Bull fighting is an ancient tradition in Spain and while there are many similar events all over the country each autumn, Pamplona hosts the biggest and most international of over 3,000 crazy annual fiestas. To be honest, few festivals evoke so much controversy, either, but in spite of animal rights groups protesting, the Running of the Bulls festival seems to be getting more popular each year.
Is it really the bulls that lead thousands of people to visit the small town near Pamplona? That’s not everything about the festival which lasts for seven days in total. Yet, there’s no denying that the highlight is the first day of the festival, when masses of runners, most of them brave young men, swarm into the city street to face some of the most dangerous cattle in the world.
The start by visiting the statue of San Fermin, the patron saint of the town and ask him for his blessings and guidance in the bull run. Then, all of a sudden, a rocket goes off and a large number of fighting bulls are let loose onto the city streets and along a narrow half mile long lane towards a bull fighting arena. The runners run in front of them and try to get as close to the bulls are possible, while trying to avoid to get that little bit TOO close that could cost them their lives.
The evening after the run, the town is transformed into one of the most adrenalin- and fun-laden bull fighting arenas in all of Spain (although here too, the bulls are all killed at the end of the night, so the fun is a little one-sided). Surely you’re wondering why on earth anyone would make such a fuss and not just send the animals to the nearest butcher?
This is exactly how the tradition was started – in the days before factory farming, the butcher guilds of the Spanish towns penned up the bulls in the city centres on the annual slaughter day. In a poor country like Spain, meat used to play a big role as luxury food, and so, this was one of the most joyous days of the year that was celebrated accordingly. In the case of Pamplona, people tell the story that in the 19th century, some brave youths started running in front of instead of behind the bulls and combined the event with a spectacular bull fighting night.
As a visitor, you don’t have to join in (although technically, everyone is allowed to, if you feel like you need a real adrenalin rush), but can watch the run and bull fights from a safe distance. The entire festival goes on for 7 days, during which you can witness many traditional performances and all kinds of bull-related events. Foreigners have been visiting the event for over 200 years, and you can tell the town is prepared for visitors with a complete fun fair, countless food stalls and craft markets.
One of the most famous visitors to the festival was Ernest Hemingway, who mentioned the festival his 1926 novel ‘Also the sun rises’ – there couldn’t have been a better marketing campaign.
As a visitor today, you have several options of visiting the town and depending on the accommodation you choose, you will have a completely different experience. It won’t come as a surprise that hotel rates in the area skyrocket during the time, so that one of the best options is to rent a holiday apartment. Many of them come with balconies and if you are lucky enough to snatch up an apartment along the main route, you can watch the entire running of the bulls from the safe distance of your own balcony. This way, you can live like a local and make the most of the party spirit that takes over the town during the festival.
An exciting part of travel can be to step out of your comfort zone and make a completely new experience. What’s the bravest/craziest thing you have ever done on a trip?