My time in Spain is almost at its end, but I’ve got just enough to catch the San Fermin festival, which hosts the world famous Running of the Bulls! My roommate David and our friends, Ed and Katherine, are renting a car and driving out to Pamplona for the weekend. Vamosssss!
What about my second half, Lindzee? Why tf isn’t she coming, you might ask. It breaks my heart but she has tickets to a music festival, Benicassim, (South of Valencia) next weekend and can’t afford both trips on our meagre teacher’s salaries. I COMPLETELY understand that. I can hardly afford to survive the next few days before flying to Greece for the rest of the summer. So we gotta prioritize.
We don’t have any accom booked, and everything will definitely be full by now for San Fermin, but Lindzee and her partner John just bought a cool pop up tent for the music festival and they’re letting me borrow it. Between the car, the tent, and and some park benches we should be able to sort out a place for the 4 of us to sleep. We’ll see. At least we’ll be saving on accommodation costs!
In yet another attempt to save on expenses, we’ve arranged to pick up a guy from Bla Bla Car, which is a popular ride sharing app in Europe. I’ve never done this before so if I get murdered, tell your friends.
We stop in a suburb outside Barcelona city to pick up Alex, our mystery ride share companion. He turns out to be the sweetest little thing and doesn’t seem murdery in the slightest. He’s 19 and actually from Pamplona, but is now doing an internship in Barcelona. We chat the whole 6 hour car ride and it flies by.
Including stops for snacks, gas, and picking up Alex, we still get to Pamplona quite late. Luckily, having this local with us gives us a great advantage. We learn that it’s illegal to camp freely outside, and I suppose I’m not totally surprised but this is Spain after all. But he suggests we stay outside the city and try to camp in a more low key spot to avoid anyone who would actually enforce the rule, before we part ways.
It’s well past midnight by the time we find a parking spot, change into our red and white San Fermin attire, and catch a bus into town. We’re among the first few people on the bus and everything is chill. But by the 3rd or 4th stop the bus is full of rowdy festival go-ers. The occupancy is 90% men; all drinking beers and singing songs, getting amped up for tonight’s party.
Everyone is dressed from head to toe in white, with an accent red neck red scarf. I mean everyone. Even white pants. Who has white pants?! I feel silly in my black shorts; I didn’t know the dress code was so intense! We don’t really know where we are but it becomes obvious when we’ve hit the centre of town, because the streets are absolutely flooded with people.
We move our way through the crowds to a big square where there’s a live dancing band. We dance behind it through the streets, following a giant tuba and some drummers who are absolutely jammin’. We’re lead to an even bigger square with live music on a stage. The band is playing some covers (Despacito, naturally) and some music which I believe is typical Basque.
I don’t know much about the history/geography of this region, but while Pamplona is not actually in Basque Country, it’s nearby and everyone speaks Basque regardless. In the car, Alex was explaining to us that there is a specific genre of music in the region and didn’t think we’d like it. I was so determined that he’d be wrong because I like allllll music, but yeah. He was right. It’s not exactly my taste.
Side note: If you ever get the chance, do some reading on the Basque language. It’s super fascinating. No one knows where it came from! It just showed up. It doesn’t have any similarities to any language of its surrounding countries, or ANY country, for that matter. Blows my mind.
The square is fun and full of enthusiastic partiers, dancing and having a good time… but – I’m not going to sugar coat this – everything smells like piss and vomit. Legit. There’s garbage and glass littered all over the streets. This poor city, which I’m sure is absolutely beautiful the other 355 days of the year, has been destroyed by visitors for this festival. And what’s worse, due to incidents of years past, the festival has become synonymous with sexual assault. I attribute it to the crowd it draws for the running – amped up thrill seekers full of testosterone and alcohol. Not a great combination. Katherine and I stick close to the boys, I don’t feel like getting lost here.
Before we know it, it’s 7:00am and time to get to the arena. I really wanted to run – YOLO right? But everyone I speak to advises me against it. I can’t pretend that didn’t make me want to do it even moreeeee but… I also value my life.
No one has actually died since 2009, but lots of people get stabbed by a horn and trampled and stuff. I still haven’t decided if I’ll do it or not, but if I DO run I don’t want to be even a little drunk (those are the idiots that get gored, dontcha think?). We’re here for two nights, so I plan to be a spectator today, feel out the situation, and make my decision to run or not tomorrow.
Katherine and I somehow lose the boys before getting our tickets into the arena, and by the time we’ve contacted them to let them know we’re inside, the tickets are sold out.
I doubt this is part of the 400 year old tradition, but some weird cheerleader show takes place while everyone finds their seats.
At 8:00am sharp a gun shot goes off, music plays, the bulls are released, and the runners scramble. A giant screen hangs from the centre of the empty arena, playing drone footage of what’s going on in the streets outside. We see one guy get dragged like 50 meters, and one guy’s calf impaled with a horn. Gnarly. In a few short minutes the runners are entering the arena and jumping over the barriers to safety. Everyone is screaming and cheering while men in pink matador capes lead the bulls out of the ring. I assume it’s over, but no. Now, a bunch of men (and I really do mean men, I haven’t noticed ANY women; another reason I should run tomorrow) have stayed in the arena and are waiting around, looking anxious.
BAM. A single bull is released and everyone is going mad. It’s the strangest scene. Men running towards the bull to get as close as possible, then diving out of its way. Basically playing chicken. Some people lose, and get tossed aside by the horns, but no one gets impaled. This little dance goes on for a while, switching bulls every 10 minutes or so until the runners get their thrills and spectators lose interest. What I do find really interesting is that the bulls are visibly more attracted to people who’ve been …brave? stupid? enough to wear red tops instead of white. They’re like targets. I know that’s how it’s always represented on Bugs Bunny, but I didn’t know it was so accurate in real life.
My father was here in the 80s (when he was touring around Europe in a hippie van with his buddies. He’s cooler than I am) and said it doesn’t sound like much has changed.
Worn out and tired from all the excitement, we eventually find the boys outside the arena and catch the bus “home” to where we parked the car. Turns out David was actually standing on the sideline right in front of where that guy got gored through his calf, and suggests I don’t run tomorrow.
It’s so hot out that we don’t even need the tent, and just bring our sleeping bags to the park to sleep under the shade of a tree. Except for David, who sleeps in an apartment building doorway like a true homeless person.
We wake up, recover, find a gym where we can pay 6€ to use the shower, and do it all again. Honestly, one night of San Fermin is probably more than enough, but we’re here so we get involvedddd. I end up choosing not to run in the morning, feeling slightly like I’m missing out on an experience, but also confident that I can make it to Greece with both of my legs in tact.
It’s been REAL, Spain!
Next up: run away with me to Greece where I’ll be exploring the Ion island of Zakynthos before volunteering at a refugee camp in Athens.