If you took Mardi Gras and combined it with New York’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve and then multiplied that by ten, you would still fail to come up with a festival that approaches the frenetic energy and insanity that is the annual “The Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona, Spain.
The “Running” is part of the San Fermin Festival and takes place every July 6 to 14 in Pamplona, a city located in the mountainous Navarre region of Spain. It is kicked off with a rocket launch at noon on the first day and is followed by 8 days of parades, music, parties, and street revelry. The main attractions are the 8 bull runs that take place each morning at 8am and are followed by bullfights in the coliseum (our party did not want to attend any bullfighting.) The opening ceremonies are an almost cinematic spectacle – live bands, processions, dancing, and people everywhere you turn. The crowds can be overwhelming, and it is not recommended for the claustrophobic traveler. It is almost guaranteed that at some point, you will find yourself chest to chest with a tipsy stranger carrying a 2-liter bottle of sangria. You should also be prepared to have people offer you their alcohol or just spray you with it.
The tradition of bull running dates back to the late 16th Century. Known as “El Encierro,” it began from the need to transport the bulls from the fields outside the city to the town’s market. Handlers would try to speed up the bulls and others would jump in and run beside them. Eventually, this evolved into a competition. Although there are encierros all over Spain, the one in Pamplona is the best known and the one that attracts world-wide attention, with over 1 million people descending on the town whose normal population is less than 200,000.
Any adult over the age of 18 is able to do the bull run. Persons who are intoxicated or wearing improper footwear are prevented from running. Participants are asked to not touch the bulls (many still do) and to not take pictures (some do, at great peril to themselves and the people running beside them.) The danger is less from the animals than from the other runners’ careless behavior. It only takes one person to create a pile up and many run without familiarizing themselves with the course or fail to stay alert, making falls and bumps likely.
Pamplona is a lively and picturesque town filled with many shops and restaurants and public areas that cater to tourists. During San Fermin, shops stay open late and bars serve almost all night. It is not unusual to see people just heading back to their hotels –or even still partying—at 6am as you arrive to claim a spot to watch that morning’s bull run.
The weather is hot and dry during the day but as is typical in a mountainous area, cools down at night. In July 2019, when we visited, it was unusually hot, with temperatures in the high 90s and only dropping about ten degrees at night. Accommodations can be quite expensive for the weekend days and for the opening ceremonies. Our party was split in two. Some of us who were late to book, stayed in an Air BnB on the outskirts of the city. The price for an unairconditioned room in a private home was over €300—and this was for a room 30 minutes outside the city enter. Luckily, public transportation to get to town is plentiful and efficient and runs all day and all night to accommodate the San Fermin visitors. The bus ride itself is a wild ride, filled with excited festival-goers in the obligatory white outfits accented with red scarves and bandannas. Everyone attending wears them, not just those for who are running, and you will definitely stand out if you are wearing any color but white. Be sure to bring more than one outfit if you are staying for several days. You are bound to get doused with red wine at some point!
The other half of our party stayed at the Sercotel Hotel Leyre, just off the city’s main attractions. Prices ranged around €600 per night and it was among the better 3-star hotels in the region. The rooms were moderate in size, but very clean and comfortable with modern plumbing, air-conditioning, and free Wi-Fi. There was also a TV room and gym and several meeting areas, which we used to meet up with friends who were staying elsewhere. Luckily, while the hotel was just two blocks from the coliseum, it was on the side away from the city center so the area was relatively calm and provided a reprieve from the rowdy crowds.
Bar Restaurante Artwohl, a restaurant around the corner from the Hotel Leyre, turned out to be the best place we ate during the whole trip. While tapas and rice dishes are the specialty and ubiquitous in every bar and tavern in the region, Artwohl served more creative fare and had a healthy wine list. One fun note: the art on the walls of the restaurant is for sale and a price list is available on request.
The Running of the Bulls is certainly a one-of-a-kind event and we were glad to check it off our bucket list –though we were on the fence as to whether it is something we would want to do more than once. Pamplona is a delightful and entirely walkable city with many historical attractions that can get overlooked during the festival activities. Be sure to make time to visit the Citadel, the Museum of Navarra, or walk the city walls, which make for a lovely afternoon excursion.