What is Fiesta de San Fermin?

I didn't write much about San Fermin in the run up to my trip. I felt the need to keep my mouth shut even though I had no intention of ever actually running with the bulls. The main reason I didn't write a lot about it was because in one of my first posts on this blog I mentioned it and some so- called (real life, non blogger) friends sent me a shitty message & deleted me from their facebook friends. Even whilst I was away, I received several nasty anonymous comments about my decision to go to this festival.



Why did I decide to go?


"You're an expatriate. You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You've become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You're an expatriate, see? You hang around café's." - Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises.

The above quote has a great deal to do with it. I'm an expatriate, I feel that is a state of being that you always carry with you. Once you've lived away from your homeland, you're always an expatriate & I lived in Spain for 4 years. I love Spain, for their faults and traditions- and I am a firm believer that you can never judge until you have experienced something, and anyway San Fermin is not all about bull running.

Bulls entering the ring


Ok, so what the hell is San Fermin?

Fiesta de San Fermin is a week long, 400 year old tradition that includes, for about 4 minutes of each day, a bull run. San Fermin is, in fact, a religious festival. The festival starts at midday on July 6th and runs through until midnight on July 14th. Locally known as Sanfermines the festival is held in honor of the Saint (San) Fermin. Fermin was the son of a Roman of senatorial rank in Pamplona who was converted to Christianity by St Honestus, a disciple of San Cernin. Fermin was ordained as a Priest in Toulouse and came back to Pamplona as it's first bishop, attempting to convert the area. Nowadays it said that the tradition of running the bulls through the streets comes from the death of San Fermin, who was seen as a traitor to the Romans and was killed by being dragged through the street's by the bulls.

Therefore at 8am, each day of the fiesta, there is a bull run. It begins with the runners singing a benediction, repeated three times. "A San Fermin pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición" translating into English as "We ask Saint Fermin, as our patron, to guide us through encierro and give us his blessing". Each day, different breeds of bulls run & each day there is a bull fight. The run itself is 800m's long and ends in the Bull Ring, where most people get tickets and watch on screen's (as we did), it is the safest place to watch from. You see all the people run through and the bulls arrive in the ring, and search like crazy for familiar faces of those you knew were running.

As well as the Bull Run and Bull Fights that happen daily, there are other parades. In the morning there is a parade of Gigantes y Cabezudos- Giants and Big Head, in English. The figures used in the parade are over 150 years old and there are 8 Giants and 17 other figures. Each night there are fireworks and Toro de Fuego at 10pm which is mostly for the children.

What's it like in the Bull Ring?

Bull Ring Selfie

Early. It is early, and dark and on occasion cold! The ticket office opens in the early hours of the morning, and if you want to be in a good area, you want to be there early. Once you’ve got your ticket you can go and get a coffee and a pan de chocolate before going into the ring. You have to entertain yourself for a while before the Marching Band come through playing traditional Spanish songs, and some relating specifically to encierro- don’t worry the words appear on the screen for you to follow along- or even join in.

The medical team walk around the edge of the ring, and they get the biggest round of applause of the day. Everyone appreciates them being there, and the incredible job they have to do. Then you wait for the run to start. A run that lasts barely four minutes. You watch on the screens as the bulls tear down the streets, you see people fall, and sometimes even the bulls fall and get separated from the pack- that is when they’re at their most dangerous, when they’re alone. Then you hear them, the shouts, the sound of heavy breathing, all in unison, and then the thudding of the bulls tearing through the stadium. The pastores guiding the bulls through the centre of the ring, before the gates slam shut- any runners that are behind the last bull don’t make it into the stadium.



In the stadium, after the bulls that have run have been shut away, baby bulls are released. The baby bulls run around the stadium whilst the runners taunt them. Their horns are corked, so no one can get gored, or seriously hurt- though tell that to the man who got knocked out cold on the second day. I hated watching that, the first day all the small bulls looked terrified. They were not having fun. Whilst there are rules that the runners cannot touch the bulls- though most try to tap their backs, as part of a competition for how many bulls they can touch- it still seemed cruel. It was the reason I backed out of watching a bullfight. If I didn’t enjoy watching them taunted, I certainly couldn’t watch them die. I did, however, feel slightly better on the second day when one of the baby bulls was released and pretty much ignored all the runners, and ran laps of his own around the ring- that one bull was clearly having the time of his life. And when the "Mama" bull (either it was a cow or an incredibly docile bull) came out to collect the youngsters, it was hilarious watching people shit themselves on the spot as she gently nudged them out of her way with her head. She walked slowly herding the youngsters, with the aid of the pastores, back into safety. I also felt better about it when, after one guy grabbed the bull by his tail, the Spanish essentially tried to kill him- he only got out of the ring alive because the Nacional (Police, the ones you don’t want to fuck with) grabbed him and pulled him over the side.

