The screams of the crowd are distracting. Am I doing well and staying ahead of them, or about to be gored? My legs feel like lead as I try to maintain my pace on the uphill route, and my breathing becomes labored. How much longer can I keep going? When will the bullring — the end point — finally appear?
“You did it!” says the museum host suddenly, stopping me in my tracks. “You beat the bulls!”
I didn’t really outrun any bulls, of course. I’d merely tested myself on a computerized simulation, which included running on an incline treadmill, here at the Museo del Encierro (Running of the Bulls Museum) in Pamplona, Spain.
In Your Bucket Because …
- The Running of the Bulls is one of Spain’s best-known festivities.
- Pamplona is known for its excellent food.
- Good for history buffs and (mild) adventurers.
Pamplona, population 200,000, is famed for its annual San Fermín festival. Held each July 7-14, its highlight is the daily bull-running at 8 a.m. The tradition began in 1385, when bulls were brought to town for bullfights. Herdsmen muscled their stocky, horned charges through the narrow streets and up to the square before dawn, so as not to disturb sleeping residents. Over time this benign process morphed into an organized event, although it wasn’t until the 1880s that Spaniards joined the bulls in their run to the ring.
The event was still largely a local one in the 1920s, when American author Ernest Hemingway discovered it during a trip to the city. Hemingway’s subsequent written descriptions about the Encierro fascinated people worldwide, and they began to flock to the city to witness this curious tradition. Today, 1 million people cram the streets of Pamplona during the seven-day San Fermín celebration, which has, unfortunately, devolved into a 24/7 bacchanal.
Alternative Running of the Bulls Experience
I have zero interest in being crushed in the narrow, cobblestone streets of Pamplona with hundreds of thousands of rowdy, drunken people. Yet I’m intrigued by the whole San Fermín thing. So I’m here during September’s Mini San Fermín fiesta (San Fermín Txiki in Basque) — essentially San Fermín without the insane crowds, drunks and … bull.
After learning about the Encierro’s history at the museum and trying the simulation, I head outside to walk the half-mile bull-running course, which features a 2.5 percent incline and a couple of hard turns just to make things interesting. I start at the bottom of Santo Domingo Street and inspect the pen where the bulls are kept the night before each day’s running. In real life it’s a small parking lot. Then I head up the street. On my right a statue of San Fermín is tucked into a niche in the stone wall. San Fermín is co-patron saint of Navarre (one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, akin to a state), and it is in his honor that the festival is held. The crowds sing a song before each daily running, asking the saint to make sure no one gets hurt.
Soon the pavement gives way to a somewhat slippery cobblestone path that comprises much of the rest of the route. My hand automatically stretches out to brace myself against a nonexistent danger when I reach the hard right turn onto Estafeta Street. Known as Dead Man’s Corner, this is the spot where the bulls often slip and fall, injuring themselves and bystanders. I pass under the balcony of the La Perla Hotel room where Hemingway always stayed when he was in town, and picture his bearded face cheering us on. Minutes later, the bullring appears. It took me about 10 minutes to stroll along the route; during the frenzied running, it takes the bulls and people a mere two or three minutes.
I spend the rest of the day wandering around Pamplona’s old downtown. I join the crowds following the “zampanzanes,” which are costumed people with giant cow bells on their butts; the bells clunk loudly to scare away the devil as the zampanzanes march around. I worm my way into the front of the crowds during the parade of “Giants and Big Heads,” laughing with the kids at ugly Vinegar Face and dodging the Kiliki man on a fake horse, who’s busy playfully hitting bystanders with a foam truncheon. I sample plenty of tapas, called pintxos (PEEN choes) here, a Basque specialty, and drink some fine red wed. And at night, I watch showers of colorful fireworks explode across the sky. San Fermín Txiki is a great way to (almost) experience the Encierro. And that’s no bull.
- Pamplona holds a Mini San Fermín festival every September, San Fermín Txiki, in honor of St. Fermín’s feast day, Sept. 23. The festival includes all of the parades, fireworks, music, etc. of San Fermín, but there’s no running of the bulls or insane crowds, making it a great time to visit.
- History buffs should book a room at the Gran Hotel La Perla, the hotel where American author Ernest Hemingway stayed eight times. You can even book Hemingway’s actual room, renovated to look as it did when he stayed there. If you want to reserve it during the July San Fermín festival, however, you need to stay a minimum of five nights, and the room is roughly 2,200€ per night. As of 2012, there was a four-year wait.
- Runners may want to visit shortly before the San Fermín festival to participate in the Carrera Encierro, a road race that’s held on the half-mile running-of-the-bulls course.
- For more information, see Pamplona, I Like It!