“Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
We are making a lot of memories living in Europe, but some experiences are absolutely unforgettable. Such was our journey to Pamplona, Spain and, in particular, our participation in the 2015 San Fermin Festival.
Even if you don’t know the San Fermin Festival, you’ve probably heard about Pamplona and the running of the bulls. The bull race is one of the most iconic parts of this nine-day festival that kicks off at midnight every year on July 6th and runs through midnight on July 14th.
Over one million people participate annually in the San Fermin Festival that kicked up in popularity after Ernest Hemmingway published his book, The Sun Also Rises.
When we realized how close we were to Pamplona (just a four hour drive) and that the festival was occurring while we were in Tolouse, we immediately jumped at the chance to go. After booking a hotel and buying the requisite white wardrobe we headed down to Pamplona for the last weekend of the festival.
To be honest, we weren’t really sure what to expect. We knew there would be parties and people wandering the streets in white and red garb, and we even knew there would likely be a lot of drinking, but nothing could have prepared us for the craziness of one of the world’s biggest parties (seriously, picture Times Square on New Year’s Eve plus every college frat party in America—you might come close to understanding the pure madness that ensues in Pamplona).
“This is a good place,” he said.
“There’s a lot of liquor,” I agreed.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Upon arrival, we checked into our hotel, Hotel Albret, which was about a 20 minute walk from the festivities. Though a bit of a hike, we were happy about that distance once we experienced our first taste of San Fermin.
Whites donned, we headed out around 8:00 in search of sangria and a bite to eat. We followed the crowd, stopping briefly to purchase red scarves and belts, and ended up in a park that had a big Ferris wheel, stage and about a dozen stands selling Spanish fair food.
Let me just say, the Spanish really know how to do fair food. There were no hot dogs and cotton candy. Instead there were fresh churros filled with cream and giant grills of smoking sausages, rabbits and racks of lamb. We grabbed two large glasses of sangria and then followed the tantalizing smells to a tent where we ordered a quick appetizer of patatas bravas.
After downing the food, we headed towards Old Town, passing through rows of vendors hawking San Fermin souvenirs and fake designer handbags. Old Town Pamplona consisted of tightly packed old Spanish buildings and seas and seas (and did I mention seas?) of people. Once we got to the heart of the bar scene, we could barely move for the throngs of partygoers celebrating in the streets.
While some businesses were closed and boarded up for the festivals, the doors of all the bars and taverns were open spilling light (and more people) onto the streets. Nearly every corner around which we turned we found small bands of musicians pushing their way through the crowds in a joyous parade of brassy tunes and bright, handmade banners.
We had reserved a balcony through BullBalcony.com from which to watch the running of the bulls the next morning (the safest and best viewpoint according to many reviews), so our first mission was to make sure we know where we were going in a few short hours.
We wandered around for what seemed like ages (and had a couple of refills along the way, as well as one frightening pit stop in a bar bathroom where the floors were covered with sawdust, trash and I won’t even say what else), but we finally found our balcony on the second floor of a building overlooking “Deadman’s Corner.” Here the runners and bulls are going downhill and are forced to turn to the right at the last minute, making many of them slip and slide into each other. The reviews all insisted this was one of the best vantage points for the race.
Satisfied and confident we would be able to find our way back in the morning, we headed in search of dinner. Not so confident in the food at the bars we passed (probably because they all pulsated a similar aroma of stale alcohol and vomit), we made our way back to the fair where we sat down in one of the tents for table service.
Here’s where we could have used someone to warn us. We thought we’d have a few little tapas. What we got were plates of food that could have fed a table of at least 10! It was delicious, so we ate what we could and then convinced the table of English-speakers next to us to please take some as well. That still barely made a dent.
As stuffed as we were, we made sure to save room for some churros and picked up a sweet, buttery, chocolate-filled treat to savor while we watched the band that had now taken the stage. The performers sang a variety of songs, both those familiar to us due to their popularity in the U.S. and clearly some favorites of the Spanish crowd in attendance.
We spent the rest of the night swaying to the music and sipping sangria and, before you knew it, it was almost one in the morning! So, with an early start ahead of us, we departed for the hotel, noting along the way that some people were just making their way into town!
5:00 a.m., just a few short hours after we went to bed, our alarm is urging us out of bed. We groan and grumble at the prospect of moving from our warm bed, but force ourselves up. We paid about $70 a head for the two of us to stand on the balcony and watch the bull race, so there was no way we were going to miss it.
After showering and putting on fresh whites (but the same red bandannas and sash), we headed back into town. Along the way we grabbed cups of coffee, which I clutched as though I could absorb the caffeine more quickly through osmosis.
