Between the 6th-14th July every year, the small town of Pamplona in north-east Spain explodes with its annual San Fermin feria. At its heart are the early morning bull runs – encierros – during which the bulls for that evening’s bullfight are herded through the streets to the bullring, accompanied by hundreds of adrenaline-fuelled participants. Yet the bull runs are just one reason why everyone should experience San Fermin at least once in their life.
There are Spanish fiestas and then there’s San Fermin. Even when compared to the big ferias of the south, Pamplona’s annual blowout is something else entirely. And one of the most enjoyable aspects of it is that the vast majority of the partying goes on in the street, rather than in marquees on a sanded fairground on the outskirts of the city (as with most Andalusian ferias). This means that you can duck into one of the countless bars in the town centre, order your beer or claimotxo (red wine and Coke; see below) in a plastic cup and get out into the street. Groups of San Fermines drink, dance, laugh and eat, the brass bands are always playing and the parades always passing and you just get caught up in the joyful rhythm of it. The inclusive and friendly atmosphere of the feria is wonderful, with families and small children on the streets well into the early hours. San Fermin is without doubt one of the happiest parties you’ll ever attend, as well as the most exhausting.
Every morning at 8am during San Fermin, the six fighting bulls for that evening’s bullfight and six tamed bell-oxen are run from corrales on the outskirts of Pamplona and into their pens at the bullring, via a designated 875-metre course on the old town’s narrow, flagged streets. These world-famous encierros are the soul of San Fermin and attract huge numbers of participants and spectators, the latter of whom perch on the thick wooden barriers that are erected along the course each morning, or watch from balconies above the route (which can be hired solely for this purpose, at high cost). Watching is great fun – although to get a decent spot you have to turn up at about half past six in the morning – but running is like nothing else on earth. No video of the encierro can adequately convey the sheer speed, adrenaline and drama of the event, nor the mixture of emotions you feel down on the street before, during and after running. It is all over within seconds (the bulls usually complete the whole course in about two-and-a-half minutes), but if you run with the bulls in Pamplona just once in your life, you will never forget it.
Most Spanish fiestas have their signature drink, and Pamplona’s is calimotxo (the ‘tx’ is a Basque spelling that is pronounced ‘ch’), a simple cocktail of Coke and red wine. If this sounds like an unlikely partnership, give it a try: you’ll discover that it’s a tasty, refreshing drink – a slightly less sweet version of sangria. It’s also perfect for a fiesta as relentless and hectic as San Fermin, because you need to pace yourself when caught up in a party that doesn’t stop for a week. Calimotxo keeps you lightly fuelled – it varies in potency, depending on the generosity of your bartender, but is never too strong – and the caffeine gives you the energy you need to keep going through the afternoon and into the evening. As it’s served over ice, it also makes for a refreshing in beverage in the 25-30 degree celsius temperatures of Pamplona in July.
Pamplona’s answer to tapas are pintxos (pronounced ‘pinchos’), little snacks sold at about two euros each which are colourfully displayed along the bar. Although the hygiene of showcasing pintxos in this way during a party as riotous as San Fermin is questionable, it does at least make ordering them in a packed and deafening bar much easier: all you need to do is point. They come in the format of a small open sandwich and a huge variety of toppings is available in each bar; the most common, though, are combinations of cured hams and spicy sausages – including morcilla, the wonderful Spanish version of black pudding – and cheese (usually goats’ or brie) and fried red or green pepper. It can be quite difficult to sit down and have a proper meal during San Fermin, so pintxos are a great way of keeping hunger at bay as you party. As a general rule, if you have one with every other drink you’ll be able to stay out for much longer.
The bulls that are run through Pamplona’s old town in the daily encierros perform in the same day’s bullfight, held in the evening in the city’s 20,000-capacity bullring. During San Fermin there are eight bullfights in total, with most of these being full corridas de toros – that is, spectacles in which three matadors perform with and kill two bulls each, on foot. Sometimes, there is also a bullfight in which the matators perform on horseback (corrida de rejones). The San Fermin bullfights are some of the best of the season in Spain, attracting the country’s top bullfighters and the most prestigious bull-breeding farms. The ring is usually packed to capacity every evening for a week, although tickets can still be purchased on the day of the corrida from the bullring’s ticket office. Be prepared for a raucous atmosphere in the stands, especially in the cheapest seats at the very top. Here, large groups of San Fermines just come to carry on the party, and pay no attention whatsoever to what’s playing out on the sand below.
The protagonists of the street partying during San Fermin are the noisy, ebullient parades which carve through the boozing crowds at regular intervals, all through the day and night. Anyone can join them and doing so is a great way to explore other parts of the town and meet other San Fermines. You can hear them before you see them, the insistent drums and shrill brass melodies announcing the parades’ arrival before it snakes into view. Wait for the procession of happy, inebriated party-goers to jounce past and simply latch onto the end, calimotxco in hand, and see where you end up. Along with watching or participating in the daily encierros, becoming part of these flag-waving, drum-beating parades is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in San Fermin.
The red-and-white uniform worn by San Fermines for the duration of the fiesta is famous all over the world. Everyone puts their own variations on the costume, but its basics are white t-shirt and trousers/shorts, a red neckerchief tied with the triangle at the back of the neck and a red sash worn around the waist. The neckerchief is the most important piece of attire and can be bought in most general-purpose shops in Pamplona during fiesta. Many theories about its symbolic importance exist, one of which is that the red around the neck represents the blood of Saint Fermin, who was decapitated in Amiens in the 3rd century. Most neckerchiefs are embroided with his image or with Pamplona’s coat of arms, while others bear the Basque colours of green and white. This red-and-white uniform is crucial to the atmosphere of inclusivity and the great camaraderie that defines San Fermin.