Monday, July 23, 2012

Pamplona - It's Not All Bull

(yes - the blog is out of sequence. This took place before Provence. Also - if you are offended by bullfighting this post may not be for you as there are some pictures)

Ok - maybe a lot of it is about the bulls. The Festival of San Fermin is an annual event that honors Saint Fermin, the co-patron of Navarre and was immortalized in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” It is better known for the annual ritual of running packs of very large bulls through the streets in the company of whomever seems to be of the mind that running with them is a good idea.

Every year I would invariably catch the news coverage that accompanies the festival. Every year I would think to myself that if I ever had the chance that this would be interesting to check out, and maybe even run.

The thing about this trip is that it has empowered those kind of “what if” thoughts into becoming reality. Now granted on the scale of every kind of “what if” thought this could be considered to be a bit out there. But hey - it was my dream. I make no apologies.

At least I was sensible enough to figure that there would be some value not just showing up solo (Heather and Chloe decided to leave me be and instead head to the UK so as I didn’t have to deal with their nervousness about this in person) but instead join up with a tour. At least that way my insanity would have company. And there would be someone looking for me if the run didn’t go exactly as planned. I settled on Spyns Tours, who specialize in the festival (as well as the Tour de France). I’m glad I took advantage of their expertise. Here’s a retro-look at my experience:

Day 1 - Getting Settled In

The first day was very basic. Get in, learn a bit and get some white pants were the day’s objectives. A walking tour of Pamplona’s “old town” area where the festival takes place taught me:
  • that the bulls were brought to the “starting line” from the river the night before the run. This has been going on for 700 years. Somewhere along the line the locals decided to go for a run, and the rest (as they say) is history.
The Start Line
  • that bulls are attracted to movement, and contrary to belief are actually color-blind. This was a valuable piece of intel that I put to great use later. 
  • that I didn’t want to start my run at the beginning section along Cuesta de Santo Domingo. Not only is there no place to bail (solid rock wall on one side, building on another), but the first part of the run is deceptively uphill. I knew that adrenalin was only going to take me so far.
Getting the Scoop on the start of the run
  • that listening for the rockets would be important. The first rocket launched in the morning signifies the opening of the bull’s gate. The second (and much more important rocket) says that the bulls are now on the move. 
  • that the dress-code for the festival is for real. All over there were people dressed all in white with the red sash and bandanna. If you weren’t in costume you really did stand out. I think that was one thing that really made the event unique for me - that everyone got on the same page with their attire. I grabbed my white pants that night and thoroughly enjoyed wearing the festival uniform. 
  • that on run day you needed to wait in the first town square for the police to give the all-clear. Go too far up the course and the police would toss you off when they did their sweep. Be drunk or on drugs and you would also get the boot. The one that surprised me was cameras. If they saw you with a camera on the course you would be tossed. Even if your camera was hands-free (i.e. strapped to your chest). I saw quite a few people get the boot on run day.
  • that if you wanted to get off the course during the run do not climb over a fence. All that does is put your sensitive areas directly on the same plane as the bull’s sharp horns. Instead climb under the fence. I classified that as an important safety tip
  • that if you went down during the run then stay down until you get tapped. This I think was my biggest concern - somehow falling to the hard road and getting trampled. 
  • that if you somehow managed to stay vertical you may end up at the finish line, the local bullfighting ring. It is the third largest in the world behind Mexico City and Madrid. It was there that the fun would really begin (more later). 15,000 people would gather in the stands to watch the runners come in. If you arrived too early for the crowd’s liking (i.e. you chickened out of actually running with the bulls) the crowd would show their displeasure by pelting you with solid food items, and push you back into the ring if you tried to depart. 
Interior of Plaza de Toros
After the walk and dinner outside Cafe Irina (one of Hemingway’s favorites) I retired back to the hotel briefly before deciding to head back into town wearing the whites to check out the festivities

At night its amazing how many people talk of having ran that day...


All throughout the night I was struck by the vast number of partiers, the vast number of families, the total lack of anything even remotely resembling trouble, and how when I was leaving the old town around 1:00 am there were still droves of people coming into town.

Day 2 - aka “OMG What Am I Thinking?”

The day started with an early 0600h departure to get to the staging point for our walk into the city. Today was Balcony Day. A chance to see the mayhem up close, albeit from a safe distance. Once we got to the course we walked past Dead Man's Corner and onto the final straightaway of Calle Estafeta that led to the Plaza de Toro (aka the bull ring).

We walked past the amazing clean-up crew and many who were still caught up in last night's festivities. Some who were still going strong, some who were done (the pair of guys leaning/sleeping in a doorway) and those who should have been done (the guy who had his pants underwear yanked off him).