6:30 sharp, we are outside the building with our balcony. We stand around for a few minutes observing the other early risers (or never-gone-to-bed-ers) before our host comes and checks our names off the list. At 7:00 sharp, we head up to the apartment where our balcony is and get into position. Our host is sweet and polite and guides us to a balcony with one other couple (the husband of that couple ends up leaving moments later to run in the race).
We make small talk with our balcony friends (who happen to be from New Jersey) and watch as the other balconies up and down the street we are on fill up with viewers. A camera suspended on a cord above the street makes its way up and down the corridor, capturing views of the balcony audiences and the people still milling the road below.
At about 7:30, the police come through and clear the streets and a street cleaner makes a final attempt to clean the trash and spilled alcohol from the cobbled stones before the race begins.
And then we wait and wait until at just before 8:00 we see a hoard of people (some running, most walking) coming round the corner and making their way up the street. This continues for a few moments before another lull in action and BAM, finally we hear the first cannon signaling the bull gate is open.
A second wave of people (this time the majority of them are running) make their way around the corner and just moments after that we hear a second BAM signaling all bulls have left the pen.
Suddenly the runners are joined by one, two, three—maybe six bulls scrambling around the corner. We watch one guy get tossed on the head of a bull who slipped and slid into Deadman’s Curve.
The bulls continue up the street as another bunch of runners come around the corner and then slow to a stop. Some walk back and peer back around the corner from which they came. One of the bulls has decided to return to the pen. And, just like that, the race (or the part we can see) is over!
We look at each other, surprised at how quickly everything ended, then shrug and pack up. On the way out we ask for directions to the “Giant’s Parade” and are assured that, though it’s really meant for children, surely we’ll love it.
With about an hour and a half to kill before the parade, we wander back into the streets and watch the street cleaners sweep up mountains of trash and try to remove the sticky film that is caking the cobblestones before another day of revelry. Picture the afterhours of a wild college party and imagine walking on fly tape. That’s how the beautiful city looks and feels after a night of San Fermin.
At about 9:30, we find the street where the Giant’s Parade begins and followed the fun little procession of massive puppets, drummers and flutists to a familiar road where we make like bees to our hotel and several more hours of sleep.
Flash-forward to Saturday afternoon. We rise, dress and head back out into the warm summer sun. This time we opt to take the bus into town and ride around for a bit looking at the sites. We get off near Toro Square and wander until we find the entrance of the bull ring. It is closed, which neither of us mind since we had no interest in the bull fights, so we head to find a restaurant for lunch.
The smell-test is once again the deciding factor on the restaurant. Once we find a place that doesn’t smell like last night’s party, we sit down and order lunch. The food was okay (we shared nachos, I got a salad and Matt ordered something with fries—don’t ask me, my head is still fuzzy from the sangria), but there were numerous peddlers making their way through the tents and shoving their goods in front of our faces. Definitely not what you want at a hangover brunch.
While we dined, we saw and heard more small bands make their way around the square. San Fermine is quite a musical festival!
After lunch, we decided to wander and see more of the city. It’s now about 3:00 in the afternoon and the crowds are slowly building again. Matt discovers that we can by 40’s of beer for 1€50, so that becomes our drink of choice for the day (neither of us desired to see another sangria for a while).
We wander the streets, pausing to watch more bands parade through the crowds and stopping for the occasional bathroom break (where we tried not to look too closely at our surroundings and felt grateful we remembered our own toilet paper that day).
On a side note, I will say that Pamplona does public bathrooms as well as you can. They have attendants mopping and ensuring nothing gets too nasty. But, still…
The crowds continued to build throughout the evening and we once again decided to try our luck at one of the other fair restaurants for dinner. Massive portions ensued.
We hung around the fair for a little while watching the band of the night before we decided we were too old to party to 2:00 a.m. a second night in a row and started to make our way back to the hotel. Along the way we were fortunate to catch the fireworks show and, of course, admire those partygoers who were just making their way out for the night.
Here are a few tips if you decide to check out the San Fermin Festival for yourself:
- Buy and wear disposable clothing. Everything gets so filthy that our measurement for whether a spot was suitable for sitting was to check if it was sticky. By the end of the party, you might want to trash your clothes.
- Book a balcony for your bull run. It may be among the most expensive 2-3 minutes of your life, but at least you’ll get to see the action.
- Reserve a hotel a little way from downtown. The bus is cheap and the city is small enough to walk around, but this will ensure you get a few moments of sleep—even if during the middle of the day.
- Bring your own toilet paper. At least when you’re walking around. It’s rare if you find a bathroom with toilet paper in it. You’ll thank me later for this one.
- Pace yourself on the sangria. If you want to make it more than one night, watch yourself around the red stuff. It’ll sneak up on you and make you hurt!