Europe 8 – Fiesta de San Fermin

Fiesta de San Fermin (4)

The Running of the Bulls: Participating

It’s up to you whether or not you want to run with the bulls. But if you do, take it seriously. The people who get injured or killed each year are almost always tourists. There have been 14 deaths and 205 serious “horn injuries” between 1924 and 2006. You really don’t want to be added to that list. The six leading bulls (followed by a herd of tame bulls to keep them moving) run the 825m from the Coralles del Gas to the bullring in an average of 3 minutes 55 seconds. In this short period they have time to gore a few people, turn around and scare the shit out of some of the runners who think the danger has passed, and generally wreak havoc. About ten minutes before the start of the run, stewards patrol the route and remove anyone in an unfit state. As they pass, this is pretty much your last chance to opt out as the spectators press so hard against the barriers you’ll effectively be hemmed in until the start of the run. Traditionally, women don’t run the encierro, but these days plenty take part. Stewards often ask women to leave, but if you want to run, just say you’re OK, stand your ground, and hope for the best like everyone else. Nobody can outrun the bulls for more than fifty metres. The deadliest area is about halfway along Estafeta, where the route is defined for twenty metres or so by a stone alleyway. If you get caught in the doorways that line this, and a hull takes a fancy to you, there’s no escape. Your best bet is to either position yourself quite close to the start and jump aside as soon as the bulls pass, or start off a good couple of hundred metres up the road so you’ll make it past Estafeta – and quite possibly into the actual bullring – before the beasts catch up with you. You may get booed by the crowd for starting so far up, but the sheer terror you feel as you sprint through the blind alley of Estafeta after the rocket has gone off is one hundred percent real. Finally, be really careful about trying to make it through the final tunnel into the bullring. It’s an amazing experience storming into the ring to the roars of the crowd, but there’s always a huge pile-up in the tunnel as people who have made it through slowdown. The bulls manage to catch up with this flailing scrummage and hit someone just about every day.

Once all the bulls have made it into the ring, another rocket is fired to give the all clear to those still on the course. If you’re still cowering in the gutter with your hands clamped over your head, now is the time to get up and pretend you just tripped over. Back inside the ring, the bulls are quickly ushered into pens, where they will wait until the evening’s bullfight. To please the crowds, the novillas – baby bulls with padded horns – are released and the mob of runners play matador games for half an hour or so. Every now and then, a big roar goes up in the crowd as one of the young but immensely strong bulls manages to catch a tourist by surprise and toss them clean over its back. After about an hour, the arena gradually empties as people head off to clean up, get something to eat or just go back to bed. The first bull run is over – last night’s carnage can now be cleaned up, the wooden barriers along the route taken down and the town can relax for a few hours before the evening’s events – and before everyone has to go through it all again in tomorrow’s encierro.

The closing ceremony

The Fiesta de San Fermin officially ends at midnight on July 14, with the red-and-white-clad revellers, each carrying a single burning candle, bidding farewell to the fiesta in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, whilst chanting “Pobre de mi” (literally, “poor me”). The party continues until the early hours of the morning, when the countdown commences for the next year’s celebration.

Bullfights

Some people see a bullfight as a heroic ballet of man versus beast; others think it’s a barbaric and undignified form of torturing innocent animals. Whatever you think, bullfighting is the raison d’etre of the festival and the choice to see it is yours alone. A bullfight takes place around 6pm each day of the festival – lasting about three hours – and the locals head towards the Plaza de Toros (the bullring) from mid-afternoon with crates of chilled beer and armfuls of sandwiches. Brass, drums and other instruments make up the bands, which burst into song from different parts of the crowd to liven up the fight. Tickets are sold from the box office at the Plaza de Toros the day before each fight, although queues are very long – expect to wait at least an hour. If you don’t fancy queuing, there are plenty of touts who will sell you tickets at slightly inflated prices. Once the fight has started, the prices fall Pretty fast, and as there are six bulls, with each matador getting two each, you’ll still see plenty of action.

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