Eight things you need to know before heading for San Fermín

Get the low-down on what to do, where to do it, and how in Pamplona over the next week

Borja Hermoso
Partying hard at Sanfermines 2016.
Partying hard at Sanfermines 2016.Susana Vera (Reuters)

1. Los encierros: the Running of the Bulls

Unless you know somebody with a balcony overlooking the streets of Santo Domingo, Mercaderes, or Estafeta (which tourists sometimes rent out for the price of a room at the Ritz), the safest way to watch the running of the bulls each morning is on television. TVE’s channel 1, with the invaluable commentary of Javier Solano, or on elpais.com’s livestream. The alternative? Two hours before (which is to say, at 6am) climb on top of one of the fences around the course, stake out your spot, and be prepared to defend it from aggressive elbows as if you were under siege. Or, of course, watch it all unfold from the inside – the one problem being that six bulls are running alongside you like six horned trains, ready to stamp your passport to its final destination. Once the encierro finishes – usually after just two or three minutes – it’s just a hop, skip, and jump away to the churrería La Mañueta (8 Mañueta street) – to restore yourself with deep-fried, sugared dough sticks.

2. El chupinazo’: The rocket

Having come all this way, getting up close and personal in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (main square) is a must. You must experience the pure chaos and absurdity of the crowds in order to later curse and swear to yourself: never again, never again, never again. You’ll come out covered in kalimotxo (red wine and cola), sangría, cheap sparkling cava, flour and other Unidentifiable Flying Objects smeared across your body. The celebration begins at noon on the dot with the firing of the chupinazo rocket, and if you want to be there for it, you have two options. One: go down into the plaza around 10am and let the human tide carry you. Two: position yourself in front on one of the entrances to the plaza at 11.45am... and let the tide carry you. You will get in – don’t think about the “how.” Those who are easily prone to picking a fight, or those who are likely to get angry due to the constant raining down of alcohol should abstain.

How did running with the bulls begin?

Fermin Goñi

The tradition of running bulls through the streets of Pamplona during the Sanfermines fiestas dates back to the late 16th century, when the animals due to be fought in that afternoon's corrida would be let loose in the early morning led by a man on horseback and corralled through the narrow streets toward the bullring, while crowds armed with clubs and stakes lining the route would administer them a sound beating. Inevitably, some got caught up in the melee.

It was during the 19th century that the Sanfermines took on their current scope, broadening into a popular fiesta through the participation of troupes of actors and circuses.

The running of the bulls would take on an international dimension in 1925 thanks to Ernest Hemingway, who reported on them for The Toronto Star Weekly. He returned the following year, determined to run with the bulls, joining in during the final stage. Shortly before reaching the bullring, he was knocked down by one of the animals and was injured slightly. The press reported that he had been gored, a piece of “fake news” that Hemingway never chose to correct.

In 1928, Hemingway published The Sun also Rises, set in Pamplona during the Sanfermines; the rest, as they say is history. A 1954 survey carried out by Spanish tourist offices around the world showed that almost 90% of visitors to Pamplona had read the novel.

3. A 9.30am snack

One day, a professional Sanfermines festival-goer got an idea. He went with some friends to a tavern in the old quarter of Pamplona and started wolfing down an ajoarriero (a sandwich with cod, garlic, and peppers – one of Hemingway’s favorites) as if there was no tomorrow. He devoured everything in sight, then washed it down with vermouth. When he went off to watch the bullfights, he did so with his stomach gurgling like Krakatoa. After the third bull passed, as tradition dictates, someone handed him a sandwich the size of Burgos Cathedral. “No, no, thank you,” he objected. “Take it, goddamnit!” they insisted. He removed the aluminum foil. And what kind of super-sandwich was it? You guessed it: another ajoarriero. However, these gastronomical over-indulgences usually start even earlier in the morning. In social groups, in basements, in the “txokos” (Basque culinary clubs), in bars... The food consumed on that first day before the chupinazo is impossible to believe if you haven’t experienced it first-hand. Just don’t forget your Alka-seltzer amidst the binging and revelry.

