Just as I am writing this, a rocket – called a ‘txupinazo’ – is exploding in the air over Pamplona in northern Spain to signal the start of arguably the most dangerous party in the whole world.
The crowd, all dressed in white and jammed shoulder to sweating shoulder in the main square, will be taking out their red scarves and tying them round their necks while uncorking bottles of champagne to spray over each other’s heads.
They are now officially free to get monumentally wasted every day for an entire week or risk life and limb in a foot race with a panicked six hundred kilogram bull – or both.
It is best known to us as Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls.
This medieval walled city crouches on the other side of the Spanish border in the shadow of the Pyrenees and pretty much minds its own business for most of the year, a low key university town with a population of just under two hundred thousand.
But every July the whole world camps on its doorstep. The Running of the Bulls is televised live by two TV stations. You can’t drink a calimuxo in the main square without tripping over a Reuters photographer.
Yet the bull runs are just a small part of the fería. The festival of San Fermín has been celebrated for centuries and far outdates the encierros.
Every day there are parades as San Fermín’s effigy is carried through the streets and then everyone descends on the bars. It’s ironic. Fermín – he was a Catholic bishop of the early Church – must be turning in his grave knowing that he’s been made patron of one of the most delirious bacchanalias to grace modern Europe.
As the fèria gets into full swing there’s music everywhere, mostly loud wind instruments and big drums, with local municipal bands playing old traditional tunes such as the Riau-Riau and The Boss Is A Bollocks. The din reverberates day and night. What the bands lack in expertise they make up for in enthusiasm and color.
There is also a parade known as the Comparsa, that includes four pairs of four metre high wooden puppets, each around 150 years old, who are borne through the streets, representing the four parts of the world; Europe, Africa, Asia and America. (Sorry, Australia.)
Each pair of puppets has its own entourage who chase the young children lining the route, scaring them to bits and hilariously damaging them psychologically for life.
But it is the bull runs, not the carnivals, that has made San Fermín famous.
An encierro is held every morning at 8am from the 7th to the 14th of July. Thousands of Basques, Spaniards and foreign tourists risk their lives for these eight mad days to run beside or in front of the bulls as they charge from their pens through the cobbled medieval streets to the city’s Plaza de Toros.
The runs began as a necessity; once, chasing the bulls through the streets of the town was the only way to get them to the bullring.
Then men began running in front of them instead of behind them because … well, because we’re stupid, and we think that kind of thing is fun.
Similar runs are held in towns and villages all across Spain and Portugal every summer but Pamplona is by far the most famous of them. Anyone older than 18 and with an IQ under 70 can participate.
In 2005, I qualified. Easily.
In Spain, if not elsewhere, it is considered an ultimate rite of manhood.
The six bulls trapped in the street with you have been particularly bred for bullfighting and they have bigger muscles than Mike Tyson, a worse temper than Mel Gibson and more galloping testosterone than Charlie Sheen. If they choose to, they can put you in the hospital or the morgue with one shrug of their massive shoulders.
Each encierro is fast, spectacular and very, very dangerous. Before each run a small statue of San Fermín is placed in a niche in a wall overlooking the bull pens and the runners gather there to ask his particular blessing.
They know they’re going to need it.
Then a rocket is fired to let the runners knows the bulls are loose.
Between 200-300 people are injured every year, most due to falls. The bulls don’t set out to gore anyone – they just want to get off the damned street.
But they are not very happy to be there and sometimes things go very wrong. So wrong that 15 people have been killed since records began in 1924. Almost all have been local Spaniards, except for one unfortunate young man from Illinois, who was fatally gored in 1995.
For years I have watched the scenes of the bull runs from the comfort of my lounge room and wondered what could possibly inspire such madness.
The most obvious explanation is alcohol.
San Fermin is a mixture of Oktoberfest, Mardi Gras, the London Marathon and Gladiator.
Each run only lasts about two minutes; the other 23 hours and 58 minutes are given over to drinking. But that two minutes can seem like the longest 120 seconds in your life.
I walked the course the day before my first run but I was unable to imagine the rush of what it was like when six hundred kilos of angry T-bone with a horn like a surgical battering ram rushed straight at me the next morning.
As far as I was concerned, it was more like running away from the bulls than running with them. But I did it. In fact, I got addicted to San Fermín and ran four times. So this Sunday I’ll pass on the ten point survival guide that an experienced Spanish runner gave me, in case you ever lose your mind and think of doing the run yourself.
And if you ever catch a re-run of the 2005 fiesta on YouTube, look for me on the second, fourth, sixth and seventh encierros.
I’m the one in red and white.
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