Fiesta de San Fermin OR The Spanish Bull Run

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Bull Run

Fiesta de San Fermin OR The Spanish Bull Run

The Feast of Saint Fermin, more popularly known as the running of the bulls is a Spanish tradition that claims to honour masculinity and courage. Groups of young men race ahead of a corral of bulls unleashed into narrow alleys in Pamplona, each pitting their luck and strength by trying to outrun what might seem to be an inevitable goring by the bulls. An age old controversial tradition that was romanticized by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon. The bulls race through the alleys and are corralled into bullrings where they would then face the matadors in a fight to the death.

A nine day festival, the encierro or bull run is best exemplified in Pamplona. The festival began in the 14th century when a few enthusiastic young men began to run alongside the great bovines as they were herded to the Plaza de Toros for the bull fight. Beginning at the Corrales del Gas, where the bulls are kept, the race through Pamplona finishes within three explosive minutes.

The bulls charge at speeds up to 55 kilometers per hour and trying to outpace the tonne heavy beasts throughout the 800m run isn’t feasible, so the runners tackle sections before jumping out of the way. All of this is good until one or two of the bulls realize what sport they could have by goring their hapless victims and decide to turn around and attack the runners.

The encierro isn’t without its rules and code. Participants must be at least 18 years and above and must not be under the influence of alcohol, nor should they under any circumstance incite the bulls. In Pamplona, a set of wooden fences are erected to direct the bulls along the route and to block off side streets. A double wooden fence is used in those areas where there is enough space, while in other parts the buildings of the street act as barriers. The gaps in the barricades are wide enough for a human to slip through, but narrow enough to block a bull. The fence is composed of approximately three thousand separate pieces of wood. Some parts of the fence remain in place for the duration of the fiesta, while others are placed and removed each morning.

The encierro begins with runners singing a benediction. It is sung three times, each time being sung both in Spanish and Basque. The benediction is a prayer given at a statue of Saint Fermin, patron of the festival and the city, to ask the saint’s protection and can be translated into English as “We ask Saint Fermin, as our Patron, to guide us through the encierro and give us his blessing”. The singers finish by shouting “Viva San Fermín!, Gora San Fermin!” (“Long live Saint Fermin”, in Spanish and Basque).

Dressed in white shirts and trousers with red waistbands (faja) and neckerchief (pañuelo), some participants hold the day’s newspaper rolled to draw the bulls’ attention from them if necessary.

A first rocket is set off at 8 a.m. to alert the runners that the corral gate is open. A second rocket signals that all six bulls have been released. The third and fourth rockets are signals that all of the herd has entered the bullring and its corral respectively, marking the end of the event.

The scariest sections of the run are Estefa, the stone alley with only doorways for refuge and the narrow entrance to the Plaza del Toros. It’s a regular bottleneck for fear-crazed runners and their snorting pursuers. A big danger here and elsewhere is pile-ups, where runners fall over and create a human barrier for the poor souls behind them.

Despite safety measures and ample precautions, a few people invariably end up injuring themselves and the festival reports a fatality now and then, either on account of goring or suffocation under the pile up.

The Running of the Bulls remains a controversial festival and the World Society for the Protection of Animals has plenty of information on campaigns to end bullfighting and links to Spanish organisations like the Asociación Defensa Derechos Animal.