4. The bullfights

No matter what they tell you, at some point in your life you have to see the bullfights at Sanfermines. The clashes of ancient Roman gladiators can’t have been very different. Bullfighting purists can’t tolerate the Plaza de Pamplona, which is understandable. But it’s still guaranteed to be packed every day. Latecomers can seek out the scalpers (who are always there, though, of course, it’s expensive). Before the bullfight gets going, a good homemade patxaran (a liqueur common in Basque country) from the bar Monasterio, just a stone’s throw from the plaza, is a must. As you leave, Niza is an excellent choice for the first gin-and-tonic of the day. These instructions aren’t meant to encourage alcoholism, but Sanfermines isn’t quite the same with a vanilla milkshake.

He who wakes up at 6am will outrun the bulls. All-seeing Saint Fermín, may God bless you, bless you, bless you!

5. The music of San Fermín

During the day the festival is full of music, with an infinity of bands and orchestras playing traditional Spanish jotas or bertsolaris that morph into nighttime dance parties called verbenas. The popular sounds and songs pulse through the bars and plazas. At night, in Plaza de los Fueros (from 11pm to 2.30am) you can hear a good selection of current music for all nine days of the party: Duncan Dhu, Fermín Muguruza, Sidonie, Delorean, Asian Dub Foundation, Tonino Carotone, Muchachito Bombo Inferno, and more.

6. San Fermín by day

Pamplona offers daytime parties that are just as exhilarating for whoever wants to escape what we could call the nocturnal globalization of revelry. It’s true that Sanfermines at night is like any other party multiplied by a thousand, but what really sets it apart are the daytime celebrations, dominated by parents and children (all sparkling clean in their red and white – which, needless to say, will not be the case with the crowd that follows at night), but also thousands of festival-goers that stick to more traditional sleeping schedules.

Just what is a chupinazo?

According to the Sanfermines website, although fireworks had long been part of Sanfermines, the tradition of kicking off the fiestas in Pamplona on the evening of July 6 by letting of a firework from the balcony of Pamplona town hall, the chupinazo, was institutionalized in 1941, a decade after a local man called Etxepare had first done so, allegedly to celebrate the founding of the Second Republic. The tradition continued up until 1936, when the Civil War broke out, but was reintroduced under General Francisco Franco's military government.

Etxepare was reportedly among the first Republicans to be shot in Pamplona when the Civil War began.

During the dictatorship, the mayor of Pamplona or some other senior official would let off the rocket, but in the 1980s, after Spain returned to democracy, each year, a representative of the different parties on the city council would be given the honor.

To the delight of the children, the streets are filled with roaming puppets called gigantes, large hollow figures with papier mache heads, and cabezudos, human-sized costumes with oversized heads. Meanwhile, older spectators fill the terraces of Plaza del Castillo, Carlos III, Taconera, and the rest of the city, as well as the countless bars of Pamplona for that sacred pre-meal snack. Some recommended areas around San Nicolás and San Gregori, which is the heart and soul of the historic quarter of Pamplones, include Otano, Roch, El Burgalés, Museo, Baserri, El Marrano and Txoko in Plaza del Castillo.

7. Alternatives to the debauchery

For those who want to get a breath of fresh air or stretch their legs (and not just to elbow the person behind them), or even for those who just don’t want to participate in the madness (although in that case it’s better to visit Pamplona at any other time of the year), this city full of history, green spaces, and monuments offers some appealing alternatives. For one, you can follow the city walls from the lovely gardens of Taconera to the impressive Archivo de Navarra. You can also spend the morning or afternoon in Ciudadela park, visiting the Renaissance fort and its walls (10 minutes walk from the old city). The gardens of Media Luna and the campus of the University of Navarra are the perfect spots for a stroll or a quick siesta, far from the hullaballoo. A day-trip will give you the flexibility to visit charming places such as Roncesvalles, the valleys of Ulzama, Roncal, or Baztán, the cities of Puente la Reina and Estella (both along Camino de Santiago) or the Leyre monastery.

8. Eating, drinking, loving, and more

 English version by Allison Light.

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