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San Fermin - Pamplona

By Mike McDougall

Known locally as "Sanfermines", this raucous festival takes place in the Basque town of Pamplona between July 6th-14th in honour of the city's patron saint, San Fermin. It is the most popular and most famous of all Spanish fiestas and is known throughout the world and visited each year by thousands of foreign tourists. This fame is down to the infamous "Encierro or the "Running of the Bulls", a dangerous tradition where thousands of locals line the streets of Pamplona's old town and run the gauntlet will six half ton bulls over an 800 metre stretch. There is much more to the festival than just the "Encierro and they include a lot of other ancient traditions as well as a fair dose of drinking and partying.

The origins of the festival are somewhat convoluted; it seems that over the centuries several traditions and festivals have amalgamated into one week-long fiesta. The festival of San Fermin was originally held in September but was transferred to July in 1591 due to the unpredictable nature of the autumn weather. Bull running seems to date back to the 14th century and there is a tradition of it all over Spain where numerous towns and villages practice the ritual in their festivals.

The festival all starts with the "chupizano"; the firing of a rocket which indicates that the festival has officially begun. Thousands of locals gather in the central square in front of the town hall and the uproar as the rocket is fired can be deafening. Thousands of Cava corks are popped and bottles are sprayed around with much cheer. The packed square then don their famous red neckerchiefs and tie their red sashes around their waists. A week of fully-fledged partying is only just beginning.

The "Encierro is clearly the most famous facet to the festival and is probably the thing that has caused such a huge influx of foreign visitors to the city in recent years wishing to take part in (or at least witness) the famous spectacle. The course is just a shade over 800 metres and takes the bulls to the bullring for the afternoon "corrida (bullfight). Six bulls are released every morning of the fiesta between the 7th and the 14th at 8am. The human runners pack the course, buzzing from nervous energy and adrenalin and attired in white with their traditional red adornments. A rocket is fired to indicate that the bulls have been released and three minutes of white-knuckle madness begins as runners try to pick a suitable point to exit the course without putting themselves in harms way.

There's no doubting the extremely dangerous nature of the "Encierro"; between 1924 and 1997 there have been fourteen deaths and over 200 serious injuries with the last fatality occurring in 1995 when a young American tourist was fatally gored. The "Encierro is serious business and a rite of passage for the young Spaniards, many claim that the influx of tourists (who's experience of bulls, let alone running with them, is non-existent) is making the "Encierro even more dangerous.

The focal point of much of the festival is the afternoon "Corridas which take place at Pamplona's bullring. Due to the late night partying many locals don't resurface until the afternoon to begin the next round of festivities. Other highlights of the festival include the "Comparsa de Gigantes (the company of Giants), a parade where enormous puppets file through the town accompanied by brass bands and Guiri Day (Guiri is the Basque word for foreigners) where the festival pays homage to the overseas visitors who help make the festival what it is. The city of 200,000 is said to swell to 2 million for the duration of the festival. Visitors can expect lots of street parties advancing into the early hours and vast amounts of alcohol to be flowing. It is in general a very good natured festival and trouble and aggression are rarely met.

It all comes to a dramatic and emotional close at midnight on July 14th with a massive crowd singing the mournful dirge "Pobre di Mi (Poor Me) - it's a magical, candle-lit end to a week of bacchanalian revelry and, once experience, we can see why it attracts foreign visitors in such vast numbers.

About The Author
Mike McDougall has five years experience working as a travel writer and marketeer. He is currently working to provide additional content for Babylon Idiomas, a Spanish language school with an excellent presence in Spain and Latin America.

This work is covered by a creative commons licence:

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