Penne Cole's thoughts on food, travel and more
We are up at the crack of dawn, intent on getting to the venue by 7.30 a.m.. We are in Pamplona for San Fermin and of course, the encierro or the running of the bulls. By the time we get there, we realise that we should have aimed to be there an hour earlier to get the prime seats atop the fences. There are swarms of people around us, dressed all in white with red neckerchiefs and sashes around the waist for colour. We manage to squirm and squirrel our way through to an area where we can just see through the fence through the swarm of legs. And then we settle in to wait for the firecracker that signals the start of the bull run.
At 8 a.m. sharp, a firecracker goes off, electrifying the crowd. Everyone cranes their necks, peering up the route to try andcatch the first glimpse of the runners and the maddened bulls behind them. We hear a second firecracker, indicating that all the bulls have left the pen. Within a minute, the horde of runners appear. Some stare resolutely ahead, intent on getting to the bullring and safety. Others throw panicked glances over their shoulders, trying to gauge how near the bulls are. Adrenaline flows thickly in the air.
By the time the runners reach our position near the bull ring, the bulls with their wickedly sharp, curved horns are almost upon them. Some of the runners scatter, madly trying to climb over or under the fence and away from the sharp horns. Others put on a final burst of speed, running for their lives. Within minutes, the crowd has surged past, and the action is over.
Still high from all the excitement, we climb through the fences – double-layered so that the runners have a safe area to escape into, and so that the various policemen, paramedics and other officials have a space to stand – and onto the running route.
We are mugging for the camera when we hear the third firecracker. We glance nervously at each other.
What was that?
And then we hear the roar of the crowd from the start of the track and realise that there is a second wave of bulls. Judging from the sound, they are almost upon us and we have no time to lose. We had for the fences, trying to slide through the bars to safety but the official waves us on, insisting that we run for the ring.
With no choice, we run. My companion is in ballet flats, clutching her Longchamp bag to her side as she runs; I am in a sundress and a filmy white scarf for protection against the slight chill in the morning air; neither of us are prepared to run. Indeed, none of us had even planned to be active participants today. But we run for our lives, heading for the stadium, only to find that the gates were shut and we had nowhere to go.
We panic, turning and trying to go back where we came from, but the crowd runs in behind us, pushing us towards the closed gates. They say that not many people actually get gored by the bulls. Instead most of the injuries are sustained when people fall and get trampled by the crowd. Suddenly, I know all too well what they meant.
The bulls are the next to arrive. They are massive, with their rumps reaching almost as high as my shoulder. The closest one is so near that I could have reached out a hand and swatted its rear. It reaches the closed gate and comes to a stop. Confused, it tries to turn around, and the crowd panics, trying to surge in the other direction, away from its horns. My companion and I would have been pushed to the ground if not for a kind Samaritan who comes to our aid, wrapping his strong arms around us to steady us.
In what must have been seconds, but felt like a lifetime, the gates open, and the bulls rush through. The crowd changes direction again, this time pushing us into the bullring and to relative safety. Relative because they have let a young bull loose in the ring, and it is trying its best to toss as many participants over its head as it can. The crowd swarms like bees, first towards the young bull, trying to goad it, and then running away from it when they succeed in capturing its attention.
My companion and I clutch each other, our breaths coming in sharp pants, and our faces flush from excitement. We mutter fervent thanks to our kind Samaritan before he disappears into the crowd.
The encierro or running of the bulls is an annual affair in Pamplona. It runs for a week from noon on the 6th of July to midnight on the 14th of July. The first bull run takes place at noon on the 6th, but subsequent bull runs happen daily at 8 a.m.. Get there early (much earlier than the 7.30 a.m. recommended by other websites!) if you want to get a good vantage point. Alternatively, there are balconies available for rent for the big event.
The running route starts at Plaza Consistorial, down Calle Estafeta, and into the bullring at Plaza de Toros de Pamplona. One of the best vantage points is at the bend where Calle Estafeta meets the bullring, because then you can have a good view of the bulls running down the street and into the stadium.
Accommodation comes at a large premium during San Fermin, so make sure to book early.
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