The balcony let us see the process of the police cleaning out the course, how the green-shirted shepherd's are treated like heroes (they try and keep the bulls and steers under some semblance of control) and something I didn't know - that the course is inspected each morning before the rockets are fired.
Clean up time
Suddenly there was a rush of movement and it was on. A mass of humanity moved down Estafeta followed closely by the bulls and then the steers. Chaos. And the speed in which it all transpired was just a wee bit scary. It all moved a lot quicker that I thought.


The rest of the day was spent wandering the streets taking in the sights and thinking about my plan for doing the run. Did I want to start before or after Dead Man's Corner? Did I want to get into the arena? Was this still something I wanted to do?

That night I was able to arrange for a ticket to the bull fight. I wasn't planning on going originally, but I thought that to miss it was to miss out on an essential aspect of the festival. Thankfully the hotel was able to arrange for a ticket on the shaded side. That was important, because if you happen to be on the sunny (i.e. the party side) things can get a bit messy and your clothes (and camera) can get a bit dirty.

I have to admit that I found the bullfight to be quite fascinating. I realized quite early that unless I was immediately prepared to renounce my long-term love affair with steak and embrace vegetarianism any thoughts as to animal cruelty should be set aside. 

The early part of the event featured many introductions of both the matadors and others involved, as well as introductions of the featured bulls.


I want Javier's nickname
Once the fight commenced it seemed to have 4 stages. When the bull was first let into the ring the "Peones" would  encourage the bull to run around so as to allow for the bullfighter to gauge the animal. 

Once the assessment was over, the "Picador" comes in on horseback. The horse is blindfolded so as to not get spooked by the bull and is padded on the sides. The "Picador's" role is to stab the back of the bull with his lance to weaken it. This guy is not well-liked by the crowd, as they are concerned he will weaken the bull too much and deprive them of a good show (of course, the bullfighter probably doesn't mind a too-weak bull).

After that the "Banderilleros" step in. It's their job to run at the bull and stick it with large steel darts in order to further weaken the bull. And of course to avoid being gored by the bull while they are doing this.

Now it's time for the Matador to take centre stage. He and the bull do an intricate dance all over the arena as the Matador attempts to dominate the bull, and then ultimately kill it as cleanly as possible.

Once the last bull is finished off the crowd then descends to the bull ring floor to savour the moment and maybe even pretend to be a bullfighter. Me? After a quick stop to collect some sand and take some pics I was off to get some sleep for the big morning.

Day 3 - It's Go Time

The whole get up/clean up/eat/get picked up thing just seems like a blur now. We got the pep talk from the Spyns boss on checking in post-run (otherwise they assume you are hurt and start looking for you) and checked so that we were not wearing anything that could get hooked on the horns. Then we were off to the waiting square. Still lots of discussion about where to start, as veterans would give their advice and all us rookies would soak it up while we waited for the rest of the course to open.

Confidence is high
I decided on skipping my initial plan to position myself just before Dead Man's Corner. After walking the course (a lot) the day before I realized if I wanted to make the arena I would have to be a bit more realistic about my capability. I settled on getting a position after Dead Man's Corner on Calle Estafeta, right where the balcony from yesterday was located. I figured that would leave me about 400 meters to the arena.

What followed was lots of waiting, joking, and most of all stretching. This was one run where I definitely did not want to pull up lame. Then it came....BOOM. Then another. Then the waiting. You could almost hear the wave of people coming before you actually could see them. You had the resist the urge to start running too soon.  Then suddenly you start to move forward, your brain shuts off and what follows is just instinctual action based on two ideas - keep moving forward and don't eat pavement. I think I was more concerned with dodging people than I was the bulls. I recall a few times looking over my left should and seeing a bull. I recall stepping over many bodies and nudging and even pushing my way through the crowd. I remember a guy in front of me elbowing someone out of the way and that guy coming up swinging as I ran past. Then the arena appeared in front of me and I used up everything to get inside before the door closed. Here's the video of the whole run:


Over right? Not quite. For once inside the arena the real show for the crowd starts. The "baby bulls" are released onto the floor (only one at a time) to race around and cause havoc with their rubber-capped horns. People try to touch the bull, play it, or even leap over it in a single bound. As you can imagine this doesn't always go well for the person. And to top it off, there are apparently very strict rules for interaction with the baby bulls. As one guy found out, the crowd doesn't take kindly to those who are viewed to have abused the baby bull. Me? I just found what I hoped was a nice quiet spot by the wall, not move (see - I do learn) and shoot some video. I admit there were occasional moments of fear when the baby came into my 'hood' and some goofball would be dancing around right in front of me while I remained still. My fear - he'd attract the bull and jump out of the way, leaving me as the target.

Glad I didn't end up like this guy


 I managed though to escape unscathed and as the last baby bull was moved out of the arena floor it was over. Like so many other moments in the past year it was now done. Time to pack up and head back to Barcelona for some beach time and to reflect on what it means to now be able to say that I have run with the bulls. 

And yes - I would do it again....

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