Most people associate Pamplona with the Running of the Bulls – El Encierro in Spanish, part of the Festival of St Fermin which lasts from noon, 6th July to midnight, 14th July. The Bull Running takes place at 8 am each day from 7th July to 14th July and was first brought to worldwide attention by Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises.
Four rockets inform the crowd what’s happening with the bulls. They set off the first rocket at 8 a.m. to alert the runners that the gate to the bull’s corral is open. The runners can now run, though if you get too far ahead of the bulls, the spectators will boo you, especially if you reach the bullring without a bull in sight. A second rocket signals all the bulls are free of the corral and are in motion. The third rocket signals all the bulls are in the bullring and the fourth that the bulls are in their corral, marking the end of the bull running event, for the bulls at least. For the runners, there is still the excitement of being chased around the bullring by bullocks with padding on their horns.
An encierro comprises six bulls that will fight in the afternoon, six steers that run with the bulls, plus three more steers that follow the herd to encourage any reluctant bulls to continue along the route to their demise.
The release of the bulls occurs near the Piazza Santo Domingo. They take between two minutes thirty seconds and four minutes to run the 800 metres along a fenced-off course to the bullring. As well as the steers, official pastores, or shepherds, are on hand with sticks to ensure the bulls don’t lose interest. The reason people come to spectate is to watch 2,000 people (this is the limit for each day), wearing white tops, white trousers, a red neckerchief, and a red sash around their waist, who run with the bulls while bashing them with rolled-up newspapers.
Having seen some local bulls, I doubt any of them would even notice a direct hit from a newspaper, so this hitting is just an act of bravado by the runners, who literally fall over each other to get close. The wonderful sculpture, Encierro, in the city centre, shows the perils involved. At each festival, at least one person is seriously injured and 50-100 others suffer non-life-threatening injuries. Fifteen people have perished in the last 100 years, since records began, mostly by being gored by a 1,100-pound bull.
There is a ninety-degree bend called the Estafeta Curve, where El Encierro takes a turn to the right down Calle de la Estafeta after coming along Calle Mercaderes. Known locally as “La Curva,” the corner of Mercaderes and Estafeta Street is one of the most dangerous sections of El Encierro, and not for nothing is it called Dead Man’s Corner.
Most bulls will not have come across a 90-degree bend before out in the fields on the edge of the city. Consequently, some bulls run straight on and collide with the wooden barricades, causing the crowd watching behind, who thought they were safe, to scatter. Other bulls crumple to the ground when their hooves can’t gain purchase on the cobbles. The officials help the bulls regain their feet and make sure they’re okay, which seems ironic given the bulls are going to die in the afternoon in the disgusting spectacle of the bullfight. Runners also slip over and get charged by the bulls. Those runners who stay on their feet have to navigate around pointed horns, cloven hooves, and stricken humans.
Another risk comes from runners falling and forming a pile at the entrance to the bullring which acts as a funnel, as it is much narrower than Calle de la Estafeta. When this happens, runners can suffer from asphyxia and severe contusions. Such a pile-up has occurred at least ten times in the run’s history; the first time was in 1878 and the last in 2013. A runner died of suffocation in 1977 when one of these human heaps formed. When a bull encounters such a pile, they don’t stop, but charge straight into its midst. This sounds like me when the odds are against me.
I have enjoyed my time in Pamplona. There are plenty of tourists and the ones I am interested in are heading towards Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, going via the train rather than walking. I will be catching the train to Burgos soon and I am looking forward to the journey – it gives me a chance to read my book, The Day of the Jackal.
I bought some new clothes here. They are very distinctive and memorable and totally unlike the clothes I normally wear.