The outline of the Spanish map is often said to resemble that of a bull’s hide laid flat. It seems fitting, then, that on that hide Navarra should occupy the nape of the bull’s neck, since the region is best known for one of bullfighting main events: Pamplona’s annual Running of the Bulls (known locally as the Fiesta de San Fermin or simply Sanfermines), a festival that transforms the narrow streets of Navarra’s capital into pulsating rivers of revelry, red pañuelos, and red wine every July 6 to 14.
Forever enshrined in the American imagination thanks to the recorded impressions of Ernest Hemingway, whose colorful descriptions of the festival’s daily runs (encierros) and subsequent bullfights figure prominently in his novel The Sun Also Rises, the eight-day festival honoring Pamplona’s patron saint has evolved into an internationally renowned affair attended by upwards of a million visitors each year.
Though the festival begins with a bang–a Noontime inaugural of fireworks in the Town Hall square on July 6, the Chupinazo–and while daily bullfights at Pamplona’s Plaza de Toros on the other side of town feature some of the world’s finest toreros, it’s the 8:00am daily encierros that are the festival’s biggest draw and best known spectacle. Each day, the six fighting bulls slated for that afternoon’s lidia gallop across Pamplona’s old quarter, led by six steers who know the way, but joined, too, by throngs of revelers–dressed in all white, save for a red neckerchief and sash–who variously try to taunt, run alongside, and/or evade the thundering animals, many of which can weigh upwards of 1,200 pounds.
Of course, the event is not without danger (or controversy, for that matter), the uninhibited bacchanalia found in some quarters during the fiesta perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but the festival’s history is rich and, indeed, fascinating in its evolution. By most accounts San Fermin is something of an historical mash-up, a combination of three phenomena: religious pageantry, an important regional trade, and the region’s prevailing climate. For centuries, San Fermin (who was also Pamplona’s first bishop) was honored in October, Navarra’s third-rainiest month. But in 1591, town leaders fed up with the weather took the decision to move the celebration to the beginning of July, the warmest, driest month, which also happened to be when cattle-trade shows came through town, accompanied by organized bullfights.
Today, for locals who choose to remain in town during San Fermin, the fiesta is a chance to catch up and celebrate with family and friends. Though it is customary for everyone to don the traditional garb–all in white, with red neckerchief and sash–you’re more likely to see locals accompanying their kids to the festival’s daily parade of giants and big-heads (gigantes y cabezudos) than running in encierros. It’s also a time to invite family and friends over for elaborate prepared meals at home or at one of the city’s many private gastronomic societies. Either way, during Sanfermines both locals and visitors consume a great deal of Navarra wine.
© Photo Credit: Ayuntamiento de Pamplona