My, oh, my… I’ll try to go in chronological order, since that’s the only way I can attempt to describe a few days of chaos in a way that might convey at least a little bit of what San Fermín (Running of the Bulls) was really like. There were a few websites like TripAdvisor.com and Phillypena.com (this guy is super cool & helpful) that were fantastic resources, but no amount of information can really prepare you for something like this. You just have to see it to believe it, so trust me, you should really go. These people are the craziest, friendliest and most fun in the world. If you don’t want to read the whole blog, you can check out our videos to get a small taste.
Ok, back to the beginning… Our bus arrived from Bilbao around 12:30pm. Unfortunately, we didn’t book accommodations as early as we should’ve, so pickings were slim, unless we wanted to pay 350€ or more per night (no thanks), sleep in the park (too old for that), or stay an hour outside of town (too young for that)… so we took what we could get. We ended up renting a room from this company who owns several apartment buildings around town and rents out the rooms for this event. I believe the term that someone on TripAdvisor used to describe one of their apartments was “hell hole,” so I wasn’t expecting much.
We were told to pick up our keys at their “office”, which was about a 5 minute walk from the bus station. This is when we stumbled upon our first of many drum march band parade thingies (sorry, but I really don’t know how else to describe it). A few days later we ended up in another one of these (this time voluntarily), and it took the crowd 40 minutes to move the distance of a small block. Therefore, I do not recommend trying to walk through such a parade if you’re actually trying to go somewhere – and especially not if you’re carrying luggage.
So the office was in the front room of one of their other “apartments” (which I think would be better described as a small fraternity house). We got the keys to our apartment, caught up with the drum band again, and eventually made it to our room… 106 stairs later. Yes, that’s right, 106. (Aunt Janice, the 63 steps to our flat doesn’t sound so bad anymore, huh?) Upon arrival, we were given the option of 2 rooms, neither of which had windows. Maybe that was actually a blessing, as we were warned to not plan on actually sleeping in this apartment, since the party goes 24/7 during the festival. It was pretty stale in there, but it was cleaner and quieter than I expected, so I guess the pros and cons balanced out.
We dropped off our bags and headed out to buy our uniforms: white pants and white shirt, with a red scarf around your neck and sash around the waist. EVERYONE wears this, so you will feel like the weird one if you’re not dressed up. Your clothes will get ruined, so don’t bring ones you care too much about. We brought our own white t-shirts and fabric for the waist sash, but purchased the white pants & neck scarves upon arrival. I had planned to buy white pants in advance, but I’m glad I didn’t, as you can find them all over town for 5€. In fact, you can get the entire outfit for about 15€.
So, we donned our new outfits and hit the ground running. There are literally events all day and night long… bull running, bull fighting, parades, competitions, fireworks, fire runs, dances, children’s games, etc. We were so excited to be there that we probably could’ve stayed up all night. However, we had rented a balcony to watch the bull run early the next morning, and we wanted to be awake enough to enjoy it, so we managed to fit in about 4 hours of sleep.
The balcony. That’s the most money I’ve ever paid for such a short event, but this is the whole reason we came, so I thought it was worth the 85€ tickets. Our balcony overlooked “dead man’s corner,” which is where most of the excitement usually takes place, as 1500 lb bulls and hundreds of people go sliding around it. The whole thing goes so fast, so you have to be ready or you will miss it. You can hear the rockets fire, signifying that the bulls have been released, then about 20 seconds later, there they are, and then they’re gone.
Thankfully we didn’t see anyone get gored, but we did see one man get trampled by a bull, and another get launched in the air. Both were carried away on stretchers. I think the man who got launched only sustained minor injuries, as he was quite proud to wave and smile at all the spectators cheering for him as he was carried away on the stretcher. I don’t think man who got stepped on was so lucky (Scott said he saw a hoof-print on his back), but I do know that he didn’t die. In fact, only 15 people have been killed during the running since they started recording in 1911. Loooots of people got injured though. It was pretty common to see people walking around town all bandaged up.
The next day, we realized that the danger does not end when the bulls make it into the ring. For 5€ you can buy a ticket into the bull ring to watch the grand finale, as all the bulls and runners complete the course. I really enjoyed the combination of watching the run from the balcony one day, then the finale from the bull ring the next. I recommend that you do at least one of those things, as it’s almost impossible to see anything from the streets. (Tickets to watch from the bull ring go on sale the evening prior.)
