Freelance Spain

Running with the Bulls

Planning to go to Pamplona's famous yearly fiesta? Robin Neillands has some tips.

Courtesy of The Broadsheet/

I never used to be intrepid. I had a simple rule for survival- if something looked dangerous I didnít do it. And so Running with the Bulls at Pamplona is a Hemingway form of machismo which is not my kind of thing.

I would not have gone in for it at all but the night before it all kicked off I met a bunch of Basques in a pub outside the town and they bought me a drink and then I bought them a drink, and one thing led to another (exactly the same situation a few years ago had me on a tandem hang-glider jumping off the top of the Pyrenees).

The encierro or Running of the Bulls takes place far too early every morning during the early July San Fermin festival. The distance from the pens to the bullring is about a kilometer and unless you are superfit, my advice is to join the caper about half-way, when the crowd has thinned out a bit and you can see what is happening. This is not always a good thing as what happens not infrequently is that people get hurt.

They fall over or get knocked over or trip on the cobbles and get trampled underfoot by the mob or by the bulls. Scores of people get carted off to hospital every morning, some with more than bruising.

If a bull zeros in on you there are few places to hide and last July no less than three people were gored on one day - remember that the encierro lasts no more than five minutes, so that is a pretty high strike rate.

Over 200 people have been gored, hundreds injured in other ways, and not a few killed in the last 20 or so years of the encierro so, to put it another way, Running with the Bulls is dangerous.

We arrived in Pamplona about 7.30am and the city looked like a battlefield. There were bodies lying about everywhere, all in white with red splashes; these turned out to be tired and emotional Basques in their traditional white-and-red kit, sleeping off the effects of the previous nightís activities in the parks, gardens, doorways, wherever. We had a coffee and a stiff pick-me-up and followed the general drift to the route of the encierro, pushed our way onto the track and were ambling across the Plaza de Santa Domingo - I think - when the maroon went off at 8am on the dot.

By the time we got to the top of the Calle Santo Domingo, which leads up from the holding pens, a great red-and-white mob were charging up it, intermingled with six bulls (plus a few steers who have done this before and are there to show the way). The trick is to keep running at a steady pace, ignoring the crowds yelling at you, keeping an eye open for a bull and, above all, staying on your feet - falling in this crowd would be a mistake. It is a waste of time looking for a tree, lamp-post, window trellis or doorway to lurk in at moments of stress and scores of people will have beaten you too any place of safety or point of vantage. Iíll never forget when the first bull came past, horns glinting, coat shining, then a steer, then another bull, with the locals urging them on with swipes from rolled-up newspaper. The din was tremendous and then we were squeezing up, going like the proverbial clappers, diving into a tunnel and coming out to an even more tremendous noise, in the bullring itself. 

At this point, another word of advice - get out of the ring as quickly as possible. Even when the bulls have been gathered in (the steers lead them to the holding pens) there is another treat in store for masochists. I went behind the safety barrier from where a dozen willing hands hauled me up to the stand and was just accepting a drink and a few slaps on the back when I saw a big crowd gathering in a scrum outside one of the entrances. A bullock with taped horns came rushing out of the darkness, saw this white wall of bodies and leapt straight into it. The impact must have filled up a hospital ward or two on its own. This young bull then rushed about the arena, knocking people down like ninepins, to roars of approval from the crowd.

The locals were still enjoying this mayhem when I made my excuses and left. I made my way back to the coffee bar, met up with my companions, some of them nicely bruised I am happy to say, and left Pamplona before noon to continue on my travels.

Looking back on the encierro, my views are simple - I would not have missed it and I am never going to do it again.

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