The "Mama" Bull with the Pastores, they're in the green


Would I do it again and would I recommend going?

If you were thinking about going, then this account is not meant to put you off, just make you think about what is happening. I don't regret going for one minute, it was an eye opener, for sure. I enjoyed so much of my time at Sanfermines and I feel I learnt a lot about Spanish culture that I didn't already know. There is a feeling in the air of Pamplona that is a mixture of adrenaline, fiesta, and nerves (mixed in with the smell of stale sangria, vomit and urine). The place is electric. Do I recommend it? Only to those who are already interested. If you aren't sure, then I suggest you read The Sun Also Rises- Ernest Hemingway (the book I quoted from above). I have a lot of respect for all those that ran, particularly the girls. At the time I said I'd done it, I'd seen it, and I wouldn't do it again, but now I've had time to think about it... Maybe, one day in the distant future I could be found celebrating Sanfermines in Pamplona.

Never say never...



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Comments

  1. Definitely eye-opening. If I was in Spain I would consider attending, just because I think it's important to get a look at all aspects of a local culture, not just the ones you personally agree with. This would be really hard for me because I'm such an animal lover and I hate to see animals teased or frightened intentionally. But it really is a significant part of the area's history so I'm sure it was a hell of an experience.

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    1. Exactly, I feel the same. You can't go somewhere and ignore the culture-- what's the point in travelling otherwise?

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  2. Glad you went! Not everyone will agree with what we do and where we go, but we can't let others stop us. Everyone has our own opinions. Some of my bf's cousins went recently too and they enjoyed it, actually one got almost trampled by a bull but it was their choice.

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    1. No, we'd stand still all the time if we worried about offending others constantly.
      Ouch, even some of the smaller injuries were pretty rough. One of our guys came out with a ripped shirt and what looked like a burn across his chest where one of the baby bulls in the ring had got hold of him- and that's with their horns being corked!

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  3. Happy to read your perspective. I don't think I would go if there was a potential of me seeing an animal getting hurt. I'm a huge ball of crybaby when that happens ;-)

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    1. I totally understand, I was really uncomfortable there, too. I was going to watch a Bull fight but chickened out in the end.

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  4. Hey, on behalf of Christa, Host of The Sunday Traveler, I was stopping by to check out your article. Very interesting and informative, I really enjoyed reading this. I always enjoy learning about the origins of things and events. Great Post!

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  5. I'm glad you went - it makes me sad when people visit a place and make a point to avoid things that are an important part of the culture. That doesn't mean you can't question traditions or acknowledge ethical quandaries, but it's better to do that from a place of understanding then as a knee-jerk reaction.

    I think I'd end up feeling much like you did - it sounds like a great spectacle, but I'd be uncomfortable if I was worried about the animals being unhappy. But I love that the guy who tried to pick on the bull had to be rescued from an angry crowd.

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    1. Hey Jess :)

      I feel the same, I don't see the point in travelling if you're going to avoid the events because you don't entirely agree with them. Sometimes in life you need to do things that make you uncomfortable.

      It was definitely something I'll never regret doing.

      It was interesting to see, for sure, especially as the crowd were chanting very naughty Spanish words to him. I couldn't believe he'd done it. You just feel horrified on behalf of the Spanish when things like that happen. In spite of the sticky end they meet, there is huge respect for the Bulls.

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  6. Interesting. I think i could probably attend something like this, but an actual bull fight? No thanks. I'm too squeamish. I think it's an important part of experiencing the local culture, but I can see why you debated going.

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    1. They showed some of the bull fight in the previews early the following morning, which made me so glad I didn't go. I made sure not to watch the screen's on the third day- bleurgh! I wanted to experience it, but I think I would have hated it. Some of the girls went and sat through two bullfights and then left.

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  7. I'll say never. One I am too scared and 2... those poor bulls :(

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    1. For sure, I agree. I'm still glad I went, but I can't watch a bull fight.

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  8. I don't know if I would go, probably, but It's the sort of the thing I won't think about until it's time.

    I can't believe they unfriended you, seriously, or that the people shit their pants (if that was literal) with the mama bull.

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    1. I think that's another reason I didn't write too much, tho' as it got closer and more people were asking me about San Fermin I held firm on the stance "I've wanted to go for a long time, and I won't know how I feel until I've seen it". Honestly, when the bulls run the streets, it's a short run & I'd say 90% of the time they're safe. The pastores (the guys who look after the bulls) are actually never that far away.

      No, I know, it was someone I'd known since I was a teenager, and had seen me go through some of the roughest patches so it really upset me. So I decided not to write about it until I had been.

      It was hilarious watching people with Mama bull, I guess she is 3 times the size of the baby's she's herding up & if you're not expecting to see her and she's breathing down your neck all of a sudden.... ;)

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