It just didn’t seem like a fair fight.
One baby bull, a cheering crowd, and 2000 drunk Australians taunting the poor thing as it frantically made its way around the arena searching in vain for a quick exit. One morning at el encierro (literally “the lock-up”) and my perception of San Fermin is somewhat tainted.
But I digress.
You’ve probably heard of the Running of the Bulls, yet another world-famous Spanish fiesta whose origins remain unclear. While the official name of the festival is San Fermin (in honour of the local Christian martyr… yawn), the thrust of the festival is a practice that involves running in front of approximately six bulls that have been let loose on a sectioned-off course of the town’s streets.
Sounds silly/dangerous, no?
It is. Many people have died running and frankly I would not have gone if it had not been for Busabout. Once upon a time, many moons ago, I worked as a tour guide in Europe for this fine little company. As it turns out, one of my closest guide friends who I trained with, is now the Operations Manager, which led to an invitation to come and help out at the festival in exchange for free transport and accommodation. A nostalgic trip down memory lane with a free Spanish festival to boot…
Thus I learned that the original purpose of the Running of the Bulls was to transport the animals from the off-site corrals to the bullring, where they would be killed in the evening (lucky ducks!). During the early 14th century men would attempt to speed up the process by hurrying their cattle by running alongside them and goading the (poor) bulls. Over the years it slowly began to turn into a competition, as young men would attempt to race in front of the bulls and make it safely to their pens without being overtaken.
The most famous Running of the Bulls takes place in Pamplona, Spain, but these days the event is dominated by drunk Australians keen on proving their masculinity alongside the occasional female runner. This was not my favourite part of the festival.
Rather, the spirit of the community thoroughly impressed me, perhaps best embodied in over 1,000,000 people dressed in matching white pants and shirts, with red sashes and red scarves, wandering around the city. Really you look ridiculous if you don’t dress up. Of course for those who choose to participate in the opening ceremony, the bright white soon transforms into a sticky, neon pink.
What’s that you say?
Well, the opening ceremony can best be described as a massive orgy of sangria and champagne located in a sticky, crowded mosh pit while the sun beats down on the participants and the requisite Spanish fireworks explode overhead. You see, from early morning until dawn, revelers spray sangria on everyone within sight, creating a chaotic and messy experience.
All of which is a reminder that alcohol is insanely cheap in Spain – why else would someone be willing to dump a litre and a half of it down someone’s head?
Every morning at 8am the actual bull run takes place, on the same set route that has been used for centuries. Runners and spectators arrive early and hungover to line the street barricades, and secure the premium spots for entering the encierro. The run ends at the Plaza de Toros (bullring) where runners stream in, breathlessly checking over their shoulders for their four-legged accompaniments.
But it doesn’t end there.
Having opted for the bullring and their live televised screens, rather than fighting the crowds for a glimpse of the run, we had no idea that the arrival of the runners and the six large bulls was just the beginning. As we quickly learned, the adrenaline-pumped runners stick around in the plaza as a total of six baby bulls are released, one at a time, to the mercy of the crowds.
That’s right, one poor bull has to go back out and ‘fight’ the (mostly) men who have made their way into the ring.
While one might assume that the bull would have the upper hand, in fact I sympathized for the bull, whose horns are wrapped in fabric rendering him less dangerous than usual. Bolstered by this detail, the ratio of humans to bull, and potentially alcohol (though officially it is disallowed to be drunk and run), the poor bull was essentially tortured by the ego-inflated masses.
It made me sad.
Thus eventually we left the bullring in pursuit of a popular local churreria whose fresh churros date back centuries and therefore inspires a line-up around the block. They didn’t disappoint.
And like all Spanish festivals, the bulls are just one element, with food carts all over the city, musicians, wandering giants and more. Plenty to keep you occupied if you’re not into animal cruelty.
The churros alone kept me happy.