So, we’re sitting there waiting, and people start running in. Then all the sudden, people start running faster. The bulls tear into the open ring with hundreds of people running in circles. Some of them continued to tempt fate by getting as close as possible to the bulls, while others did not hesitate to dive over the wall for safety. It didn’t take long to corral the bulls and get them through the bull ring and into their holding grounds, where they would remain until the bull fight that evening. Then come in the Steers, which are sent before and after the bulls to make sure none of them stray or turn around (sometimes if a bull falls during the run he can become disoriented and start running the wrong direction, causing major problems). The Steers are almost as big and dangerous as the bulls themselves, except that they wear these huge cowbells, which makes them look kinda goofy and loveable… at least from a distance!
Bulls and cows are now gone, but the crazies aren’t done playing yet. All the runners stay in the middle of the ring, as a baby bull (the first of six) is released. They wrap its horns in some type of protective material so no one gets gored, then they let all these idiots pretend to be matadors. Even the babies weigh a few hundred pounds, so this is still very dangerous, but it’s the most hilarious thing to watch. The baby bull starts running in circles while hoards of people are spinning out of control. A few people got tossed around and stepped on, but we didn’t see anyone get seriously injured (at least that particular day, although it does happen). The packed stadium cheered and jeered as people got poked in the butt, narrowly escaped being stepped on, or hung onto the horns and gave it a good ride. Then, mamma Steer comes out into the arena to collect the baby, and they start over with the next baby bull. Definitely one of the highlights of the festival for me.
We took a good long siesta that afternoon (every afternoon), then that evening we attended our first bull fight. I can’t say that I was particularly looking forward to this, but I felt like I couldn’t live in Spain for a year and not experience one of their biggest traditions. First a couple of tips about the tickets. Each night after the bull fight (about 8:30-ish), the box office opens to sell tickets to the next day’s fight. Get there at least an hour early, as it does sell out. Tickets at the box office were 22€ in the sun and 28€ in the shade. If you aren’t able to buy them at the box office, you can pick them up from scalpers the day of the fight for 40-60€. Beware of fake tickets if you take that route.
The arena was full of energy. The bands never stopped playing, and the audience often chanted and sang along. Some people were completely doused in sangria before it began, and even more by the end. I’ll leave out all the details of how a bull fight works, but there are lots of good resources online if you want to learn more about it. To summarize, there were 3 Matadors (each of whom has his own team) and 6 bulls. The most famous bull fighters are known for both skill and showmanship, and can often earn over 100,000€ per fight. While I enjoyed it from the standpoint of a cultural event, I also hated it.
I’m not an activist, or even a vegetarian, but it was still hard for me to watch at times. It does make me feel better to know that they actually use the meat from the bulls, so they don’t die in vain. Back in the day they used to give away the meat to the poor, but these days they sell it at a premium.
We were lucky to sit around some really nice people at the bull fight, so I was glad that we were not among those involuntarily covered in sangria. Then again, you can’t keep your red & white uniform too clean, or you just don’t fit in. It’s actually impossible to do so anyway – even if you try – so don’t bother. Your definition of what is clean and acceptable becomes more and more inclusive each day. If at the end of the day, your butt is black, the bottom of your white pants are wet and stained, and you have a few spots of something or other on your shirt (that wasn’t even from your own food or drink), you will consider yourself clean.
The whole city and everyone in it is pretty much a mess, so just expect that. However, I was still very impressed with how well the city handled the crowds. There were several bathroom trailers setup around town that were clean, and rarely even had lines. There was also a constant stream of street cleaners following the crowds around. So yes, it got pretty trashed at times, but I really couldn’t have expected a more efficient system for managing the million plus tourists that flood their city during the 8 days of this festival.
Another thing that really impressed me was the people. While there were plenty of drunken foolios wandering around, there were also families with children, and a surprising amount of senior citizens - at all hours of the day and night! An American staying in the room next to ours described San Fermín as “Mardi Gras but bigger”, but I’m not sure I completely agree with that. While there were plenty of party people, somehow it still felt… peacefully chaotic, if that makes sense? Hard to describe, but for example, we didn’t see one brawl, everyone kept their clothes on, and people were generally friendly and respectful of others (especially around children).
Ok, yes, there were also plenty of idiots who did some really dumb things that might result in a lifetime of negative impact for themselves or someone else, but I didn’t see that to the magnitude that I had expected. I’m kind of annoyingly responsible, and I’m not the kind of person that usually enjoys this type of uncontrolled environment. But here, I found myself laughing rather than feeling uncomfortable or at-risk. Maybe it’s also that my patience and tolerance have increased as a result of all our travels. Who knows, this might have been a completely different event for me if we had done it 10 months earlier. So, hopefully our experiences will help prepare someone else, so you can go have as much fun as we did.
Anyway, even with all my rambling, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of trying to describe everything that happened, so make sure you check out the photos and videos to see the things that just can’t be put into words. (You might want to click on some of the images to see a larger version, in order to get the full effect!)
Links to videos: