During the week-long festival, a number of different bull runs occur, held at eight o’clock each morning. The 875-metre course starts from Santo Domingo Street and continues through the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town – finishing inside the bullring itself. To begin, runners dressed in traditional costume of white clothes with a red bandana pray to an image of San Fermín – patron saint of the festival – and sing a song in Basque that translates as: ‘We beseech San Fermin to guide us in this run and to give us his blessing’. When the first rocket is fired, six fighting bulls, along with six tame oxen, wearing bells, are released into the streets. A second rocket indicates all bulls are on the streets, and a third rocket is fired when all have entered the bullring. A final fourth rocket tells people it’s safe to return to the streets and the fences can be taken down. The whole run takes just a few minutes to complete. After the morning runs, there is a jovial atmosphere about town, with lots of eating and drinking, traditional dancing and parades, as well as nightly firework displays.
The bull run evolved into a festival over many years, and first began because the town’s butchers had to transport bulls from the ranches outside Pamplona to the bullring. They would hire the bull minders called pastores to do this for them, and often the young apprentice butchers would accompany them to make sure everything was okay. The young butchers began running in front of the bulls to make them run faster, instead of behind with the pastores, and it soon turned into a kind of competitive event, with many of the locals joining in.
The San Fermín Festival is not just a fun event for the entertainment of visitors; it is taken very seriously, and many locals spend years training for this, and have experience working closely with bulls. Every year both locals and tourists are injured during the festival, and throughout history 16 have actually died as a result. If you do wish to take part, however, you must be over the age of 18 and must make sure to speak to experienced runners, in order to find out which part of the course is best to start from and get safety tips, to minimise the risks.
There are many places from which to watch the runs – from behind the fences along the streets and from the seats inside the bullring; however, the best and safest place to enjoy the festival is from the balconies, high above the street. Many of locals rent out their balconies for the event and often also include a traditional breakfast.