see much. Even if you are running the bulls fly by and are gone - unless you are pronged on a horn. We caught a few glimpses of beef amongst a sea of clicking cameras as the bulls flew by. However it was much easier to see the medics and police officers stretchering away a number of victims of the charge...

We headed up the Encierro through more crowds and random destruction, but generally a happy mood prevailed in the early morning sunlight. Eventually we found Chris who was still in one piece and keyed up from the run, after having to slide under a fence to avoid meeting half a tonne of fate. This left him with minor abrasions and some great memories, but still I had no regrets about not doing it myself.

Finding a bed was foremost on my mind so shortly after I was heading back to San Sebastian, with either Bilboa or Santander in my sights if the first stop was fruitless. And it was - not one bed officially available within 65km of San Sebastian and I certainly wasn't going to pay $E90 for a single next to the railway station. So, manic and quivering, onwards along the coast I went - but that is definitely another story...

All in all a challenging but memorable stop. I can see why this is arguably one of the greatest parties in the world as the sheer numbers, the theme and the decadence make for a truly unique event. Just make sure you book well ahead - it would have been so much better for me if we had a safe home base.

Next entry - Santander and Basque country

This week's chaos

Check out some casualties from the first half of this year's San Fermine festivities.
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Erin on

You were right in the thick of it! Great pictures! May I suggest getting a balcony space next time ... you'll have great views! Hope to see you in July!

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